Jun 3, 2014
Love him or loathe him, German auteur Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, Swann in Love) almost singlehandedly rebooted Teutonic cinema during the post-WWII era with his debut feature Young Törless (1966) aka Der junge Törless starring a young teenage Mathieu Carrière (who had attended the same Jesuit boarding school in France that the director previously attended) in the eponymous lead role. Indeed, along with Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966) aka Abschied von gestern and Ulrich Schamoni’s It (1966) aka Es, Young Törless was such a striking cinematic revelation among the West German public that it was dubbed by the media as something totally new, ‘Young German Cinema,’ which would eventually become New German Cinema. Learning the cinematic craft from working as an assistant director for French New Wave auteur filmmakers like Louis Malle and Alain Resnais and desiring to make a sort of celluloid bridge between his zeitgeist and that of the great Germanic filmmakers of the silent era like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, Schlöndorff assembled the somber black-and-white coming-of-age flick Young Törless, which was adapted from Austrian writer Robert Musil's 1906 literary debut The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) aka Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß. Indeed, impressed by the writer's unfinished two-volume magnum opus Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften aka The Man Without Qualities (1930–43), Schlöndorff decided to checkout and ultimately cinematically adapt and update Musil’s prophetic novel Young Törless, which not only interested the auteur because he attended a boarding school like the protagonist of the book (albeit, a French Jesuit one as opposed to an Austrian military one), but also because, as the director described in the featurette A German Movie: “The other thing that attracted me in Musil’s novel is that it seemed like a metaphor for what happened much later in German history, meaning the dictatorship of the Nazis and the abuse and the holocaust.” Heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s late era expressionist masterpiece M (1931), Young Törless, which is set during the pre-WWI era at a military boarding school located in a remote rural region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, follows an inquisitive teenage protagonist with a ‘beyond good and evil’ mentality who watches passively as his new friends and classmates routinely physically, sexually, and emotionally torture a weak and cowardly student who was caught stealing by one of his cornholing comrades. Casting a real Jew named Marian Seidowsky (who would later star alongside Fassbinder in Schlöndorff’s 1970 adaption of Baal) whose Polish Jewish family managed to survive the Second World War in the role of the victim Anselm von Basini in a performance modeled after Peter Lorre’s pathetic pedophiliac serial killer character Hans Beckert from Fritz Lang’s M, Schlöndorff’s cinematic debut is a vaguely S&;M-themed political parable that allegorically depicts via a small military academy microcosm how the German bourgeoisie (as represented by protagonist Thomas Törless) watched passively during the National Socialist takeover and the discrimination of Jews. A work that proved that Teutonic filmmakers still had testicular fortitude (although, the director would eventually lose this testicular fortitude), Young Törless was such a subversive work upon its release that it caused the West German counselor in Paris to walk-out during its screening at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, and slam the door while shouting, “This is not a German movie.” Young Törless is also the first film where Schlöndorff would attempt to establish a dubious link between fascism and faggotry, thereupon making it a work that might offend more weak-minded LGBT-lobotomized viewers.
Teenage intellectual Thomas Törless (Mathieu Carrière) is a young man who has probably misread too much Nietzsche (notably, Musil was heavily influenced by the “philosopher of the hammer”) and believes himself to be above ‘good and evil.’ Törless’ father believes his son is too indecisive and asks a more militaristic and conservative student named Beineberg (Bernd Tischer)—an ideologue and master race type of the old school Prussian sort—to watch over his progeny when he drops him off at the military academy. A born iconoclast of sorts, Törless is punished during his first day of school for mocking the banal nature of his teacher’s lecturing techniques and is thus forced to copy out Horace’s sixth ode by the next day. Meanwhile, the most pathetic and cowardly student in the entire military academy, Anselm von Basini (Marian Seidowsky)—the stereotypically Jewish acting/looking son of an impoverished widow—is threatened by a nasty young man named Reiting (Fred Dietz) who demands that the degenerate aristocrat pay him back money that he owes him by the next day, or else he will become his personal slave. Needless to say, Basini makes the desperate mistake of stealing money from alpha-male Beineberg’s drawer to payback Reiting. When Reiting accuses Basini of theft, the meek boy, who clearly suffers from a persecution complex of sorts, reacts in a stereotypically Hebraic manner by retorting, “How dare you say that! What a nasty thing to say! That’s vile slander! You’re just picking on me because I’m weaker.” After much arguing, Basini eventually confesses to the crime, but absurdly claims that he did not steal the money, but “only borrowed it in secret.” Meanwhile, Beineberg takes Törless to meet a single-mother prostitute with a bastard baby named Bozena (played by English Gothic horror actress Barbara Steele, who starred in Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) and Corman’s Poe adaptation The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), among countless other classics of the genre), who hates the Austrian bourgeoisie, especially the Viennese (her baby is the unwanted product of an affair she had with a Viennese bourgeois gentleman). Bozena can sense the young student’s unease and seeming sense of superiority, so she remarks to Törless while making out with Beineberg, “You don’t like me talking about your mother? You people always think you’re better than us. You don’t think your mother and I are alike, huh? […] You’re wrong…terribly wrong. I know your families better than that. I spent enough time in Vienna. I know what goes on there.” Bozena also tells the boys that they are just like their parents as, “hypocrites, cowards and liars” who pretend to be respectable and dignified, but act quite differently behind closed doors. As Törless will soon find out, Bozena is quite right. Bozena also alludes to the fact that certain young military cadets are involved in homosexuality by stating in defense of the fleshy ‘goods’ that she has to peddle: “It is better than what you do in your dorms.” Indeed, Törless will also learn that sadomasochistic sodomy is a timeless secret tradition at seemingly benign Austrian military schools.
During the night, a hermetic world comes to life in an attic at the Austro-Hungarian military academy where an unofficial secret society of students smoke from hookahs like proto-beatniks, dream of taking pilgrimages to India in an Hermann Hesse-esque fashion, discuss sex and look at pornography, and—most importantly—make future cryptic metapolitical plans for their school and classmates, with Beineberg being the uncontested Führer of the group. During one of their nightly attic meetings, Reiting discusses how “a lot of pleasure can be had from him” regarding criminal Basini, but idealist Beineberg wants the thief formerly exposed and kicked out of the school, as he has a more conservative view regarding crime and punishment. Ultimately, the conspiring friends agree to have their fun with Basini, whose thieving hand they whip the next day. On top of being physically assaulted, Basini is told by Reitling and his crew that they have decided not to squeal to the school authorities regarding his crimes, but that he will now have to live the lonely life of a virtual slave and plaything who’s every action with other classmates will be the subject of their consent and whose expenses and income will be strictly scrutinized. When Beineberg discovers that Reiting has been looking at pornography and engaging in violent gay sex with Basini in the attic, he becomes enraged and decides he wants to also take part in torturing the pathetic slave, stating, “What I’ve got in mind is pure asceticism. To rise above this world, you must kill off everything that enslaves you to it.” While fondling a knife in a fetishistic fashion, Beineberg declares he must “kill off” all the supposed “superfluous emotions” (aka pity, empathy, forgiveness, etc.) that he has for Basini and become hard like a true Aryan Übermensch. In a scene modeled after the underworld trial scene at the conclusion of Fritz Lang’s M, Beineberg, who resembles one of Erich von Stroheim’s various portrayals of Prussian villains that sport fancy gloves and super spiffy uniforms, presides over a secret show trial in the attic against Basini where he is charged with committing a break-in, stealing money, acting on his own against his comrades expressed wishes, attempting to set comrades against one another, and placing himself in the sexual servitude of a dimwitted degenerate like Reitling. For his crimes, Basini is beaten and tortured, and Törless even gets in on the action at point, forcing the slave to say, “I’m a thief,” but the protagonist will ultimately slowly but surely come to realize he has become a silent perpetrator in a sick game.
Of course, later Törless realizes the severity of the brutality he has engaged in and writes in his journal, “I must be sick, insane. Why else would things that others find normal disgust me?” That night, Törless takes Basini to the attic where the slave immediately begins taking off his clothes, as if he expects to be sexually manhandled by the rampantly heterosexual protagonist (of course, in Musil's novel, the protagonist does get involved with homosexuality). After yelling at Basini for undressing, Törless berates the bitch boy for subjecting himself to Beineberg and Reitling’s brutality. Törless also becomes disgusted by Basini’s lack of guilt when it comes to stealing and engaging in aberrant sexual servitude. Undoubtedly, Basini is a hard person to feel sorry for yet his treatment at the violent hands of young authoritarian homos is also unjustifiable, hence Törless' moral and philosophical dilemma regarding the entire situation. Naturally, Beineberg's thirst for torturing Basini only grows with each passing day, so he decides to see how far he can take it by hypnotizing the boy and stabbing him with a needle. When Basini falls over while being tortured under hypnosis, Beineberg accuses him of faking it and has his friends beat him to a bloody pulp. The next day, Basini begs for Törless’ help and Reitling witnesses the interaction and accuses them of having a secret alliance. Of course, Törless tells the truth regarding his relationship with Basini and when Reitling demands that he also get in on the sexually sadomasochistic action, he refuses to as he finds the whole situation boring, stating, “Things just happen. Anything’s possible. There’s not an evil world and a good world. They exist together in the same world. That’s the whole truth.” Later that day, Beineberg threatens Törless by telling him that if he does not get involved with torturing Basini, he will tell everyone at the school that he is the thief’s accomplice. While Törless attempts to warn Basini that night that he is in for a world of hurt, the cowardly thief is not prepared for the lynch mob style torture he will suffer the next day. Indeed, after some students block off all the doors and exits of the school gymnasium so as to prevent any teachers from interrupting their acts of mob-mentality-based collective torture, all the pupils of the school gang up on Basini and Beineberg, who leads the mob, mocks his widow mother by reading out a pathetic letter she has written regarding the family’s dire monetary situation. When Basini makes a fruitless attempt at fighting back for the first time in his entire life, he is beaten up by all the boys and hanged upside down in a mock lynching of sorts in a perniciously playful scenario that one of the teachers at the school describes as “downright diabolical.” While Törless attempted to save Basini during the attack, his efforts are ultimately too little and too late. Shaken up by the whole situation, Törless runs away from the school and seeks solace in prostitute Bozena. When Törless finally goes back to the school, he explains his actions to the school’s headmasters by going on a pretentious speech about his reasoning for never tattling on Basini and how he has learned from the entire experience that good and evil are natural everyday events that one must be on guard for. After giving his little philosophical spiel and abruptly leaving the room, the main headmaster declares, “This young man is under such emotional strain that this school is no longer the place for him. His intellectual nourishment must be monitored more carefully than we can do here.” In the end, Törless happily leaves the school after his loving mother picks him up in a horse and carriage. If the protagonist learns anything by the end of the film, it is that one cannot be a passive spectator to human brutality, as it leads to dictatorships, atrocities, and whatnot.
Interestingly, while Schlöndorff portrays the Basini character in Young Törless as a victim who suffers unnecessary punishment at the hands of sadistic proto-fascist crypto-homos, the character is also depicted as a morally retarded thief and groveling coward who more or less welcomed his poof punishment, thus hinting that the director thought that certain Jews were indeed guilty of certain crimes after World War I, though they did not deserve the punishment they ultimately received. As the director explained in the featurette A German Movie, he had some reservations about casting a real Jew for the role of Basini, explaining regarding his eventual decision to cast Marian Seidowsky (who had been introduced to the director by his classmates): “And, of course, what could I say? I mean, these were 15-year-old boys in the middle of the 60s who came and brought to me, as the victim, a Jewish boy living in their school. I was, first, too scared to use him…I thought that we were getting too close to the metaphor here…and, on the other hand, I had taken such a liking to him and he was so eager to do the part that I started working with him.” Apparently, the other teenage cast members, who were also non-actors (except for Mathieu Carrière, who previously appeared in Rolf Thiele’s 1964 Thomas Man adaptation Tonio Kröger), told Schlöndorff that Seidowsky would be perfect for the part because he was a real-life crybaby who epitomized the character of Basini. While Seidowsky would go on to star in two more of Schlöndorff films, including Baal (1970) and Morals of Ruth Halbfass (1972) aka Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass, as well as the early Fassbinder flicks Gods of the Plague (1970) and The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), he developed cancer at the premature age of 29 and subsequently committed suicide by shooting himself at a hospital in Munich (or so Schlöndorff would describe in his autobiography Licht, Schatten und Bewegung). Of course, Young Törless was not the last film Schlöndorff directed that followed in the anti-Teutonic spirit of quack Hebrew psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich by depicting militarists/fascists as sadomasochistic sodomites, as he would later portray German Freikorps soldiers as cold-hearted misogynistic homos in Coup de Grâce (1976) and would even include a boy-buggering SA Brownshirt pederast in his Academy Award winning work The Tin Drum (1979) aka Die Blechtrommel. Indeed, Schlöndorff was not the only promoter of this ethno-masochistic, if not homo-hating, trend of attempting to depict Prussianism and fascism as sort of proto-leather-fag subcultures, as German leftist sociologist Klaus Theweleit released a two volume Reich-inspired work in 1977 entitled Männerphantasien (which was later translated into English in 1987 under the title Male Fantasies) that attempted to portray masculine Freikorps soldiers and National Socialists as sick and sexually sadistic sodomites who derived sexual pleasure from torturing and killing people. Whatever I may think of Schlöndorff’s hopelessly cliché post-WWII 68er-Bewegung-esque politics, I cannot deny that Young Törless is a revolutionary work of Teutonic cinema that helped sire one of the greatest and most important film movements in German history, not to mention the fact that the work would surely be considered ostensibly ‘homophobic’ by today’s prissy PC standards, thus demonstrating how out of hand politically correct authoritarianism and the Pink Gestapo has gotten.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:10 PM
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