A role-playing exercise turned ordinary students into enthusiastic fascists. Now a movie based on this real-life event explores the seductive power of totalitarianism.
Ron Jones made a disturbing discovery about human nature in 1967. A popular teacher at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, Jones was lecturing students about Nazi Germany when he was asked how it was possible for ordinary Germans to claim that they knew nothing about the concentration camps and the mass slaughter of Jews.
Jones, the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, and the first generation of his family not to be either a rabbi or a priest, was stumped. It was a good question - he just did not know the answer. So he created a classroom experiment to explore the fascist mind.
Over a number of days, he introduced his pupils to the concepts of "Strength through Discipline", "Strength through Community", "Strength through Action" and "Strength through Pride". To his surprise, they readily gave up their freedom and individuality, forming themselves into a movement called The Third Wave. Very quickly, according to Jones, what began as a simulation became all too real. Students spied on one another, bullied dissenters, and reported people they felt were not taking the experiment seriously enough. Meanwhile, Jones was getting carried away with his role as leader, and losing his perspective. He had to bring the experiment to an end. So, on day five, he organised a "rally", and added a final concept: "Strength through Understanding".
Jones informed his students that they had been used and manipulated - that they had "bargained their freedom for the comfort of discipline and superiority", and had chosen the "big lie" over their own convictions. To show them where they were heading, he screened footage of the Nuremberg rally, of marching Nazis, of the death camps, of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. At the end, words appeared: "Everyone must accept the blame. No one can claim that they didn't in some way take part."
Jones wrote about the events at Cubberley a few years later, inspiring an award-winning American TV movie, plays, and a best-selling youth novel, The Wave by Morton Rhue, which quickly became required reading in German schools. It has now been adapted into a controversial thriller by the young German film-maker Dennis Gansel, who has been unable to get the book out of his head since first reading it outside school, aged 12. "With our [country's] history, it's a perfect cautionary tale," he says. It made him think - could Germany's past repeat itself, despite the ongoing education of post-war generations about their history? And would he be a follower or a dissenter in such an experiment?
The Wave (Die Welle in German) updates the novel to the present day and relocates the action to a modern German high school in an ordinary, unnamed town. Jones's German counterpart (subtly played by Jurgen Vogel) now lectures on autocracy, not Nazism, because "a teacher who starts right out saying: ‘Today we'll be discussing fascism' is already giving a lot away," says Gansel. "Calling it ‘autocracy' sounds much more harmless to begin with, even if the social mechanisms are basically the same." Unlike in the novel, however, the Holocaust is never discussed. No one asks why people stood by as Jews were murdered.
"In Germany, the question is naïve," explains Gansel. "I talked to Ron Jones and he told me: ‘Listen Dennis, I was showing a film about Auschwitz to my students and this was the first time in their life they had been confronted with these kinds of pictures'." Gansel, on the other hand, saw his first film about Auschwitz when he was a seven-year-old junior-school pupil. At 19, he did his high-school exam about the speeches of Joseph Goebbels. "So the question is not: ‘Oh my gosh, so what happened?' The question is more or less: ‘We saw so much, so are we immune?'"
Some of the pupils in the film are blasé about the Nazis. They have heard about them so often that they are bored. "When you go to school in Germany, you hear it over and over and over again, all the time, and suddenly you say: ‘My God, I heard so much about it, it's absolutely not possible [that it would happen again]. Not in Germany'," says Gansel. But such complacency is potentially dangerous, he suggests, because the root of the problem lies in human psychology - the politics come in later.
"That's what Ron Jones told us," he says. "The mechanics of the group works so well, in a creepy kind of a way, that it could happen anywhere."
Children are especially susceptible to group pressure. The Nazis knew this and got their claws into them early through organisations such as the Hitler Youth. Gansel's acclaimed 2004 film, Before the Fall, showed how some children were groomed at elite schools called Napolas, and explored the seductive face of Nazism. That film was a personal journey for the director - he wanted to understand his grandfather, who had taught at an elite school for young Nazi officers. Gansel dedicated the film to him, much to the chagrin of his own left-wing father. "He was shocked that I would do that, because for him [his father] was still this old right-wing guy. But I said: ‘Look, Daddy, it was about understanding his way.' So I still feel there's a lot of tension. But for me it felt OK."
The Wave is essentially a companion piece to Before the Fall. Again, Gansel performs the risky feat of seducing the audience along with his characters, only then to pull the rug out from under them and us. To this end, the climax to his film is more brutal than in the novel. This partly reflects the violence he encountered at schools during his research, which had risen radically since his youth. Also, "as a German citizen", he felt a responsibility to say: "If you play around with fascism, this is the way it will end. And I strongly believe it. I strongly believe if you start something like this, it will end in violence. And I thought it was very important to show that to the audience."
The Wave has been a popular and critical hit in Germany, although reviewers and the public were divided about whether history could in fact repeat itself. Gansel is happy that people are debating the film and talking about the processes that can pave the way for fascism. "If someone strongly believes this wouldn't be possible, that this was just a one-time incident, that it will never happen again, it's fine," he says. "I hope that's true." He himself is not so sure. Even now, having made Before the Fall and The Wave, he still does not know what he would have done in either his grand-father's day or as one of Jones's students.
"When you talk about the World War Two era, everybody says: ‘Oh, I would have been in the resistance. I would have been like [resistance heroine] Sophie Scholl'.
"But there was only one Sophie Scholl and, like, 5,000 people who were really against the system. But what about the other 80 million? Honestly, after making those two movies, it's really hard to say if I would have been in the resistance."
The Wave is released September 19