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Film / The Wave

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English cover of the third adaptation.
In April 1967, Ron Jones, a history teacher at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, found himself struggling to explain to his class how the German people could have fallen behind the Nazis so easily. So he decided to show them personally, creating a student movement called the Third Wave (after the common belief that the third in a series of waves is the last and largest). The movement emphasized conformity and the greater good, treating democracy and individualism as the downfall of civilization. Jones started with things like drilling his class in proper seating and posture, before moving on to discipline, salutes (which conspicuously resembled the Nazi salute), and the transformation of himself into an authoritative figure. In just two days, Jones had turned his class into a model of efficiency, discipline and community, with a marked improvement in academic achievement and motivation, and the Third Wave began to spread beyond his history class. By the end of day three, over two hundred students had been recruited, membership cards were being given out, banners were flying, and Third Wave members were telling Jones when others were violating the rules — all completely unexpected developments.

Jones, realizing that he was losing control of the Third Wave, decided to end it. On day four, he announced that the Third Wave was actually part of a nationwide youth movement, and that tomorrow at noon, an assembly would be held in which the movement's national leader and presidential candidate would be revealed on television. At the assembly, the students were met only with an empty channel. Jones revealed a few minutes later that the entire Third Wave was an experiment in how fascism can so easily claim the hearts and minds of the masses (even those who had sworn "it can't happen here"), and played a film about Nazi Germany.

The Third Wave experiment has since been fictionalized three times. The first was The Wave, a Made-for-TV Movie that aired on ABC in 1981, and later became part of their ABC Afterschool Special series. The same year, a Young Adult novelization of the movie was written by Todd Strasser under the Pen Name Morton Rhue. Finally, in 2008, the German movie Die Welle took the already-uncomfortable premise and brought it into the very country that birthed Nazism, to show that even a place that had experienced the horror of fascism could see it happen again.


Not to be confused with the Norwegian Disaster Movie from 2015.

Tropes in the TV movie or the book The Wave:

  • Absurdly Divided School: "The Wave" encourages discipline and a definite us/them mentality, which at first produces positive results but quickly degenerates into an elitist environment where people are getting ostracized for not joining the movement. The teacher quickly announces the movement's leader will make a televized broadcast... and shows a picture of Hitler.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Laurie gets a lot of flak for opposing the Wave after it starts. David actually hits her for it at one point, causing him to have a Heel Realization.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: As Mr. Ross gives his students a "The Reason You Suck" Speech. He notes that they could have walked away at any time from The Wave. So why didn't they do it?
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  • Based on a True Story: As detailed above, the "Third Wave" experiment actually happened.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Downplayed, since it was only a few classrooms. But the "Third Wave" mentality spreads over those classrooms to other places in the school.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A gang of ideologically-motivated but otherwise ordinary youths take over a school and start threatening those who aren't part of their movement? Nah, that can't happen here.
  • Downer Ending: Mr. Ross shows who the leader of The Wave is at the school assembly: Adolf Hitler. Ross also reveals that the entire thing was a social experiment to prove that fascism could rise anywhere, and it was almost absurdly easy to convince the students to join in on such an ideology. The students are left utterly horrified by the thought that they went along with Nazi dogma, and the entire school tries to pretend like nothing happened. But it's clear that it's deeply affected everyone.
  • Faction Motto: "Strength Through Discipline! Strength Through Community! Strength Through Action!"
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: Double Subverted. Though there is marked improvement in other areas of school life, even after adopting the ethos of the Wave, the football team continues to lose games. Things go downhill, starting when the Nazi parallel goes too far and a Jewish boy is beaten up by two members of the movement.
  • Foreign Remake: Die Welle, by the Germans.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Mr. Ross wanted to create a social experiment to prove how "it can't happen here" is a naïve idea. He succeeded better than he could have ever imagined. However, he did it by traumatizing everyone at the school (albeit entirely by accident).
  • History Repeats: Invoked by Mr. Ross, who showed that the idea that the Nazis (or something like them) could never rise again was hopelessly naïve. With the Third Wave, he proved how absurdly easy it was for such an ideology to come about.
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: Unity and discipline are, apparently, just steps on the road to fascism. Admittedly, Ross was trying to invoke this, but it went way further than he'd hoped for.
  • Jerk Jock: Deconstructed. The football players are all so obsessed with making themselves look good (often at their teammates' expense) that they barely function together, and have gone through several losing seasons. Even when they adopt the unity and purpose of the Wave, they continue to struggle, as they had never really trained as a team before then.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • David has one of these after he hits Laurie for opposing the Wave.
    • Mr. Ross also has this when he realizes that the experiment is beginning to spiral out of control and that people are starting to get hurt as a result of his actions.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Wave, of course.
  • Only Sane Man: David and Laurie are the only ones willing to stand up to The Wave. This also happened in real life as several students refused to join (or left) the movement. Some of them also created banners against the Third Wave or tried directly to convince other students to leave.
  • Punny Headlines: In the film, Laurie's article denouncing the Wave has the headline, "The Wave Drowns Gordon High."
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: Obviously, or else this couldn't have even happened in the first place.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Wave salute is fairly obviously (and deliberately) modeled after the Nazi one, and armbands are used as a sign of membership. Even the original name for it, the Third Wave, is deliberately evocative of the Third Reich.


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