Reviews and notes
Musil's novel about 'the fealty of blind obedience', set in an Austro-Hungarian military school where the anguished protagonist (Mathieu Carriere) witnesses the systematic abuse of a weak classmate, becomes, under Volker Schlondorff's classically restrained direction, a powerful allegory of German authoritarianism. "As young Torless arrives at school, a new senior pupil shepherded by a fond mamma, he looks a likely candidate for persecution. As it turns out, another boy - a Jew, as it happens - becomes the victim after being caught stealing; and Torless watches with clinical interest as the hapless boy is driven to despair by fiendish tortures and humiliations. Only an accidental encounter during the holidays makes Torless realise that this is, after all, happening to a human being; he duly brings it to the attention of the school authorities as a matter of moral obligation, but remains chiefly concerned with justifying his position as an intellectual observer. Beautifully acted, this bitter little anecdote is all the better in that Schlondorff, sticking to the disturbing rites and mercurial friendships of the boarding-school world, resists the temptation to dress up its prophetic intimations of Nazism."
Tom Milne, Time Out.
Volker Schlondorff's Young Torless
is set in a German boarding school in the early years of this century and concerns the bullying and sadism which develops when one of the students is accused of theft. The film is remarkable for two reasons, in that it is beautifully made and that the associations and implications within the film extend over a far broader field, certainly than the novel probably ever did, with the result that the film becomes quite frightening if one recollects what was to develop in Germany later in the century. Schlondorff's eye for detail and period is excellent. Nothing is over-stated, nothing is superflous whilst the performances he extracts from his actors are restrained and subtle. Here, one is shown a microcosm of German society, German attitudes developing amidst patterns of behaviour. It is chilling because the forces within a people are clinically illustrated and shown in embryo. One sees the events which occur, through the eyes of Torless - one of the senior pupils - Torless, who is always detached from his fellow students; detached in that his every instinct is that of a person above the pettinesses of human beings. His nearest points of contact become his class leaders, but he does not follow them, neither is he a part of them - he merely finds them the most amenable to his own state.
The strange stillness of the environment, the stagnant awareness of life patterns and ways of living proceeding endlessly, the slightly military surrounding of the school - all is ordered and yet all is weak. The headmaster is a cripple; a figure of authority but yet a crippled figure of authority. His shadow looming across the rows of beds in the dormitory becomes a weakness when viewed with his swinging body suspended upon its crutches. Within this environment, the students' suppressions, coupled with their instinctive desires for manhood, find releases in their visits to Bozena, tired and sad with her own life and failures and able, for brief moments, to find eager reciprocants for her offerings, which are small.
The sterility of the atmosphere with its struggling forces beneath, reminds one of Wedekind - though without the vindictive sense of attack - where the life-force becomes suppressed and so finds release only in destructive terms. Nothing is forward. The classes, which the students sit through, are tedious and boring; excitement and release for suppressed energy must be found elsewhere, but yet it must be within a code of honour - it must contain that which is in manhood.
The frustrations lead to petty jealousies, homosexuality, victimisation, degenerated feelings of power over one's fellow-being. Basini's theft becomes the perfect excuse for all these frustrations to be released. The reality for the boys becomes their sadism hidden by a shield of honour and justice. Schlondorff shows, coldly and clinically, these destructive forces at work, through Torless' eyes - at first passive; an onlooker - searching and curious for a logical explanation for the boys' behaviour he sees before him. It is no mere circumstance that Basini is Jewish, although this is never stated specifically enough for one to leap on the parallels of Naziism with such gusto that one will view the film in terms of an allegory, rather than an embryonic state. Schlondorff is not showing young Nazis in the making; he shows more - he shows the forces within certain states of existence which can lead or be led and fashioned into something else, of which the Nazi regime becomes but the most immediate instance.
The sadism is horrific, not through what is done, as much as the effects it produces. Basini is subjected to degredation, intimidation, torture, humiliation; he is reduced and reduced - a hideous experiment by the students to find out how far they can go. Their pleasure is in having power over him: but it must be real power. When Basini fakes being hynotised out of fear, he is beaten viciously. Torless' experiment is of another nature - his is to understand why Basini accepts all that is dealt out to him. When Basini begs Torless for help, Torless despises him and is threatened himself. He runs away from the school, but returns - he has found his answer: perhaps the most frightening one of all - that the nature of the world, the whole structure of society is a balance of those who are and those who are not (the difference between his mother and Bozena) that there are those who will attack and bully and those who will accept it - because it is the accepted order of things.
Torless is satisfied - this is frightening; for he too will live by this code, but in a different way from Beineberg and Reiting. If they are to become, a generation later, the Nazi bullies the movement is to be founded upon Torless and his accepted view - not that he can be superior to his fellow-man: but that he is! The calm and authority with which he explains his discovery to his tutors, following their intervention and enquiry into Basini's treatment, is beautifully presented. Torless, from a student summoned before the Board, ends up addressing them from a height of superiority - his own height. The weak are to be trodden upon because they are weak; it is the nature of things; it is the law of the jungle. The strong will prey upon the weak. To accept this is to accept defeat in every ideal that man has ever possessed. To submit to it is to plunge the human race backwards into a nightmare world of clinical, unemotional sadism.
One is left, at the close of the film, desperately crying out, 'No, it's not true! It must not be allowed to become true again, for next time it might be successful!' It is a film one must see again, even though one will not want to, if only because of its hardness in telling and conveying the Truth. The Truth is always a bitter pill to take, but it is one which must be taken, for until it is accepted real Love cannot become healing and constructive, but can only become a sedative to make one drowsy. If a sore is present within oneself or society (and there are enough) then Truth must make the incision before Love can heal the wound: then can Beauty become apparent and a reality - then one can turn round and say that the society in which one lives is beautiful, but until that time there will always be the strong to trample upon the weak and one human being will always torture another at the slightest opportunity.
We could do with more films like Young Torless
- more films to hit deeply enough at the Truth and clinically enough, so that one can put forward no defences against it, no false values, but merely accept it and then start thinking constructively from there in how to cure the cancer within oneself and one's society. Sadism and sadistic pleasures can always be cloaked over and always have been, just as Beineberg puts his hypnotic tortures under the illusion that they are theosophical and scientific experiments. He is not only fooling those around him, he is also fooling himself - and that is far more dangerous.
Schlondorff's incredible perception has hit deeper than the immediate surrounds of his film. He has exposed one of the perpetual sores of society and mankind. He does not offer the cure; he does not need to because the remedy is one which everybody knows and that every great religion and philosophy has been based upon since the beginning of certain men's realisation that there must be a greater solution to man's final evolvement other than fear of his fellow-man. I recommend this film, not just as a superb piece of film-making, but as an illustration of Truth, which is, after all, the prime concern of Art.
- Michael Armstrong, Films and Filming, July 1968.
Back to screening list