Friday, April 10, 2009
Volker Schlöndorff's first feature Young Törless is a scathing, uncompromising parable, not only for its most obvious reference point, World World II era Germany, but for the moral acquiescence of people everywhere when confronted with violence, brutality and unspeakable cruelty. At a boys' boarding school in the country, the military discipline and regimen of the schedule is matched only by the increasingly outrageous behavior of the students whenever they manage to free themselves of the school's supervision. The boys are bound to utter silence in class, and meals and bedtime are conducted with a brisk, orderly quality, like a military drill. After hours, however, the boys drink, gamble and visit prostitutes, hiding away in a secret room in the attic, which they've turned into a private den of decadence. Young Thomas Törless (Mathieu Carrière) is a new student here, and his sensitive temperament is at first stunned and offended by the loose, free-wheeling attitudes of the other boys, their casual amorality and lack of boundaries. When Törless's new friend Beineberg (Bernd Tischer) takes him to visit the local prostitute Bozena (Barbara Steele), Törless quietly observes both Beineberg's stoic seduction of the woman and Bozena's flippant, uncaring attitude: throughout the scene, she insults both of the boys and mocks their superior attitudes. This is an initiation into the world for Törless, who seems to have been sheltered by his kindly, smiling mother.
But he's even more stunned when he observes the abjection of his fellow student Basini (Marian Seidowsky). When Basini is caught stealing from Beineberg, the moralistic Törless is disgusted, and wants to immediately turn the boy over to the school's headmasters, so he can be expelled. However, Beineberg and his friend Reiting (Fred Dietz) disagree; they see in Basini's compromised position a situation that they can take advantage of in interesting ways. The result is a game of torture and manipulation played out before Törless's horrified and confused eyes. Reiting and Beineberg take control of the smaller, weaker boy, threatening him with exposure as a thief in order to maintain their control over him. They take turns raping him, they make him eat dirt and subjugate himself before them. They whip him, taunt him, slap him, spit on him. Eventually, deciding that they haven't taken it far enough yet, they hypnotize and torture him before brutally beating him. All of this plays out beneath the gaze of Törless, who only rarely participates in these rituals, and only in the most minor ways. Mostly, he simply watches, sitting nearby while Basini is assaulted and humiliated in horrible ways.
The whole thing holds a strange fascination for the innocent Törless, whose baby face — like Basini's — nakedly expresses his unworldly nature. He has never experienced such brutality before, and he watches from a clinical distance, like a scientist observing a specimen on a slide. The irony of Törless's position is that he possesses a deeply ingrained moral sense, a sensitivity to morality that causes him to be shocked, in a very overpowering way, by the moral lapses of his fellow students. And yet his moralist nature, his aversion to brutality, leads him not to turn in the offenders and end the torture, but to sit by idly, watching, attempting to understand how formerly ordinary young boys have been transformed into, on the one hand, inhuman torturers, and on the other, a dehumanized animal sniveling before his tormentors. There is something chilly and distant in Törless, something nasty, and in many ways he is a more frightening monster than either Reiting or Beineberg — his two friends are simply cruel and unthinking, the kind of brutish thugs who hold a mouse above a fire to watch it squirm, but Törless understands exactly what's going on and yet does nothing to stop it.
The allegory here is of course patently obvious, so much so that it probably doesn't need to be spelled out. Törless, like the German people during the Holocaust, sits silently by while people are tortured, while casual brutality becomes the norm. This is a film about the ugly fascination of violence, and the moral justifications of people who go along with and ignore violence and cruelty. Törless believes that he is a moral person, that he is distinct from those around him, but he never intervenes on behalf of Basini until it is too late, until he witnesses the truly horrible spectacle of the entire class tormenting the poor boy. Instead, he allows himself to exist apart from the violence, in an ivory tower from which he studies it as though reading from a text book. Along the way, he is disabused of his naïve notions about evil: he learns that evil is not a radical break with the world, but a natural condition of it. Törless's confusion results from his belief that evil is separate from man, that if ever a man gives in to evil and brutality it is something tragic and horrifying and remarkable. Instead, he finds himself confronted with what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil," the utterly ordinary nature of true evil, which exists within "normal" people who are not marked in any special way by their behavior.
Schlöndorff augments the thematic heft of this dark satire with the classical beauty of his images, which especially favor soulful closeups of the young-looking Basini and Törless. Their boyish faces reflect an innocence that is only superficial, that ultimately runs no deeper than their skins. In one sequence, when Törless gives in to the pressure to join in the tormenting of Basini, his smooth, innocent face is bathed in a harsh, white light, making his ordinarily tranquil features seem sinister and distorted. He looks overexposed, as though radiating evil. His youthful face tells the story of this film, the story of how people, innocent as children of true evil and its nature, can allow horrifying deeds to be perpetrated even as they watch.