Michael Haneke's award-winning "The White Ribbon" (2009) was an impressive film which suggested a design-fault in the German make-up, a propensity towards Fascism which ended up with the excesses of the Nazi era. One might suspect that this German movie from the previous year was more of the same, if the true story on which it was based had not taken place in Palo Alto, California back in the 1960s.
Jurgen Vogel plays a not overly academic high school teacher who is popular with his students and who also coaches the school's water polo team. When he is asked to lead one of two one-week learning projects, he is disappointed not to be assigned Anarchy (which fitted in neatly with his own student past), but to be given Autocracy to discuss with his class. As modern-day young Germans, the kids pooh-pooh the suggestion that Nationalistic extremism could appeal to rational thinkers or that a charismatic leader could ever control the thoughts and actions of the majority. However, as the week progresses, what begins as a bit of game-play with the students acting with exaggerated respect to their teacher leader, ends with their adapting a uniform style of dress, a logo and a salute (the Wave of the title), and finding that they are bonding as a group. They no longer think of each other as West Germans or East Germans or Turks or the bright or the stupid, but as equals, united in a common way of life -- and correspondingly intolerant of all of those outside their class circle. In other words they have not only become as extreme as the Nazis that they deride, but they want to convert all of the outsiders to the bright future that they can suddenly envision both for themselves and their country.
After violent fighting breaks out at the Friday night water polo march, Vogel begins to understand what he has wrought. He gathers his class together on the Saturday morning in an ill-judged attempt to get them to realise the dangers of their new philosophy. He does this by singling out a dissenter who wants to leave the group as a "traitor" and asks the kids how he should be punished, thinking that this will jolt them into more rational behaviour. However one disaffected young man for whom The Wave has become his first meaningful way of life draws a gun. The kids are beginning to come to their senses, but not before blood is spilled and the their charismatic teacher-leader is taken away by the police. The look of horror on his face is worth a thousand words.
This movie is reminiscent of another German film, "The Experiment" (2001), which also dealt with the ease that fascist and authoritarian behaviour can arise at the first opportunity. Oddly enough that story too had a U.S. source and was based on the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Both films stand as chilling reminders of how easy it is to mould people's behaviour and how readily they can be made to perform deeds that might have been unthinkable just a short while before.