German History As Poppy YA Morality Tales

05/25/2011 4:00 AM |

The Wave and We Are the Night
Directed by Dennis Gansel

In the recent films of 37-year-old German director Dennis Gansel, personal decision making of historical consequence gets the YA treatment. Alienated teens feel the rush of belonging, but soon must confront their new communities’ essential destructiveness, followed by clutch instances of standing up for what’s right.

Appropriate, then, that Gansel appears most in his element while pulling the fire alarm of a cautionary tale. Adapted from a 1981 novelization of an American afterschool special, German box-office smash The Wave (2008) puts the lie to the idea that homegrown fascism is strictly a never-again proposition—a no-brainer, perhaps, but Gansel pulls it off by working on a unusually broad social canvas. He conveys students’ various home lives in efficient strokes, and his restless camera moves through the school’s glassed-in classrooms and corridors, tracking the development of the social experiment at hand.

The Wave neatly, implausibly takes place over the course of a single week. Teacher/water polo coach Rainer Wenger (Jurgen Vogel) wears form-fitting Clash T-shirts and has a “Fuck Bush” sticker on his mailbox, and so is miffed when he’s assigned to teach autocracy, and not anarchy, during elective “project week.” But sensing a novel approach to the material, Rainer transforms himself into Herr Wenger, instituting pre-class calisthenics and scrawling seductively vague talking points (“discipline is power,” “action is power”) on the chalkboard. The class takes the mock-tyranny and runs with it: Students suit up in a white-Oxford-shirt uniform, christen their movement “Die Welle,” and start spray-painting its logo all over town. An in-class essay serves as a viable form of resistance in Gansel’s 2004 Nazi drama Before the Fall, and The Wave also indulges in document-based heroism, as class conscience Karo (frequent Gansel collaborator Jennifer Ulrich) employs the school newspaper’s PCs to help nip the dangerous movement in the bud.

In the wake of The Wave, We Are the Night (2010), Gansel’s scarily on-trend vampire thriller, initially scans as a comment on the parasitic nature of Europe’s moneyed cultural elite. The bloodsuckers here include lesbian ringleader Louise (Nina Hoss), who was bitten at an 18th-century masked ball; depressive silent-film star Charlotte (Ulrich); hyperactive club kid Nora (Anna Fischer); and outsider initiate Lena (Karoline Herfurth), a small-time crook whom Louise corners in a nightclub bathroom. All four live in a palatial hotel, drive Lamborghinis and Porsches, and shop for luxury goods after sundown. Out of 100 vampires remaining in this world, all female, a disproportionate 40 of them reside in Europe.

But We Are the Night, equipped with a pounding pop soundtrack and cheesy effects, lets these intriguing undead-Old World ideas, as well as the ostensible theme of female empowerment, languish. Lena, who falls in forbidden love with the thrill-seeking cop Tom (Max Riemelt, another Gansel axiom), blows the whistle on her fellow vamps—pitting pure love against base appetites in extremely conventional fashion. The end result is something like a bubblegum version of the recent Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are, which also seemed to hold a too-high opinion of its own junior-varsity provocations. At least We Are the Night has anarchic energy to burn—not something commonly associated with our domestic teen moralizing.

Both opening as a double feature May 27 at the reRun Gastropub Theater