Saturday, December 16, 2006

Young Torless

When the filmmakers who comprised the “Junger Deutscher”, or New German Cinema came into prominence in the late sixties, it was not surprising that they frequently turned their cameras inward – and backward. Hitler-era Germany and the post-war state of German society have been examined numerous times by the New German generation, most notably by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The film that really got the ball rolling, however, was Volker Schlondorff’s Young Torless, from 1966. Based on Robert Musil’s turn-of-the-century novel about an Austrian boys school, it is a chilling evocation of how evil puts roots down.

The film opens with the title character being dropped off at the Gasthaus School by his parents. Torless, upon first meeting, is a blank slate. He says little to his parents or to his classmates, but there are a couple of small clues about him very early on. He makes chaste, yet lengthy glances at a couple of young women, and this seems to establish that he is not a sexually confident young man.

The classmates who seemed so upstanding and responsible at the opening of the film start to reveal themselves as much less so. A classmate gambles away a large sum of money. Torless is dragged along to a visit to a prostitute who performs the services desired of here, but also manages to put her finger on the hypocrisy of these affluent youngsters. They would seek her out for sex, but would probably spit on her in public.

Torless eventually falls under the influence of the classes’ leader, a charismatic youth named Beineberg. Beineberg is intelligent, confident, and carries a nasty streak of sadism within him. The gambling classmate, a boy named Basini, makes the error of stealing some money from Beineberg’s locker, and Beineberg decides that nothing short of total degradation will suffice as punishment. Torless finds himself drawn to Beineberg as he sets out to destroy the other boy.

The retribution starts out reasonably benignly, with Barini being pushed around a bit, but it gradually evolves into something is much darker. The most distrurbing scene in the film is of Beineberg hypnotizing Barini, and piercing his skin with a huge needle. The constant soundtrack to all this is of Beineberg and his cronies lashing the pitiful teen verbally.

Barini, for his part, is subservient to his tormenters. He doesn’t fight back, and when told to show up in the attic for another beating, does what he is told. Schlondorff is making a strong statement with the character of Barini in this film. The teen puts conformity to the majority ahead of his own humiliation, and Beineberg and his brood know this. Thus, the treatment grows more and more abusive.

Torless is a party to all of this, and although he never takes an active part in the physical debasement of Barini, he is strangely passive to the escalating abuse heaped upon the other boy. It’s only when events reach a pitch in the gymnasium, and the entire class attacks Barini that he acts. It’s instructive to watch the behavior of the other boys in this scene. Everyone, even some obviously younger boys, attack Barini, and when Torless tries to intercede, one of them lashes out that he is a homosexual. The security of the mob frees them to commit behavior that none of them would consider alone.

The novel “The Confusions of Young Torless” was published in 1906, decades before the rise of Hitler, but the events of the book anticipate him. The Criterion DVD features an interview with Schlondorff, in which he speaks of the message of the film, and the influences that he brought to it. (Such as the neo-Nazi characters of Fritz Lang in his German era.) A point made my Schlondorff in the interview echoes those made by Torless at the end of the film – That evil is not cleanly marked for our convenience. It lives amongst us, and sometimes, the closer you stand to it, the harder it is to see.

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