Turner Classic Movies recently premiered a German film from 1966, "Young Toerless," that much affected me. It was directed by Volker Schlondorff and produced in West Germany and France. The story of this Austrian military boarding school was set just after the turn of the 20th century. It was based on a mostly autobiographical novel by Robert Musil, who in 1906 wrote "The Confusions of Young Toerless" at the age of 26.
This film is a classic tale of the sensitive, questioning, uninitiated young adolescent boy who is left on his own to make sense of the cruel acts of his classmates. The adults, all men, are probably not clueless, but they are no help. Primal aggression is the order of the day. Young Toerless, flawlessly acted by Mathieu Carriere, is a leaky boat on a turbulent sea.
Two boys, his closest acquaintances, begin to torture an Italian classmate named Basini, who is a known thief and homosexual. He is punished by the boys for both. The aggressors also exploit his homosexuality. Toerless is mostly a passive observer. Eventually the entire school gets in on the bullying, surrounding Basini in gym class and stringing him up by his ankles like a pig ready to be gutted.
Toerless runs away for two days after this, but returns to account to the Headmaster, the Reverend, and four teachers who are sitting in judgement waiting to hear his reasons.
Headmaster “Can you tell us, Toerless, the reason that led you to run away so suddenly?"
Toerless pauses as he thinks about it, eyes downcast.
HM “We already know these things, but tell us what led you to conceal Basini’s crime?”
Toerless “I don’t know sir. When I first heard of it, it seemed outrageous. On the one hand, I told myself I should report him to you.”
HM “And so you should have.”
T “On the other hand, I wasn’t interested in punishment. I was overcome by dizziness each time I….”
HM “You must express yourself more clearly, Toerless.”
T “For example, imaginary numbers."
Math Prof “Allow me to shed some light on this obscure reference. Young Toerless came to ask me about certain fundamentals of mathematics, including imaginary numbers, which are truly difficult for the untrained mind.”
T “Yes, I said it seemed to me that we couldn’t get to the bottom of that through logic alone, that we needed another certainty, an inner certainty. And I felt the same way about the Basini matter."
Reverend “So you feel drawn away from science and towards moral, even divine, aspects?"
HM “Toerless, is what the reverend says true? Do you have a tendency to see—as you seem to be saying—a religious background to things?’
T “No, that’s not it either.”
HM (angrily) “Then for God’s sake tell us in plain words what it was! We can’t get into philosophical debates here!”
T “I can’t help it if it’s not what you think. Perhaps I haven’t learned enough to express myself clearly. But I’ll attempt to describe it. Basini was a student like any other. A perfectly normal person. Suddenly he stumbled. I’d thought of these things before—humiliation and degradation—but I’d never experienced them. But it happened to Basini. I had to admit it was possible that man wasn’t created good or bad once and for all. We all keep changing ceaselessly. We exist only by virtue of our actions. But if we allow ourselves to change to where we become torturers or sacrificial animals then anything is possible. Then even the most horrific things become simply possible. Then there’s no line between good and evil and both merge imperceptibly. Then perfectly normal people can do terrible things. The only question then was “How is this possible? “ To observe this I let these things go unreported. I wanted to know how it was possible. What happens when a person humiliates himself or suddenly turns cruel. I used to think it would mean the end of the world. Now I know differently. What seems so horrific, so incomprehensible from afar, simply happens. Quietly and naturally. Therefore one must be continually on guard. That’s what I’ve learned.”
T turns and leaves the room.
HM “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. I’ll send his father a letter to that effect.”
Teacher “Peculiar person.”
Younger Teacher “You think?”
The novel on which this film was based was written well before the rise of the Austrian born Hitler. It remains part of the human condition that we still contemplate the reasons for cruelty and torture. As I watched this scene unfold, I found myself hanging on Toerless' words hoping that he could explain it. Even this innocent could not find the reasons, but just knew that we need to stand guard against it.