Der Junge Törless
West Germany / France, 1966
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 30 March 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews: Coup de Grâce
Reviews: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
Thomas Törless is a mannered and intelligent student at an early 19th century military school otherwise populated by deviants. He succeeds, primarily, at only observing his schoolmates’ juvenile behavior. They ridicule him for being homesick, but for the most part go about their misbehaviors without giving Törless much interest.
The exposition of Young Törless resembles that of so many other films. We find Törless, an adolescent male, in a setting with experiences he’s never had before; Törless’ response to his peers’ constant rambunctiousness is identical to the fright that his first kiss instills (it is with Barbara Steele, no less). Despite the modest variation on this theme (transplanted in Austria in the early 1900s), this aspect of the film is familiar, but determines Törless’ involuntary affiliation with his peers’ behavior. In a sufficient transition, Törless’ usual passivity is violated when he comes upon some boys’ torture of a mouse—one is smoking a pipe, and dangles the helpless rodent over the exhaust. Törless grabs the mouse, and ends its suffering by pitching it against the ground.
The mouse, of course, is a symbol of the greater malfeasance that is to come. Namely, a young and impressionable boy named Basini becomes the brunt of the entire student body’s more exacting mistreatment because of a comparably minor theft. Basini is also, significantly, Jewish, as Volker Schlöndorff reveals in an interview on the Criterion disc. As Basini’s mistreatment escalates, so does Törless’ inability to intervene. After witnessing Basini’s most unjust punishment, put through by a mob comprised of every other student, Törless exits calmly, and walks about the adjacent countryside overnight. When he returns, he voices his thoughts on the nature of the incident to his schoolmasters, a gesture that pronounces the film’s thematic intentions.
Young Törless is based upon Robert Musil’s 1906 novel, written after the author’s tenure at a number of military schools. Additionally, the film is thoroughly influenced by Fritz Lang’s M—Marian Seidowsky, cast as Basini, was a young film buff, and modeled his performance after Peter Lorre’s in Lang’s film. Given this biography, the film is rendered as a rather transparent commentary upon Nazi rule. The correlation is secondary but distinct. The film ends with Törless returning home with his parents.
Considered one of the landmark films of the New German Cinema, Young Törless is at least a promise of the many jewels that were to emerge from the region in the following decade.