Based on the book by Robert Musil, Volker Schlondorff's Young Torless is a fantastic directorial debut from one of German Cinema's finest post war filmmakers.
Set at an all boys boarding school in Austria before the start of the first world war, the film follows a trio of students who begin to sadistically torture a classmate named Basini (Marian Seidowsky from Fassbinder's Gods Of The Plague) when he's caught stealing money to pay back a small gambling debt. Rather than hand Basini over to the headmasters of the school and let him be dealt with accordingly, they decide to prolong his punishment by degrading and abusing him in a secluded room hidden away in the school.
The longer this goes on, the worse the punishments get, and the youngest member of the three boys, Torless (Mathieu Carriere of The Man With The Transplanted Brain!), begins to withdraw a little bit, coming to the realization that what he's participating in is quite wrong. When the two older boys find Torless' diary in which is calls into question what the three of them have been doing, they ostracize him, but eventually something will have to be done about all of this. When Torless eventually decides to take action and stop what is happening towards the end of the film, we're pretty much smacked over the head with a serious case of irony and a bleak ending that speaks volumes about the director's stance on the military school system in Germany and its effects on the students that go through it.
Torless sees through a lot of this, as evidenced by the way that he questions his mathematics teacher about the concepts of imaginary numbers that the teacher is trying to educate him in. Torless realizes that the very concept doesn't make sense from a purely logical stand point, and when he calls this out, he's told to just accept it because explaining it would be too complicated.
A rather bleak film, Young Torless benefits from some very beautiful cinematography that captures in glorious black and white some of nice scenery around the area and the old fashioned architecture of the buildings that the boys and the locals inhabit. The look of the film is very interesting, as it makes nice use of shadow and light, but never looks as dark as, say, your average crime noir or an old Universal horror film. The contrasts in the blacks and whites used throughout the film give it a very organic texture that adds a pleasant sense of realism to the very unpleasant proceedings portrayed in the story. All of the scenes that take place in the barracks feel very claustrophobic and confined, and I'm certain that this is on purpose, to make you relate to what the students are going through as they're fed through the system like cattle. The school system in the film, on the surface at least, discourages the type of behavior that the bullies are applying to their prey, but at the same time it teaches them to act that way through various educational methods – again, it's one of many ways that contrast is used in the film to propel the narrative.
Considering that I usually have a problem with child or teenage actors in film, it's with the utmost sincerity that I state that the performances in this film, which come primarily from a younger cast, are all very good. Gothic horror starlet Barbara Steele gives an excellent performance as a local prostitute who points out the hypocrisy of the students as well as that of their parents, who ignore her in social circles but come to her door when they want something that she can offer them. Despite the fact that her dialogue looks to be dubbed (she's not German), her eyes and facial expressions perfectly capture the character and her scene is one of the more poignant ones in the movie. Mathieu Carriere is also fantastic in the lead as the titular Torless, doing a great job portraying a boy who's semi-coerced into going along with what the bullies are doing to Basini, even if he doesn't agree with it for the most part.
The packaging states that the anamorphic widescreen transfer is 1.75.1 but it looks like it's somewhere between that and 1.66.1. Either way, the transfer looks quite nice. There's some print damage in the form of specks here and there as well as a few vertical scratches noticeable in a couple of scenes but overall, the image is solid and clean. There's some grain, as there should be, but it's a natural looking and fine coat that isn't overwhelming at all. Contrast levels are dead on with the black and white photography looking quite striking and quite bold. There are no problems whatsoever with mpeg compression and edge enhancement is a rare occurrence during playback, noticeable only on background items like rooftops and the ridges inside the window shutters. As far as the aspect ratio is concerned, the 'director approved' sticker on the front of the packaging and the fact that none of the compositions seemed to me to be too compromised would confirm that if this isn't the original aspect ratio, it's at least a very nice and acceptable way to view the film.
The German language Dolby Digital Mono track comes with optional English subtitles. The audio on this release is just fine, without any problems in relation to hiss or distortion audible in the mix. As far as older Mono mixes go, this one sounds about as good as one can expect. There's obviously no channel separation but the dialogue is clean and easy to understand and the fantastic musical score composed for the film sounds lively enough to enhance the film but is never so powerful as to overshadow the dialogue.
Criterion has dug up some pretty interesting supplements to go along with the feature on this DVD. First up is a twenty minute interview with Volker Schlondorff entitled A German Movie in which the director discusses the making of the film as well as his background in German cinema. This is a pretty detailed segment and Schlondorff looks back on his early days with a lot of anecdotes and interesting facts about his life and his work.. This segment is spruced up a bit by using clips from Young Torless as well as a wealth or archival photographs of the director in his early days.
Criterion has also supplied an isolated soundtrack option with video interview from Schlondorff. This is a particularly nice feature and I think it's great when companies do this on their DVDs. Basically, the menu design allows you to pick whichever track off of the soundtrack you'd like to hear and play it without the dialogue of the film overtop. It's a nice feature, and Schlondorff's introduction proves to be rather interesting as well.
Rounding out the extra features on this DVD are a still gallery and a theatrical trailer for Young Torless. While it's a shame that there's no director's commentary on the disc considering that he was involved in it, Criterion has still supplied some interesting extra features for this release.
Great audio and video quality, interesting extra features, and a great feature attraction all chalk Young Torless up to another winner from the Criterion Collection. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.