One of the most striking films I’ve encountered recently (let’s us face it, the new releases have been less than startling for a few weeks), Volker Schlöndorff’s first film, Young Törless (1966), came as something of a surprise. I mostly think of Schlöndorff for The Tin Drum (1978), and whatever its merits, that’s a movie that leaves me almost completely cold. This is a very different proposition. It’s simple. It’s straightforward and it verges on stunning. It’s German cinema as tackled by a man who had trained with the French New Wave filmmakers, and the results are quite unlike anything from German film at that time. The prevalent attitude was that nothing about the country’s Nazi years should be mentioned — or even evoked on a subtext basis. In adapting a book from 1906, Schlöndorff would seem to have skirted the issue, but that novel and his film addressed the seeds of the very sort of mindset that helped lead to Nazi Germany.
The film deals with the conscious awakening of a boarding school boy, Törless (Mathieu Carrière), to the existence of that mindset through the systematic abuse and torturing of a (significantly Jewish) classmate — a process in which, it should be noted, he at first took part. (The novel apparently also has something to say about the underlying homosexual nature of these acts, but every time the film raises that idea, it veers off.) It is less the abuse itself that’s the issue here than it is the idea that anything — no matter how reprehensible — can become the norm given the right circumstances and conditioning. It didn’t take much imagination to grasp what the filmmaker was talking about, especially since the film’s hero (if he can be called that) simply withdraws from the situation rather than rebel against it. It is not a comfortable film. It wasn’t meant to be.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Young Törless Friday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com