The spectre of World War II - the horrors perpetrated by the German army and the culture which allowed Hitler to come to power - hangs over Young Törless, even though the film is set thirty years before (and made 20 years after) these things come to pass. Many of the great films about Germany's experience in World War II are about the country after the war rather than the war itself - Germany Year Zero (made by an Italian) and The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind. So it's interesting to see a film that is about the German culture which produced the Third Reich. The film is not about Nazism, or even - as was Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, perhaps the Japanese equivalent of this film - about fascism, but about the banality of evil, the lack of empathy for the weak, and the inability of the rational individual to overcome the irrationality of the mob.
Apart from the obvious political allegory - which of course was not present in the original novel, set in contemporary Austria in 1906 - Young Törless takes its place next to other films that center around a boys boarding school such as If..., Au Revoir Les Enfants, and the grandaddy of them all, Zero for Conduct, which depicted a similarly repressive system. The relationship between the teachers and students in all of these films is key to their understanding - something even more true of less pessimistic boarding school fare like The Browning Version and Goodbye Mr. Chips. But here, that relationship is somewhat unclear. The teachers seem more absent than complicit, and the final scene where Törless is confronted by a panel of his elders makes it clear they are totally unaware of what is happening in their school and unable to understand it.
Young Törless was Schlöndorff's first film, and he's clearly established his point of view right from the beginning as he continued to make political, intense movies that focused on society's destruction of the personal, all focused on his native country. There are some truly harrowing moments in the film, though it never becomes graphic or even especially violent. The story itself becomes engaging because of these moments, but the movie's place in German history is what makes the film worth seeing.