So the question remains: When it came to grade school milk money, was Judge Bill Gibron the taker or the taken?
Silence is compliance
There are certain formulaic rites of passage that we all seem to go through as youths. Though they change slightly from person to person, and we recognize the divergent quality of their impact later in life, it does appear as if growing up is a universal process of precise givens. Everyone has that first awkward kiss, that time where hormones and fear meld to make the passion both exciting and intimidating. We've all faced a pathetic public humiliation at the hands of our family, either in the way they act, or more horrifyingly, in their demand that we do something beyond our abilities. From the loss of a beloved pet to that first taste of independent success, the aging process, from childhood to adult, is a goldmine of mythic mannerisms just waiting for an artist to retrofit them into their own dramatic designs.
Over the last couple of decades, however, a not-so-new facet has found a place inside the realm of realities known as growing up. At one time, it was thought to be an isolated and individualistic conceit, but as an increase in juvenile violence and educational anomalies brought a new focus on children and their problems, the time-honored horror of bullying finally found its niche in the archetypal experiences. What makes individuals pick and prod at those who are weaker—either physically or emotionally—than they are has become a psychological dissertation without a great deal of finalizing analysis. Indeed, in our modern mindset, we take the notion of the tormentor and merely blot it out, wishing away its existence without really addressing the underlying causes.
So, why then is interpersonal persecution such a standard part of the adolescent experience? Why do kids seem genetically predisposed to singling out and tormenting each other? Maybe there's no answer…or perhaps, the reason is more shocking than the actual crime. In his film Young Törless, director Volker Schlöndorff argues that it's not so much an inherent behavior as one that's learned and nurtured by a kind of mutual collusion. True, it takes an insecure, underdeveloped mind to mask their fear in the aggressive destruction of another human's resolve. But Schlöndorff also shows us something equally frightening. In his startling summation, there is just as much failure and fault on the part of the victim and the so-called innocent bystanders as there is on the part of the oppressors.
Facts of the Case
When Thomas Törless is sent away to a remote military academy along the Hungarian/Austrian border, he immediately meets up with three "friends" who will soon determine his fate at the finishing school. Beineberg and Reiting are upperclassmen, longtime students who immediately feel a kinship with the younger Törless. They willingly invite him into their circle of concern. On the other end of the spectrum is Basini. A bit of a braggart, and more than happy to show off skills and specialties he actually fails to possess, he's the kind of kid that Törless more or less dismisses, recognizing a pretender and poseur when he sees one.
Basini inadvertently gambles away all his money, and without a new influx of cash to pay his debts, he resorts to stealing from Beineberg to settle his scores. When he is caught, the boys decide not to turn him in to the school authorities. Instead, Beineberg and Reiting design their own brand of disturbing vigilante justice. Beineberg wants to explore Basini's soul, hoping to understand why he's so weak and flawed. Reiting just sees someone he can torture—emotionally, physically and, most disturbingly, sexually. Outside it all is Törless, content to stand aside and watch it all. But as his growing conscience combats his desire to see someone like Basini punished, the sick and sadistic games Beineberg and Reiting play begin to confuse and corrupt Törless. He wants to understand why Basini tolerates this torment. And better yet, he wants to know why he, himself, does nothing to stop it.
When people think of the corrupt and the vile, a certain set image comes into their mind. There's the cruel and drooling pervert, the kind of slimy, psychotic stranger who stands near the corners of school yards, candy in one hand, a disturbingly twisted intention in the other. There is the military dictator, his power to oppress and purge so potent that it inflates every aspect of their persona, both corporeal and psychological. Of course, in our modern social structure, we have the "seemed like a nice guy" serial killer, his workaday Joe Blow basics hiding a hideous desire to defile the human body in as many horrifying ways as possible. From politicians to con artists, rapists to flesh peddling pornographers, we all have a certain visual reference point for the redolent and the reprobate. As a matter of fact, just reading through the list provided herein creates specific faces and features deep within your mind's eye. But in the 1966 film Young Törless, we learn a lesson long forgotten since the days of the World Wars and driven, demonic demagogues. In this amazing movie, corruption comes in all shapes and sizes, even one's you'd never expect or hope to accept.
At first glance, Young Törless appears to be like any of the films fashioned out of that literary mainstay—the boarding school. From A Catcher in the Rye to A Separate Peace, authors have consistently mined the "home away from home" side of residential education to say something more significant about the human experience. But after you've gotten past the adolescent angst, once you've lifted the lid off the sexual awakening and sampled the growing sense of personal independence, there usually isn't much more than a superficial story of self-actualization at the core. Unless some other piece of the social fabric is brought into the mix—intolerance, perversion, violence—there's almost always nothing left to really resonate beyond a boy and his stumbling stutter steps into manhood. But in Volker Schlöndorff's uncompromising look at the role of complicity as a part of subjugation and persecution, this trip to a mythic all-male military academy speaks volumes about its subject matter and the society surrounding it. While the novel upon which this film is based was written before the First World War, this film is one of the most potent parables about the rise of Nazism in Germany ever created.
As a film, Young Törless is frighteningly stark, with a moral soul as bleak and desolate as the Eastern European landscape where it is set. Though the canvas is vast and vague, almost empty in its infinite frigidity, this is a movie filled to bursting with angry analogous situations and sentiments. Schlöndorff has said very clearly that he wanted to use this basic tale of bullying as a metaphor for how the German social classes refused to rebel when Hitler and his minions marched over Europe, spreading their evil with relative ease. But he also complicates the matter. He makes his villains vile, but bolstered by an almost decent desire to do right in the face of an obvious wrong (the boy they pick on is obnoxiously arrogant, a gambler and a thief). Indeed, the boy Basini is an almost deserving target, the kind of effusive egomaniac who's obviously compensating for a lack of esteem through an inflated opinion of this own worth. Even our so-called hero is muddled motivationally. Törless tackles every issue confronting him, from his growing desire to join in with the torture to the knowledge that Basini is basically doing this to himself by failing to fight back, in the same stifling manner. He employs a perplexing paralysis similar to what he experiences when trying to decipher imaginary numbers in mathematics.
Indeed, if there is one overriding personality trait possessed by every boy at this grand, Gothic boarding school at the edge of the Iron Curtain, it's a kind of privileged ennui, a languor born out of luxury. To them, the entire academy experience is a chance to test out the talents they've been born and bred into, to begin the process of placement within the social standing their parents' position has brought (or bought) them. They mimic their dictatorial fathers, drinking fancy cognac and smoking their stinky pipes and their distant, distaff mothers, failing to show much emotional or sentimental attachment to people or places. Schlöndorff extrapolates on this class structure ideal, using his four main characters as human illustrations of the concrete corruptions that are passed down from adults to children, keeping the roots of repression sound and secure. In Beineberg and Reiting we see upper class power perverted, both intellectually (Beineberg) and physically (Reiting). Each boy has a similar end to his actions, but they individually employ differing, divergent means to meet said grotesque goals. Never once thinking that their deeds lower them to the level of that which they're oppressing, our sick swells strut their supposed superiority like the foul Lord Fauntleroys they are.
Basini is on the opposite end of the social spectrum, a wannabe aristocrat without the breeding or bravado to easily fit in. Instead, he must stretch his meager abilities, pray for a kind word or helping hand, and hope that his deception is kept well under wraps. When he is discovered—in this case, by committing a crime to continue his rich ruse—he tumbles and falls like all class-structure scapegoats, making him a prime target for the tormentors waiting in the wings. And standing outside it all, looking down his nose as he simultaneously points it up in the air, Thomas Törless thinks he's an innocent, intellectual bystander. He has applied a kind of esoteric excuse to everything going on around him, feeling that if he can rationalize all these repulsive actions, he's free of any guilt directly derived from his inaction. However, his is an underdeveloped snobbery, a maturing miscreance that hasn't had the time to fully form. Preferably, it should find no favor and merely float away. But Törless clings to it like the image of his mother's smiling, smug face. It's all part of Schlöndorff's design that his pawns in this callous chess game are all students. It allows him to explore the normal nuances of the "coming of age" in a far more meaningful manner.
One of Young Törless's many strong points is its suggestion that adulthood is only achieved after a sequence where we pass through both sexual and ethical confusion, a time when we only begin to formulate our beliefs both biologically and philosophically. The director designs his film so that only the title character seems rattled by such a struggle, using the resigned fate of those around him as a mirror and a catalyst. Indeed, our hero does go through a kind of five stages of death and dying dynamic when dealing with his schoolmates' abuses—and their cowardly acceptance of same. Törless feels anger at both the tormentors and the tormented. He denies any complicity while he feels it welling up inside. The emotions confuse and depress him, making him doubt his humanity and his honor. But he is also capable of ridiculous rationalizing and baroque bargaining, thinking that if he can just wrap his head around this entire "imaginary number" like ideal, he will be able to find the acceptance he longs for. But what Young Törless points out very powerfully is that such a level of approval is often as awful as the crimes being silently sanctioned. Törless is not supposed to reach the final stage in Kübler-Ross's redemption, however. Schlöndorff argues that this is not a situation that requires consent. To do so would make him as miserable and misguided as the persons perverting each other.
No, what Young Törless fights for in a very subtle, often profound manner, is the rejection of silence as an acceptable means of ignorance…or worse, compliance. Schlöndorff makes it clear that there is a very clear distinction between taking a stand, and taking a backseat while horrors swirl and settle. He is not about to listen to the laments of those who feel powerless, nor does he accept the excuses that some issues demand an insular, internal attention, one that keeps outside intervention at bay. No, in his not so veiled view of the rise and insidiousness of Nazism, Schlöndorff shows that it's the people on the sidelines, the spectators to slaughter or suppression that are equally guilty for any crimes that are committed. When he is finally brought before the headmaster and teachers of his school for failing to report Basini—and indirectly, Beineberg and Reiting—Törless has a kind of ethical breakdown, arguing in a circular, unconvincing manner that the world is neither good or evil, but a callous combination of both. He seems to suggest that once you accept that notion, all culpability is instantly washed away.
Schlöndorff does not let his hero off that easily. During his final denouement, Törless is both brilliant and baffled, lost in a realm of his own rational deconstruction while concurrently saying something quite sentient about the boundaries of blame. Indeed, Schlöndorff makes the brave choice to have Basini, his persecuted specialty class, bear a certain amount of the responsibility for what is happening to him. Basini is also capable of self-delusion. He rationalizes his crimes as a necessary factor in saving face among his classmates and friends. He acquiesces to the misdeeds of his "masters" because he feels it's better to give in, hoping supplication will eventually make it all go away. So he is willing to step forward and face the possibility of an ultimate punishment. Basini fears banishment more than for his own personal safety, and will risk his physical well being to guarantee a place in the school's pecking order. For him, exile would be a sentence worse than a beating or abuse. It would mean he didn't belong, that the truth of his direct difference from his tormentors would be borne out as totally true.
By mixing the message, making everyone guilty and no one completely innocent, Schlöndorff and his film manage a rather mystifying feat. Certainly, he shows how something as seething and corrupt as the Nazis could take over and countermand the common sense of an entire nation, but he also illustrates the facilitation of most atrocities, showing that, eventually, such a cold callousness and disconnect can lead to all types of mob-based violence, from revolution to genocide. It is one of Young Törless's many maverick moves that we don't get a clear hero or wholly hissable villain in the entire tale (though Reiting's relishing of his own amoral actions is particularly disturbing). Instead, we are drawn into this world of weird ritualistic reactions and eerie enigmatic personalities and feel like we're facing our own moral dilemma along the way.
Part of the film's amazing authority is in the performances by the young cast. While professional actor Mathieu Carrière plays Törless (and he is exceptional in the role, essaying confusion and inner turmoil with devastating accuracy) the rest of the company is made up of actual students, kids more or less playing themselves. There has, perhaps, been no more substantive look at the pains and peculiarities of growing up as Young Törless. And as if by divine providence, Schlöndorff is given a story (from a novel by Robert Musil) that allows, in its simplicity, to reflect and redefine issues more universal than how a group of boys interrelate at an isolated boarding school. More than anything else, Young Törless is a reminder of how all of life is like those strangulated schoolyard situations, an endless harangue of decisions and despairs that we usually aren't prepared to face.
Oddly enough, sex is the one area that Schlöndorff seems to avoid almost altogether, downplaying its importance in the so-called "coming of age." While most movies suggest that there is nothing more important than the passionate and erotic when it comes to climbing into adulthood, this director dismisses such suggestions. Certainly, there are elements of the physicality of love—both hetero and homo—in this story, but Schlöndorff doesn't give them the resonance that other films have forced upon it. The boys do visit a peasant prostitute (played with unusually subdued sizzle by horror movie scream queen Barbara Steele), but she's not really about release. She's seen more as an oasis, a time away from the temperament and attitude within the school setting. She's a chance to escape and reflect. Also, the narrative seems to suggest that Basini gives in to some strange, same-sex games when tormented by Beineberg and, especially, Reiting. But again, Schlöndorff lets it slide, refusing to confuse his message with the messy, manipulative nature of lust and longing.
No, Young Törless is meant as a political, not a romantic, treatise. It sets itself up as a knowing, nuanced dissertation on the reasons for persecution, and exactly how society formed—and forgave—the persecutors. It argues over the ethics of non-involvement, and scoffs at those who would rationalize the repugnant for the sake of a settled conscience. More of a clear cautionary tale than a serious character study or detailed drama, director Volker Schlöndorff is convinced that we are destined to manufacture malfeasance out of a stupid desire to stay locked in our own insular identity. As relevant today in our closed-off suburban stalags as it was during the rise of fascism at the turn of the century, or the Eastern European blanket of Communism in the '60s (when the film was made), Young Törless wants to teach us to take a stand, any stand, against the powers that would oppress us. Within the clear dynamics of this masterful movie is a very clear message: No matter how reasonable the retaliation seems, no matter how guilty the party is receiving the retribution, there is no clear moral path in punishment or torture—and interestingly enough, there is even less when you simply sit by and do nothing.
As it does with almost all of its monochrome masterpieces, Criterion delivers up a superb visual variation on the entire shadows and light scenario. The transfer for Young Törless is magnificent, matching the morbid, malevolent tone of the film in its dreary gray greatness. Volker Schlöndorff uses his camera in a very clever combination of standard set-ups and handheld happenstance, creating a cornucopia of conflicting compositions to keep his movie alive and vital. The gorgeous 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by Criterion highlights this aesthetic approach exceptionally. You can almost feel the biting cold or smell the burning fireplaces in this dense, detailed visual presentation.
The audio here is equally impressive. The score, an insane combination of normal instrumentation and experimental elements, marks one of the most amazing aural experiences you will have with a film. Composer Hans Werner Henze seems to have tapped directly into the raging moral dilemmas inside all the characters and created a sour, somber soundtrack to their ever-increasing irresponsibility. At times beautiful, while equally baneful, Henze's music is so ahead of its time that we've yet to reach its era. Thanks to the pristine sonic scenarios created by Criterion, all conversations, as well as the sounds accompanying them, are resplendently rendered in this amazing atmospheric attraction.
As for contextual elements, Criterion provides a few fascinating extras to help explain Young Törless. From its literary roots to its importance in the New German cinematic movement, the few featurettes here are exceptional. The main material comes from an interview with director Schlöndorff, who walks us through his career and influences, as well as his decision to make this movie. Starting with his training in France, and detailing his friendship with fellow Teutonic titan Werner Herzog, Schlöndorff gives us a detailed account of his life and times leading up to Törless's successful screening at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the International Critics Prize). Personable and incredibly engaging, his presence makes you wish that he had a real opportunity to discuss his film more fully (see below). In addition, we get an isolated score feature—again introduced by Schlöndorff—that allows us to hear the magnificent musings of Hans Werner Henze in all their sinister, surreal glory. Along with a trailer, a gallery of production stills, and an essay on the film's significance and symbolism, this DVD package seems slight on added content. But in reality, it's rich and rife with important details about Young Törless and its creator.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On a purely minor note, Schlöndorff is such a wonderful and appealing interview subject, his thoughts providing potent context to his visuals and narrative that to not allow him a full length audio commentary seems foolish. He is a man with no misgivings about what he has created, or what it stands for, and to hear him discuss the film as a whole, as well as specific significant scenes, would have been a real movie maven's delight. It is understandable if the man himself declined an invitation to add his thoughts to the disc, but if Criterion failed to give him such a chance, they missed a truly golden opportunity to supplement their release with an important piece of cinematic history.
When you look back upon the bullying you witnessed—or unfortunately, experienced—during your formative years, how much of it was actually your fault? What had you done to deserve such treatment, or worse, why did you simply stand by and watch a fellow human being suffer at the hands of a sadist? Chalking up such choices to the gratuitous growing pains of youth or the misguided gestures of immature minds is merely a craven cop out. Torture and torment should never be a mere ritual of the ragings rampant during maturity. Cowardice and complicity should never be excused or explained away. In Young Törless, such a silent, stifled attitude does only one thing: it allows the oppressor a far easier road toward domination and dominion. But there is plenty of blame to go around, if one is to believe director Volker Schlöndorff. From the bully to the bullied, no one is free from the crown of responsibility. To varying extents, everyone is guilty. At the moment we learn such lessons, when we see such a horrible writing on the wall, we hopefully move toward a concrete set of personal ethics, giving us the strength and the substance to make a stand, no matter the consequence. It is then that we truly start growing up. Maybe that is the age we are supposed to be coming in to: not of actual years, but of enlightenment.
One of the most important and powerful movies of the early New German film movement, Young Törless is hereby found not guilty and is free to go. Criterion is also acquitted on all charges and praised, once again, for continuing to preserve these important films for future generations to watch and, hopefully, learn from.
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Scales of Justice
• 2004 Video Interview with Writer-Director Volker Schlondorff
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