Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This thoughtful and finely-crafted first film from Volker Schlöndorff is considered
the beginning of the New German Cinema, or the Young German Cinema. Decrying German films
confined to guilty musings over WW2 or mindless Heimat escapism about rural values,
directors like Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog
revitalized the national industry with challenging new methods and ideas.
Der junge Törless is a thought-provoking examination of schoolboy days as
remembered by Robert Musil, a WW1 soldier. Although it takes place in the old Austro-Hungarian
Empire, the pitiless mindset and cruel activities seen here are often likened to Nazi
ideology. But what transpires will be easily recognized by anybody who ever went to school,
practically anywhere. The one difference is that some of these intense German youths think
about what they're doing and rationalize it in speech.
The sensitive Thomas Törless (Mathieu Carrière) enjoys the
camaraderie and independent spirit of his boarding school dorm-mates even though he's too
shy to take part in their visits to the local prostitute Bozena (Barbara Steele). A
foolish classmate named Basini (Marian Seidowsky) gets into debt with Thomas' unforgiving
friends, who begin a campaign of harassment against him. Basini is caught
stealing to even his debt, a situation that is seized as a way of gaining power over him.
The indignities and humiliations grow, with Basini expecting eventual forgiveness and
acceptance while his peers sadistically use his lack of pride to see how much more misery
he will tolerate. Thomas passively watches and then is forced into a minimal participation
by his friends, who have taken to sexually abusing Basini as well. When the situation gets
out of control, Thomas finds that both the students and the schoolmasters consider him
Der junge Törless is an excellent look at an almost universal situation -
school bullying out of control - that shows the more mature outlook of the New German
Cinema by refusing to frame itself in a preconceived moral pattern. The schoolboys
naturally seek out anyone different or helpless to pick on, and they find their
perfect patsy in the weak Basini. He foolishly thinks he can hide his little crimes,
a fault that perversely predatory boys use to make his life hell.
Even in benign situations, the formula in Törless mirrors real life. When
someone weak and sensitive doesn't stand up to abuse, his dishonorable behavior is used
to justify more abuse. The victim is "asking for it." I don't know how the chemistry
works with young girls, but with boys it's exactly like this. Individuals seek the security
of being part of a group. The group multiplies the daring of the individual, who hides
behind the group while seeking out weaker individuals to dominate.
All of these students are from reasonably wealthy families and already initiated into
various hypocrisies: Hiding vices from their parents, ignoring or stonewalling their
clueless teachers and visiting prostitutes as recreation. Horror star Barbara Steele
has one of her best roles greeting two boys and making fun of their illusions. It's
an isolated scene but very successful.
One of Thomas¹ sadistic friends is willing to explain how his world-view justifies
the tormenting of Basini. His rationale does sound like Nazi philosophy, that the strong
have some kind of duty to rid the world of the weak and unfit. Basini is identified as
Jewish, which in these boys' thinking is just another proof of inferiority and not a
specific crime in itself. Just the same, the level of bigotry and hidden violence is
staggering. Casual cruelty is treated as a recreational activity to prepare for the future.
Thomas Törless remains a detached observer. His ability to stay coolly interested
in a process that personally disgusts him is disturbing but familiar
human behavior. When the final formal investigation comes, the other boys front a
consistent defense of lies and feigned innocence. Thomas instead tells the schoolmasters
what's really going on, from his personal viewpoint.
Predictably, the authorities opt for a hasty verdict that involves minimal thought and
doesn't rock the boat: The school system is healthy except for a few disturbed or unstable
elements (like Törless) that need to be weeded out. That kind of supervision is
something we all learn in the first grade: "I don't care who did what or what's going on,
just so long as it stops and things return to normal." In other words, a main lesson taught
in school is that nobody cares about right and wrong and the best thing to do is to look out
for one's self. Anyone trying to probe the nature of right and wrong might as well be
talking to the walls.
Volker Schlöndorff's film is beautifully shot in B&W and directed with an ease not
seen in many first movies. The acting is exceptional throughout, with the four main boys
almost perfectly presented. Some reviews harp on the idea that as the hero Thomas should
be standing up for what's right and defending the weak, like Superman or something.
Schlöndorff refuses to criticize the characters along those lines, making the movie
more powerful than most other boarding school allegories.
Viewers need to note that although there is no sexual activity in the movie, there is one
brief scene where the boys torment and kill a mouse.
Criterion's DVD of Young Törless is a fine enhanced transfer with strong audio.
B&W movies with gray-on-gray cinematography frequently look dull on video, but these images
have depth and impact.
The extras get right to the heart of the matter. In his interview Schlöndorff tells
us of his background, how the film was made and what its eventual impact was. Hans Werner
Henze's original score is also presented, introduced by the director. There's a stills
gallery and an original trailer as well. Timothy Corrigan provides a liner note essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Young Törless rates:
Supplements: Interview-docu with director, the original score, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson