The Wave ★★★

On paper, Die Welle seems like the kind of film you would expect Michael Haneke to make; an allegorical story with an important socio-political message that can feel like a lecture in the way it is told. As anyone who has watched - nay, endured - Funny Games will know, his work can often feel punitive, as if the viewer is being reprimanded for doing something wrong. Now, I happen to think that despite being incredibly unlikeable, Funny Games is a masterpiece. But what Dennis Gansel has done with Die Welle is far more accessible and entertaining, although not necessarily better.

Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel), a teacher in a German high school, is assigned to teach the autocracy class, much to his chagrin. In order to get his students interested in learning about fascism ("We all know about the Third Reich"), he decides to conduct an experiment to show them how easily it could happen again through a series of carefully considered stages. This basically involves turning the class into its own autocratic state for which he is the fascist dictator. Predictably, the experiment gets out of hand.

Knowing that this is based on the true story of an experiment conducted by an American high school teacher in 1967 makes the stranger-than-fiction narrative much easier to swallow. It is a testament to Gansel that when the film deviates melodramatically from the truth in the closing scenes, it almost feels like something that could happen in that situation with those characters, and Vogel's strong performance helps to hold the film together throughout its narrative contrivances.

The younger cast do a good job of elevating characters who could easily have ended up as shallow caricatures. Jennifer Ulrich very much earns our sympathy as Karo, a girl who finds herself unable to connect to a too-close-knit community, whilst Frederick Lau as Tim convincingly hints at a troubled background and desperation to belong to something. In contrast to Karo, he actually finds a place within 'The Wave'.

Almost inevitably, The Wave does end up feeling like a lecture at times, and a rather clunky and heavy-handed one at that. It may be easier to take than many of Haneke's films, but it lacks his subtlety and restraint. Gansel also shies away from some issues inherently associated with fascism; for example, the Nazis were, of course, incredibly racist. But the film seems scared to tackle this theme, and appears to avoid it by making every character white - which, in itself, suggests problems with diversity.

Having said that, The Wave has addressed some very mature issues in an intelligent and easily-digestible way. Not everything works, but when trying to understand autocracy it's just as relevant as documentaries that have tackled similar themes.