Cast & Crew
After bidding farewell to his parents, Torless joins his friends at a fashionable boarding school on the eastern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he is to begin his senior year. With two classmates, Reiting and Beineberg, he visits Bozena, a waitress who provides sexual education for the boys at the school. The days at the academy progress normally until Basini, a self-destructive young boy, steals money from Beineberg's locker. Reiting learns of Basini's guilt but offers not to inform the authorities if Basini will serve as his personal slave. Reiting and Beineberg submit Basini to various forms of physical and psychological torture, while Torless silently observes, fascinated by the semblance of pleasure Basini experiences during his ordeal. Eventually his friends' sadistic excesses spur Torless to action, but Reiting and Beineberg threaten to blame him if he reports them. When Basini is hung by his heels in the gymnasium in front of the entire class, Torless runs away in horror. The incident is investigated by the schoolboard, and Torless admits to his participation in the torture of Basini, but he is unable to rationalize his complicity. The headmaster decides that the sensitive youth requires more careful attention than the school can provide, and Torless agrees to leave the academy.
Upon its release, numerous parallels were drawn by almost every critic and filmgoer to the Nazi rise to power in Germany with many citizens passively allowing the brutality to escalate around them. However, the film is actually a faithful adaptation of the 1906 novel The Confusions of Young Törless by Austrian writer Robert Musil, who is best known for his epic, unfinished three-book volume, The Man without Qualities. The universality of its story becomes quite chilling in this context as it can also be seen to apply to many other atrocities throughout history both past and present.
In his essay about the film for Janus Films, Timothy Corrigan draws a comparison between this film and some of the other boarding school dramas in film, a setting essentially abandoned in films today: "Like other films with similar boarding-school plots, such as Jean Vigo's Zéro de Conduite (1933) and Lindsay Anderson's if.... (1968), Young Törless investigates the social rituals that shape and repress adolescents in a rite-of-passage drama. But unlike those other two films, there is no rebellion against the institution in this German drama but instead a frighteningly stoic withdrawal." This approach proved to be quite well received in Germany where the film won three German Film Awards in 1966, with Schlöndorff also netting the FIPRESCI Prize that same year at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was only the second German feature to play in competition).
Cast in the crucial role of Törless was the young German-born actor Mathieu Carrière, whose fluency in both German and French led to a very productive acting career. This was only his second film, and his performance proved impressive enough to keep him in demand for decades with major roles in Malpertuis (1971), Eric Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife (1981), Alain Corneau's Police Python 357 (1976), and a pair of Roger Vadim films, Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman) (1973) and Charlotte (1974). In the supporting cast, perhaps the most surprising name is the actress playing Bozena: Barbara Steele, the English-born star of several pivotal Italian gothic horror films like Black Sunday (1960) and Castle of Blood (1964), who also appeared in 8 ½ (1963) and Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978) among many others.
The 1966 opening of the film in Paris was a significant cinematic sensation with The New York Times offering a transatlantic review calling it "the best film to have arrived from any quarter in a long while... To the thoughtful spectator it offers much, recreating a vanished civilization and its codes and presenting a fascinating dramatic conflict. It is beautifully acted and its direction, intelligent and firm, extracts from a difficult subject an inkling of tragic destiny."
However, it wasn't until August of 1968 that American audiences were really afforded a chance to see it in theaters when Kanawha Films Ltd. released it, sometimes under the title You Are a Man, My Boy for territories where the title might be difficult to pronounce. Oddly enough, their sensationalist ads relied on a Time quote calling the film "an orgy of cruelty... Perfect and perfectly chilling," promising a somewhat different experience than what the film itself actually delivers. More apropos was this assessment from Variety: "This is both artistically and technically a well-made film and certainly a very impressive directorial debut... Film also shows how physical superiority and respective arrogance can lead to sadism and brutality." Sadly, that demonstration remains all too relevant today.
By Nathaniel Thompson
Young Torless - Volker Schlondorff's 1966 debut film
Der junge Törless is a thought-provoking examination of school 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 easily 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.
Synopsis: 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). But then a foolish classmate named Basini (Marian Seidowsky) is caught stealing to even a debt with Thomas' unforgiving friends, who begin a campaign of harassment and terror against him. The indignities and humiliations increase, with Basini hoping for eventual forgiveness and acceptance. But his sadistic peers interpret their victim's lack of pride as an excuse to see how much more misery he will tolerate. Thomas passively stands by while his friends take to sexually abusing Basini as well. When the situation gets out of control, Thomas finds that both the students and the schoolmasters consider him the outsider.
An excellent look at an almost universal situation - school bullying - Der junge Törless refuses to frame itself in preconceived moral patterns. The schoolboys naturally seek out the different and weak, and find their perfect patsy in the weak Basini. He foolishly thinks he can hide his little crimes, and his perversely predatory classmates make his life hell.
The social equation in Törless mirrors real life. When someone weak and sensitive doesn't fight back, his dishonorable behavior is used to justify more abuse. The victim is "asking for it." 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 are 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 Thomas' sadistic friends is willing to explain how his view of the world 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 adult world.
Thomas Törless remains a detached observer. His ability to stay coolly interested in a process that personally disgusts him is disturbing but easily pegged as familiar human behavior - how many of us take a wait-and-see attitude to situations we know to be wrong? When the final formal investigation comes, the other boys front a consistent defense of lies and feigned innocence. Thomas instead tells his 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, so long as it stops and things return to normal." In other words, the main lesson taught is that right and wrong don't matter 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 nobly defending the weak. Schlöndorff refuses to give the viewer that kind of ethical crutch, making the movie stand out among 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 how the film was made and what its eventual impact was, as well as explaining the genesis of the New German Cinema Movement. 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 perceptive liner note essay.
For more information about Young Torless, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Young Torless, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Young Torless - Volker Schlondorff's 1966 debut film
Opened in Berlin in June 1966 as Der junge Törless; running time: 87 min; in Paris in June 1966 as Les désarrois de l'élève Törless; running time: 85 min.
Winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States September 1966
Released in United States September 24, 1967
Released in United States November 1967
Shown at San Sebastian Festival September 1966.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 24, 1967.
Shown at London Film Festival November 1967.
Volker Schlondorff's debut feature.
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States September 24, 1967 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 24, 1967.)
Released in United States November 1967 (Shown at London Film Festival November 1967.)
Released in United States September 1966 (Shown at San Sebastian Festival September 1966.)