A new film recreates the shocking events in a school in Sixties
California. Sheila Johnston reports
It is the ultimate classroom mind-game. A charismatic teacher
suddenly introduces strict discipline into his lessons and, far from
rebelling, the students embrace it with gusto. Within a week, they
have devised a uniform, insignia, salute and banners, and eagerly spy
on and intimidate schoolmates. The movement swells to more than 200
members who, on the last day, flock to a rally.
Dennis Gansel, whose new film, The Wave, tells this story, has a
colourful, very German family history. "My grandfather was in the
Wehrmacht, a big supporter of Adolf Hitler, and my father was a 1968
anarchist. Christmas dinner at our house was always explosive," says
the 34-year-old director. His two last features dealt with Nazis and
the Red Army Faction. The Wave is another typical - even
stereotypical - German subject, with an improbable, highly
In fact the experiment - known as the Wave - actually took place, in
April 1967 at Cubberley High School, Northern California. Ron Jones,
the teacher, had arrived there straight from training college. He
soon became famed for his unorthodox methods: making students at the
almost all-white school use different toilets to demonstrate
apartheid, for instance.
Former students describe Jones as brilliant, by far the most popular
teacher in school. "He was boyish and appealing - he could sell
air-conditioners in Alaska," recalls Philip Neel. "Everyone wanted to
be in his class. So at first we thought the Wave was him doing
At the end of the week - in life and in the film - the teacher
announces a new national political party, with a new leader. Only
then is the hoax revealed. "We were in a state of shock; there were
kids crying," recalls ex-pupil Mark Hancock. "He wound that class up
as tight as a drum."
The success of Jones's experiment seems, at first, incredible. The
Sixties were in full swing, the anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights
movements were gathering speed, and the Summer of Love was dawning up
in San Francisco.
Neel and Hancock believe that anxiety about the draft and the failure
of both major political parties to grasp the nettle of Vietnam made a
fresh force in politics so appealing. "I recall someone saying,
'Yeah, we're gonna get those pigs out of Washington'," Neel says.
"And we were only 15. We were in between emerging from the Fifties
and becoming full-fledged radicals."
Even Jones - a consultant on Gansel's film - was caught off-guard.
"It was not a planned classroom activity; it came about as an
improvisation," says the teacher, now 68 and living in Haight-Ashbury
where he plays in a punk band.
"I think the Wave met their need for answers in a fearful situation.
And I became intrigued by it myself. I discovered I liked the order
and the control."
Does he now feel it was a mistake? "Definitely. You should never
place kids in that danger." Jones regularly rejects requests from
teachers to replicate the project. "Just last month I got a call from
a British television company wanting to turn it into a reality show.
I said, 'You've gotta be kidding.'?"
Neel and Hancock are working on a documentary for which they have
interviewed more than 15 students - about half of Jones's original
class - as well as a number on the periphery. It was not always easy
to get people talking. And their memories were often contradictory. A
scattering of websites even claim that the whole episode has been
"The Wave was like a police state with leaders and followers and the
resistance," Hancock says. "At the time you couldn't tell who was
thinking what. For some of us, the real part got very real. Others
may have been just going along to stay out of trouble.
"We may never know who fell into which category. Certainly we have
not found anybody yet who will admit to being one of the aggressive
zealots. But none of those details change what happened. It was very
emotional, a milestone event in our lives."
Jennifer Ulrich, who plays one of the pupils in Gansel's film, set in
modern Germany, found making it a very positive experience. "We gave
each other a lot of energy and there were parties at weekends. Every
youngster feels good in a group, though afterwards we felt strange
about it. Dennis was intense - he doesn't like questions on set. One
actor said that a dictatorship on a film shoot is the only one in the
world that really works."
The director reveals that he had to sharpen his movie's ending after
observing young audiences giving the salute at test screenings. "They
thought it was cool and iconic. The Wave is about fun and creating a
community and I believe that's still appealing. There is a strong
urge today for a big idea that is bigger than yourself. Not
necessarily fascism; it could be, say, the Green movement."
Paradoxically, the German-language The Wave has yet to find a
distributor in the US, a country never short of big ideas, especially
in an election year. "People want to throw themselves behind a
cause," Gansel insists. "And we hope to show how that can turn bad,
much faster than we imagine."
'The Wave' is released in the UK on Sept 19.