Volker Schlöndorff's debut examines the origins of fascism by focusing on the sadistic and homo-erotic bullying in a boys military academy. Christopher Dietrich looks back at this charged classic.
Volker Schlöndorff, who went on to direct the famous Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979), made his debut with an indictment of the military system and its dehumanization, Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966). The film, faithfully adapted from Robert Musil's 1906 novel, a study of sadism and masochism among students at an Austro-Hungarian boy's academy, is a parable of fascism and its origins, evoking the Stimmung (atmosphere) and claustrophobic horror of the military system itself.
A school for sadists
The film opens on a bleak, rural plain at a railway station in Neudorf in the early 1900s as eight adolescent students arrive to attend military academy there. One of them, Törless, soon starts to notice the callous cruelty of both his peers and his instructors but says nothing about it. One student, Basini, falls into debt to another, Reiting, who devises a devilish repayment system that requires the debtor's total obedience while the money is outstanding. Basini resists at first, and steals money to release himself. His crime is suspected, though, and humiliated he acquiesces to Reiting's system, virtually becoming his slave.
Meanwhile, Törless and another student, Beineberg, become fascinated by a local prostitute and go to meet her. Törless, innocent, homesick and quite possibly gay, watches bemusedly as Beineberg caresses her. When they return to the academy Reiting identifies Basini as a thief and the three discuss the punishment to be inflicted on the hapless student. The following day Reiting whips Basini's hands and sprays him with boiling water, before the pair slip away to look at pornographic postcards. They are spied leaving the attic, and Beineberg decides to use the threat of expulsion to manipulate and torture Basini. As the tension is ratcheted up, Törless starts to fear that he himself may be the next victim of the bullies.
Törless is fascinated and appalled by Basini's inability to defend himself, and when the former invites the bullied boy to a meeting in the attic, Basini assumes it is to have another abusive punishment administered and without prompting starts to remove his shirt. In the conversation that follows, it is heavily implied that Reiting sexually abuses Basini.
Basini later begs Törless to defend him, but Törless refuses. Things come to a head when Basini nearly meets death when lynched by a mob of students. Törless, no longer interested in torture, decides he should leave the academy, whose instructors and administrators consequently think he is unstable.
A landmark debut
Writers Asmodi and Schlöndorff illustrate early on in the screenplay the inevitable conflict between the poles of naked, brutal sadism and the dilemma of standing by and remaining silent while cruelty is given free reign. Each multifaceted character is imbued with passion for evildoing, hypocrisy, bravado, avarice, lust and all deadly sins. Every boy in the school is a potential Nazi work-in-progress. Their youthful handsomeness and arrogance accentuate their hidden agendas with each other and the masks they freely utilize to the outside world when the circumstances warrant. On another interesting note, this was Robert Musil's first novel. The scenarists have done his work total justice.
Matthieu Carrière gives an unblemished and heartfelt performance here, his second screen portrayal. As an innocent caught behind the barbed wire walls of his very soul he accepts responsibility for his lack of action against the evildoing around him and learns to question authority almost too late. Previously, he made his debut in Rolf Thiele's
Tonio Kröger (1964) portraying the title character as an adolescent.
The actor was born in 1950 in Hannover and enjoys a film career to this very day. His body of work consists of over 100 films made in Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Holland, Spain and Hungary. His appearance in Vrata raja (The Gates of Paradise, 1967) for Andrzej Waida in Poland was the film in which he lost his virginity, and the great Polish director fell completely in love with him. He also appeared in such features as Harry Kümel's Malpertuis: Histoire d'une maison maudite (Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House, 1971) and Edward Dmytryk's Bluebeard (1972). More recently, he appeared in Mirjam Unger's Ternitz, Tennessee (2000) in the role of a plastic surgeon.
Alfred Dietz portrays Reiting, the bully and closet homosexual, with lethal gusto, and Bernd Tischer, as Beineberg, is a most handsome, matter-of-fact Hitlerian sadist. The two would never again appear in films. Marian Seidowsky gives an inspired performance as the flawed, lying, conniving, masochistic Basini who is in over his head with the mean-spirited vultures surrounding him. His character fraught with pathetic need to appear important to his comrades, he nearly steals the film. Seidowsky appeared in three other films after this; two of them projects by Rainer Maria Fassbinder, Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague, 1970) and Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1972). His final feature film was Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass (The Morals of Ruth Halbfass, 1972), also by Schlöndorff.
The ever-radiant Barbara Steele portrays Bozena, the former Viennese prostitute who awakens the nascent sexuality of the academy students. Her appearance is brief (her single lengthy scene with Carrière and Tischer runs a mere six minutes). Doubtlessly it is one of her best performances (alongside those in Fellini's Otto e mezzo / 8 1/2 and Mario Bava's La Maschera del demonio / Black Sunday), and in an interview with this writer conducted back in the 1970s she insisted Der Junge Törless was her finest achievement. Though her actual screen time is very slight, her humanity and vulnerability are given free reign.
The spartan musical score by Hans Werner Henze accentuates the dreariness of the bleak country surroundings and sadness of village life completely bereft of any gaity and charm. The stark black and white cinematography of Franz Rath attests to all the aforementioned attributes, the monolithic coldness of life itself and the lack of concern and compassion of the characters themselves.
In the US, the film is available on video in German with English subtitles and the format is letterbox. The optical and audio quality is flawless. The tape, from Home Vision Cinema in conjunction with Janus Films, even includes a (non-subtitled) German trailer from the film.
Der Junge Törless is a passionate debut for one of the world's great filmmakers and a brilliant psychological tale of man's inhumanity to man, an advocacy for pacifism illustrating the need for courage in the face of overwhelming odds. A triumph of cinematic art, this poetic opus stands as an indictment of mankind itself.
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