Monday, November 9, 2015

Volker Schlöndorff | Der junge Törless (Young Törless)

irrational numbers

by Douglas Messerli

Volker Schlöndorff and Herbert Asmodi (based on the fiction by Robert Musil), Volker Schlöndorff(director) Der junge Törless (Young Törless) / 1966

In his first film, Young Törless of 1966, filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff takes Robert Musil’s 1906 novella and subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, interconnects the actions of the characters with the behavior of Prussian Germans and Austrians not only in World War I, but in the Nazi Germany of World War II.

     Through the increasingly brutal actions of the Austrian schoolboys of the Neudorf military academy, the director—along with his central character figure, Thomas Törless (Mathieu Carrière)—explore how ordinary human beings—in this case Reiting (Fred Dietz) and Törless’s friend Beineberg (Bernd Tischer)—suddenly veer from petty class and caste ridicule and humiliation of fellow, incidentally Jewish, class-mate Anselm von Basini (Marian Seidowsky)—to sexual abuse, beatings, and finally outright torture.
      Basini may be an unlovable braggart, who acceptance of a subservient relationship with Reiting leads him to petty thievery, but he has done nothing serious enough to bring down the wrath of his fellow students—particularly the passive dismissals of Törless, who, in his often over-sensitive and intelligent questioning of his lessons concerning the use of irrational and imaginary numbers in his mathematical lessons, might just as well have fallen into Basini’s position.
      If at first, one might think of Musil’s work as being related to other studies of rebel students caught up in unthinking and uncaring systems such as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite and Lindsay Anderson’s later If…, Schlöndorff makes it clear that, in fact, these beastly behaving students are not at all rebelling against the system in which they are entrapped, but use that system and its often implacable and inexplicable values to justify and support their “experiments” on their fellow beings.

     If at moments Törless is disgusted by his fellow student’s actions, in his empirical observation of their behavior, he also becomes a paralyzed participant and accomplice, and when he does attempt to stop their hanging their victim upside down from the gym ceiling where he might be beaten to death, it is too late. His classmates circle round the victim to prevent Törless from taking any action to save Basini, and the boy survives only becomes schoolmasters, hearing the hullabaloo in the gym break down the doors, whereafter Törless escapes the entire situation by leaving school for a couple of days before being expelled.
     Yet I agree with critic Timothy Corrigan, whose essay accompanies the Criterion DVD of this film (and who was a former colleague of mine at Temple University) that for Schlöndorff, at least, Törless’ passive participation in the group brutality is not the message of the film.

     If nothing else, Törless does come  to recognize through his observations of good and evil, that those qualities do not exist in an either/or situation, but simultaneously co-exist; accordingly, as he blandly comes to perceive—with little more involvement than if he were speaking of “irrational” numbers—that one “has to be on one’s guard” against such human behavior. Törless still appears to blame the victim for allowing himself to become a “slave.” 
     Nonetheless, he is the only one who does escape the institution that will help to create the generations of future monsters who will come to kill irrational numbers of their own kind. And, in that fact, he quite evidently will not participate in the Weimar and Nazi worlds. Törless, a bit like Proust’s Swann—the subject of a later Schlöndorff film—will more likely turn to the past as a model for his behavior, escaping into the world of the belle époque—an already dead world—rather than embracing to the raucous brutality of Post World I and World War II. 
    The film ends, indeed, with the handsome and precocious young escapee, smiling into the face of his well-bred, beautiful, and somewhat aloof mother, suggesting, perhaps, that Törless is likely to grow into an effete being, saved from the brutality ahead by his refusing to even recognize it.

Los Angeles, November 9, 2015

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