It says something about Lt. Gustl that the first thing it reminded me of wasn’t Catcher in the Rye (where I held equal contempt for the insufferable first-person protagonist), but American Psycho. The more I think about it, the more the two texts’ similarities multiply, and the differences diverge more radically.
The interesting similarity beyond the text is in the authors themselves. Schnitzler, a bourgeois Jewish man, doubtless had no love lost for the churlish officer class that Gustl represents, such as Bret Eason Ellis, a notoriously filterless social satirist, viewed yuppies with visceral disgust. Both Gustl and Patrick Bateman are inwardly prejudiced, devoid of substance and represent the worst qualities of their given spheres. The main difference is how far their respective creators go in attempting to prove this.
Both Gustl and Bateman have no sense of self, or at least very little. Both obsess over appearance – Gustl is nearly driven to suicide by the implications of a slight to his image, whereas Bateman pays impossible amounts of attention to his brand-name clothing and accessories (the book is more saturated with luxury product namedropping than Watch the Throne). Both Gustl and Bateman are professionally incompetent, with Gustl having pursued the military because he couldn’t succeed anywhere else, and Bateman working a very lucrative job in Mergers and Acquisitions, at a company owned by his father (not once does he actually appear to be working in the novel or the film). Gustl has little personality and Bateman, short of his gruesome proclivities, has none at all. They are composites of others’ opinions, and fuss constantly over their image because, without it, they have nothing. One may go farther, and say that they are nothing, although they constitute different species of void.
Gustl, simply put, is not evil. Crude, chauvinistic, insecure, daft and hypocritical, yes, but not sociopathic. Bateman, as the title of his story proclaims, very much is. Over the course of the novel, Bateman proves himself to be an adulterer, drug abuser, serial rapist and multiple murderer. He never once betrays any vestige of guilt over his actions, and very rarely any fear of being caught. His first-person narrative segues from idle reflections on Phil Collins and the coloration of his calling cards to cannibalism and necrophilia without warning. There is no relatability in Bateman’s actions – he isn’t a normal person who pursues increasingly horrific depravities because of oversaturated culture or class enabling (although both help him along). He’s the worst kind of twisted mind, without any vestige of humanity to his name. Nothing Gustl does is anywhere near as horrific as what Bateman does on a regular basis.
At the end of things, both characters are a means of satire, and to an extent both are effective. Lt. Gustl was controversial on its release, and despite the vast distance between the explicitness of its subject matter, American Psycho received about the same measure of consternation, which says a great deal about hermeneutic distance, and also just about impales observers on Ellis’s extremely pointed observations regarding desensitization. What scares me is how, looking back on them, both of these stories were immediate at their time, and despite their topicality do not lack for readability in 2015.