20 January 2009

DIE WELLE / THE WAVE (Dir. Dennis Gansel, Germany, 2008) - ‘Strength through discipline…’

When the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, was languishing in a jail, imprisoned by Mussolini and his fascists, he often contemplated why and how nationalism had been allowed to take hold of the ideological mind set of European society. Fascism was an ideological embrace that sanctioned dictatorship and subsequently turned much of Europe into a graveyard of inhumane and indescribable horrors. Luckily, much of Gramsci’s Marxist writings were smuggled out of prison, and his political theory of ‘hegemony’ continues to form the basis of today’s left wing oppositional thinking and intellectual criticism. Gramsci was certainly right about one thing; those of us in society who have the means of propagating ideology can not only influence mainstream thought but also willingly generate a broad consensus so that any decision or policy advocated by the government is in essence, a confirmation of the majority. It is of little surprise that the ruling elite exercise control over the rest of society by ensuring that their hegemony reigns supreme and is protected at all costs even if this means going to war.

Louis Althusser insightfully expanded upon Gramsci’s theory of ‘hegemonic’ rule by suggesting that the elite maintains it’s control over society through what he termed ‘ideological and repressive state apparatus’. Though it is problematic to advocate or implement the use of repressive state apparatus like the military in developed nations, the relative acquiescence shown by the mass population towards ideological apparatus like the media, religion and education means coercion occurs unconsciously and consistently on a daily basis. If you are still reading this and trying to make sense of it all then you are probably asking yourself how any of these political theories relate to a recent German film titled ‘The Wave’? Well, education is an ideological institution that serves as the perfect vehicle for demonstrating the indoctrination and coercion that can occur when an individual in a position of great power and responsibility, in this case a teacher, decides to take it upon himself to become an authoritarian, elected dictator who subsequently is swept up by the egotistic pleasures it has to offer an individual trapped in the nightmarish world of mediocrity and conservatism. This is a very provocative and if at times, contrived, sociological thriller that reminded me of more recent edgier contemporary based German films like ‘The Experiment’ and ‘The Edukators’. Unlike the political idealism of ‘The Edukators’, the teenagers that occupy the sterile and conformist landscapes of new Germany are represented as naive and crudely dismissive in their grasp of their nation’s troubled past.

It is an overwrought film with much of the drama between the teacher and his students feeling slightly contrived and perhaps a little too fantastical. It is shot very much like an American production, underlining the film’s desire to appeal to an international audience. However, some of the ideological aspects of what life would be like under a dictatorship are interestingly inspired by counter culture resistance towards the domination of American brands. Some critics have been judgemental of the ending but it seems appropriate in terms of exploring the idea of political extremism and how it can take hold of the youth in a very persuasive way. I can see how a film like 'The Wave' occupies the middle ground in German cinema, not too mainstream or arthouse, but pitched at a level whereby a predominately youth audience would find it immensely entertaining and even provocative.

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