Die Welle poster

"Die Welle" (The Wave)
Directed by Dennis Gansel.
With Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt

 Is fascism a virus? See how easily it is contagious in this German film
now making the rounds of film festivals.

In the mid-SIxties, a significant learning experience occurred at a high school in Palo Alto, California,  one that continues to resonate.  It was, in fact, called "the Wave," or more precisely the Third Wave." Just like the Third Reich, except that it came from the lingo of surfers, who supposed that the third wave, in a series of them, was the biggest.

Ron Jones was a new teacher in a Contemporary World History class, and had serious questions about how to present a lesson in authoritarianism, after a student asked him whether Nazi Germany could happen here in the US. What brings fascism to public approval in asupposedly sane society? Could fascism occur in an affluent suburblike the one where the school was located?

Ron Jones was young, idealistic and somewhat radical. In the sophomore class he was teaching, he decided to try for one day -- for the second, third and sixth periods of the class -- a teaching style that would demand total obedience and require his students to follow his orders, or what he called his "instructions," to the utmost degree. It was only a test. He didn't realize the repercussions it would have.

For example, he thought these dictates -- requiring the students to address him as "Mr. Jones, that they sit upright, and that they stand before answering questions posed to them -- would serve as interesting contrast to the casual and congenial methods he usually preferred.

Teaching his class with such authoritarian style might lead to resistance, one might think, especially given the temper of the times. Instead, it had the opposite effect. It met with such strong approval that it even led to a growth on its own.

Jones imagined the exercise to be just a one day affair. But
when he began the class.the next day, the students, unbidden, were all sitting at attention. His interest in what would happen next led him to continue the role playing of the previous day.  This would continue.

Jones delivered lectures emphasizing "Strength Through DIscipline," and even developed a special wave salute. Students created armbands, banners and identity cards.

On the membership card, Jones marked each third one with an "X" and those who received them were told to behave as informers on those who broke the rules. In addition, Jones recruited a group of student enforcers who would function as a secret police or Gestapo, both on campus and after school. They were joined by a bunch of "greasers," ominiously called "The Executors", who were entranced by the Third Wave, and wanted to join in the policing.

Word got around. Students from other classes wanted to join the class. VIolence and false accusations became rife. Those accused of wrongdoing were often convicted based on a voice vote of the class, bolstered by fabricated evidence.

When parents learned of the events taking place in Ron Jones' class, the whole exercise eventually came to a halt, but not before Jones was able to demonstrate to his students
and the rest of the world that they we were willing, for a time, and to be in a special place, to "give up their freedom up for the chance of being special," just like most of the German people did under Nazism.

The Third Wave" -- the actual events at Cubberly HIgh School in Palo Alto, California, brings to mind the another infamous experiment in the same city" the so-called "Stanford Prison Experiment," where students Professor Philip Zimbardo's undergraduate psychology class were divided into two categories -- either prisoners or jailers -- and the zealousness of the jailers and the submissiveness of the prisoners became so pronounced that it resembled -- for lack of a better contemporary comparison -- the antagonisms of the American prison guards and their atrocities at the Baghdad Correctional Facility (also known as Abu Ghraib) in Iraq. The Zimbardo thing happened four years before "The Third Wave," but the similarities are significant.

Ron Jones was a popular teacher, but soon he had to leave his position at the high School, in large part due to the controversy the experiment caused. He has 
been for many years a teacher at a school for the disabled in San Francisco and been prolific as a writer, poet and storyteller -- and straight-shooter -- in his real life, as well as on the basketball court.

wrote about his experiences in an article for the
Whole Earth Journal
eenwriter Johnny Dawkins turned the article into a teleplay, and prducer Norman Lear (famous for his "All In The Family" series and several other TV hits) developed the telemovie for ABC in 1981. Then American children's book author (Drive Me Crazy) Todd Strassen wrote a novel based on the story. and it was phenomenally successful in Germany.
It became standard reading in German high schools.Over one and a half million copies of the book have been sold. Because of his affiliation with the story, Ron Jones is treated like a rock star over there.

Now over twenty -five years later, this German movie, came to be made, and  was released in 2008. Director Dennis Gansel is no stranger to the politics around his movie. His grandfather was an active Nazi, serving in the Wehrmacht and his father was a left-wing anarchist. It is not surprising that his earlier cinematic efforts dealt with the Nazis, and the left-wing radical group The Red Army.

In this movie and updated version of the "The Thrd Wave," the high school teacher, Rainer Wenger (played by Jurgen Vogel) drives a fast car, and wears a Ramones T-Shirt to class. He is snotty and definitely punkish. The schoool where he teaches is  filled with the children of an affluent, post-unified Germany.

The direction is smart and sparse, filled with action and a raucous soundtrack. Unlike in real life, at the end of the "experiment," which culminated in a shooting in the classroom, Wenger is shown being led of to a police squad car, while horror-struck citizens and students watch.

 "Die Welle" has won numerous awards, it has been shown all around the world. One review called it "history in the first  person." Director Gansel has also claimed, "This isn't about politics at all. It is more about group dynamics and psychology."
It also was shown at Sundance in 2008--and in many, many other countries--yet it still doesn't have a distributor in the US.

Still, Jones, is pessimistic about the chances for a  wide reception in the US.  I wrote to Todd Strasser, the American author of The Wave and screenwriter for "Die Welle"and he replied:
"'Die Welle' was shown at MOMA a few months ago, but I would agree with Ron that US distribution is dubious. We're far to puritanically hypocritical to allow it."

There are some who complain that the incident has been widely blown out of proportion.  Soon these objections may be laid to rest after forty years in another production.
A student in the Jones'original class, Philip Neel, became a TV Producer in Hollywood ("Moonlighting," "Boston Legal"), and wanted to make a documentary about his experiences with "The Third Wave", Neel enlisted another director, David Jeffery, and producer Robert Del Valle. and they are in the final post- production stage of a film entitled "Lesson Plan" that is about 83 
minutes long, They have interviewed about half of the original class for the lensing. They are actually starting to already show some of it in preview form; and, according to Neel,  the audience feedback has been good and strong

Trailer for "Die Welle"

Ron Jones continues to write, perform, coach and play basketball! I missed him at a reading at a coffehouse on Potrero Hill in San Francisco next month. Hopefully he will read some of his stories at the same place -- Farley's Cafe -- March 24th.

Two other ("The Acorn People" and "B-Ball") of his stories have been made into TV dramas; and, all in all, they have received  Emmy, Peabody and Golden Globe awards. Ron Jones represents some of the best ideals of America, above all, freedom and creativity. "Die Welle" is an outstanding representation of that, in a new-German setting.

To explore more
about Ron Jones, his writings, his life and his other work, visit:

The videographic duo of the late Dirk Dirken and Damon Molloy produced several videos in association with Jones.

You may check them out at:

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