Airplane movies are great. I get to watch things I would never pay money for, and usually wouldn’t even sit through commercials for. But in the less-and-less-friendly skies, I can watch these third-string movies with the swearing edited out and no commercials. And sometimes this brings great surprises!

I saw Spidey III (not high on my list, never was a comicbook fan & never watched Spidey I or II), the first Jason Bourne movie (thought it would be dumb…still thought it was kind of dumb…but I rented part II a few months later and part III a week or so later, so obviously it grew on me!), and the French film adapted from an American novel I believe, Ne les dis a personnes (my French ain’t so swift so I may have spelled it wrong, but this was a darn good movie that my plane had to go and land during, about 3/4 the way through — help! I still want to see the end!), and most recently Indiana Jones 4 (OK, not third string, I just hadn’t seen it somehow, probably because I was like, yeah, saw that on Stargate), and Die Welle.

Die Welle is a German film. You can read the technical details here, watch a trailer here (though your German will have to be better than mine, I couldn’t find a sub-titled version), and read a Wikipedia article about it here. The movie (The Wave in English) is based on a book, which is in turn based on a (supposedly) true story that took place in the US.

Here’s the plot in brief (of the movie). A German high school teacher is assigned to teach a one-week class on Autocracy; he’s disappointed because he’d wanted to teach anarchy, which is apparently closer to his own political leanings, at least from his younger days. On Monday he asks the students questions like “What is autocracy?” and “Can you give me an example of an autocratic government?” The kids are kind of rolling their eyes, saying, “The Third Reich, yeah, yeah, not more of that crap, the Nazis were bad, we get it.” They’re clearly sick of hearing about the Nazis and don’t think it terribly relevant to the present and to their lives. One girl says, “That couldn’t happen in Germany again.”

The teacher decides to implement a “mini-autocracy,” though I don’t think it ever explicitly is called an autocracy. The students must call him “Mr. Wenger” instead of by his first name, they must stand up to ask a question, they must sit up in their seats to ask a question, and they must wear white shirts and jeans to school. Actually, they all agree to this, except for one kind of obnoxious girl who is the lone real dissident, and a drug dealer. (The horrors! They all have to wear jeans! They can’t call the teacher by his first name! I can hear the “Heil Hitler” coming now.)

The kids get really into it. One makes a MySpace page, one a webpage, one a logo, one a “salute” (kind of a wave motion). By like Thursday they’re bullying kids who aren’t in The Wave, which has morphed into some kind of social club, and they’re getting all aggressive in general. One guy hits his sort-of girlfriend. (But, hey, don’t we all feel like hitting people when wearing white shirts and jeans?)

Meanwhile, one kid is REALLY into it. He’s clearly got at least one screw loose. Seriously, he would need psychological care. On Tuesday already, I believe, he designs the webpage and puts guns in the logo, and by like Wednesday he’s showing up at the teacher’s house saying the teacher needs a bodyguard. QUIT READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT THE PLOT SPOILED. When the teacher realizes things have gotten out of hand he calls a meeting…Friday? I think. Maybe Saturday. He tells them The Wave is over. The troubled kid whips out a gun, shoots a fellow student, threatens to kill the teacher, then kills himself. The teacher is taken away by the police, though it isn’t clear if it’s for questioning as a knowledgeable witness or if he’s under arrest. The end.

Thought-provoking, huh? As you can tell from my parentheticals, I think this all happened way too fast to be realistic. Two days of wearing white shirts has made them start hitting their girlfriends? Willing to beat up a fellow student if the teacher commands it? We are all more easily manipulated than we like to think, this I understand. (Don’t believe it? Recall the famous Milgram experiment.) But unlike in the Milgram experiment, where the subject responds to commands the experimenter is giving sitting right next to him or her, these kids are expanding The Wave and changing their behavior outside of class. It’s not an issue of obedience to authority. But it’s based on a true story, right?

Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. If you poke around on the internet (and unfortunately I can’t find the site I was looking at the other night), you find that there are serious questions about whether the real class actually went anything like this. And I have to say I can’t imagine this actually happening in an American high school. I also had a problem with the teacher being portrayed kind of as the bad guy. The teacher didn’t know what these guys were doing outside of class. Other students knew the unhinged kid had a gun; the teacher had no idea. He just asked them to wear white shirts, for Pete’s sake! He probably should have been more clear that they were participating in a class exercise, not starting a new youth movement.

Did it happen or did it not? Who knows.

Could it happen?

How do Nazis and Nazi sympathizers “happen”?

What would it take for people to willing (enthusiastically!) submit to an autocratic regime in the developed Western world today?

Realistic or not, the film does make you think.