March 11, 2008 / 5:00 PM / in 10 years

Film shows Germans not immune to return of Nazis

BERLIN (Reuters) - The director of a new film that explores the hypothetical question of whether another dictatorship could ever emerge in Germany has come to the chilling conclusion that it could happen again.

Dennis Gansel, whose film “Die Welle” (The Wave) opens on Thursday, said the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich haven’t made modern-day Germans more immune to the lure of charismatic leaders or persuasive group dynamics than any other nationality.

“It’s wrong to say ‘No way - a Nazi dictatorship could never happen here’,” Gansel said in an interview with Reuters ahead of the release of his film, adapted from a U.S. novel by Morton Rhue based on a California high school experiment in 1967.

“I think it would be possible even today for something like that to arise in Germany again,” a claim that is unsettling for a country which studies its Nazi past intensively in schools and where the burden of guilt still weighs heavy six decades later.

Gansel’s film has already electrified the German media even before its release. “It’s already the most-talked about film of the year,” wrote Bild newspaper. Bunte magazine said: “It shows how vulnerable people can be in authoritarian situations.”

“Die Welle,” a 4.6-million euro ($7 million) film, has attracted film buyers abroad. The foreign rights were quickly acquired by distributors in 20 countries after it won critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The film set in a Berlin suburb is about bored, ill-mannered teenagers jolted out of their apathy by a dynamic teacher.

Just like in the 1967 experiment by California high school teacher Ron Jones, the students accept a new regime of discipline and obedience -- and ostracize any dissenters.

In the film, the German teens eagerly start snapping to attention in the classroom, wearing ‘uniforms’ of white shirts, calling themselves ‘The Wave’ and rallying to help each other.

As the powerful, if ominous, group dynamic gains momentum and the number of participants multiplies to include half the student body, a handful of students try in vain to stop it.

The original experiment in California was aborted after five days. The students were invited to a rally to see the leader of the movement but were instead shown a film about the Nazis.

But Gansel’s film, adapted to conform with contemporary mores and modern-day violence at schools, takes a more sinister path with its own tragedy as the movement spins out of control.

“I read the book in high school and haven’t stopped thinking of it since,” said Gansel, 34, whose film also drew praise from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and a standing-room only audience of 1,400 at a Berlin Film Festival screening.

The novel and a made-for-TV movie in 1981 may have long been forgotten in the United States but the book has remained popular in Germany, where it is required reading in many schools.

Gansel said group dynamics, though often benign, can be seen everywhere: from soccer fans to anti-globalization protesters at the Group of Eight summit in Heiligendamm last year.

“Group dynamics can be benevolent but they can also be menacing,” he said. “It’s frightening how fast it can change. Just look at what happened in the United States after 9/11.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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