Young Toerless Reviews
"Young Torless" is an amazing piece of art considering it was director Volker Schlondorff's first feature. He had served an apprenticeship culminating as an assistant director to French director Louis Malle ("My Dinner With Andre") who helped produce this film. "Young Torless" is an adaptation of Robert Musil's acclaimed 1906 novel, "The Confusions of Young Torless". Schlondorff had to compete with Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti for the rights of the novel. They were obtained for 20,000 marks in the fall of 1965. While the film is based on a novel written before the First World War it is one of the strongest stories about the rise of Nazism in Germany ever created. No one would have guessed "Young Torless" would launch the New German Film movement.
"Young Torless" explores the roots of fascism in German culture. Schlondorff expertly constructs the argument that, "fascism was a national INSTINCT predating the Third Reich" and the rise of Nazi Germany. He uses a Prussian military boarding school as the backdrop to support his view. Thomas Torless has just arrived and hits it off with two upperclassmen Beineberg (Bernd Tischer) and Reiting (Frank Dietz). They need a new member of their inner circle and Thomas has the same breeding and social class. Beineberg is charismatic, intelligent, and confident, but carries a nasty streak of sadism in him. Reiting is his cute sidekick who seems to enjoy some type of strange same sex games.
Beineberg and Reiting are astounding villains in the most brutal sense. In addition to Torless, however, the film hinges on the performance of Marian Seidowsky in the role of Anselm von Basini. If you are a fan of classic film, you may see a very strong resemblance of Basini to Peter Lorre especially in the film "M". Basini is a bit of a braggart, a bit obnoxious and simply full of himself. He's the kind of person Torless more or less dismisses, recognizing him as a pretender and poseur.
The action begins in earnest when Basini steals money from Beineberg in order to pay off some of the many debts he has accumulated from fellow classmates. Reiting catches him and drags him to a secret room only he, Beineberg and now Torless know about. Torless is disgusted with Basini and wants to immediately turn him over to the headmaster for expulsion. However, Beineberg and Reiting see in Basini a situation they can take advantage of in interesting ways. The result is a game of torture and manipulation played in front of Torless. Reiting and Beineberg take control of Basini, who incidentally just happens to be Jewish. They threaten him with exposure as a thief. They take turns raping him. They whip him, taunt him, slap him, and spit on him. Their sadism is what makes the film sometimes difficult to watch but at the same time makes it all the better.
Torless does a great job at walking the fine line of villain and hero. While he appears to have an interest in Beineberg and Reiting, he also occasionally wants to help Basini, but not in a way that could define him wholly as a hero. The real beauty is how Torless dances along the moral divide. He writes notes in a journal describing the nature of his perceptions of humanity and the male nature. At this point even though Torless hasn't participated in Basini's degradation, his failure to report the abuse has made him complicit. Silence is truly compliance. Never have I felt a better understanding of how simple compliance makes one an actual accomplice!
Guilt is unquestionable.
Torless has never seen such brutality before, and he watches from a clinical distance, like a scientist observing a specimen on a slide. The irony of Torless's position is that he possesses a deeply ingrained moral sense which causes him to be shocked by the moral lapses of his fellow students. Yet even with this moralist nature, and his aversion to brutality, he sits by idly, watching, attempting to understand how formerly ordinary young boys have been transformed. On one hand, boys turned to inhuman torturers, and on the other, a dehumanized animal (Basini) sniveling before his tormentors. There is something chilly and distant in Torless. Something nasty, and in many ways he is a more frightening monster than either Reiting or Beineberg. They are simply cruel and unthinking, but Torless understands exactly what's going on and yet does nothing to stop it. Think of a young Josef Mengele in the making!
Schlondorff makes the choice to have Basini bear a certain amount of the responsibility for what is happening to him. Basini is self-deluded. He rationalizes his crimes as a necessary factor in saving face among his classmates. He gives in to the cruelty of his "masters" because he feels it's better to give in, and by doing so will eventually make the memory of his original transgression go away. Basini fears banishment more than his own personal safety, and will risk his physical well being to guarantee a feeling of belonging. For him, exile would be worse than a beating or any other form of degradation.
The director's casting increases the dark satire by having characters with classically beautiful features. Close-ups of the young-looking Basini and Torless are especially felt. Their boyish faces reflect an innocence that is only skin-deep. In one sequence, when Torless gives in to the pressure to join in the tormenting of Basini, his smooth, innocent face is bathed in a harsh, white light, making his ordinarily tranquil features seem sinister and distorted. He looks overexposed, as though radiating evil. His youthful face tells the story of this film, the story of how people, innocent as children of true evil and its nature, can allow horrifying things to be perpetrated.
When people think of the corrupt and the vile, a certain image comes into mind. There's the cruel and drooling pervert, the kind of slimy, psychotic stranger who stands near the corners of schoolyards, candy in one hand, a disturbingly twisted intention in the other. We see corruption coming in all shapes and sizes, even ones you'd never expect or hope to accept. It's only when events reach a fever pitch in the gym, and the entire class attacks Basini, that Torless acts. We see a horrific example of mob mentality. Everyone, even some younger boys, attack Basini, and when Torless tries to help, one of the boys lashes out that Torless is a homosexual. The security of the mob frees them to commit behavior that none of them would consider alone.
When Torless is brought before the headmaster and teachers of the school for failing to report Basini -- and indirectly -- Beineberg and Reiting, Torless has a kind of ethical breakdown, arguing in a circular, unconvincing manner that the world is neither good nor evil, but a combination of both. He suggests that once you accept this notion, all culpability is instantly erased! This is a brilliantly acted scene. Schlondorff doesn't let his hero off easily. During this final act, Torless is both dazzling and baffled, lost in a realm of his own rational deconstruction. Despite his strenuous and heartfelt reflections on why "normal people can do terrible things," he remains paralyzed as a kind of intellectual bystander, whose only assessment of the lesson learned from the violence and humiliation witnessed is that people must be "continually on guard." The investigation into the incidents leads the authority figures to believe that Torless is emotionally high strung and unfit to continue his studies at the school! We don't know if anything happened to Beineberg and Reiting. (Probably not.)
"Young Torless" is more of a cautionary tale than a serious character study or detailed drama, Schlondorff is convinced that we are destined to manufacture evil out of a stupid desire to stay locked in our own closed world. "Young Torless" wants to teach us to take a stand, any stand, against powers that would oppress.
IN CLOSING, when you look back upon the bullying you have witnessed -- or unfortunately, experienced -- how much of it was actually our own fault? Why have we simply stood by and watched a fellow human being suffer at the hands of a bully? Evil is not cleanly marked for our convenience. It lives amongst us, and sometimes, the closer you stand to it, the harder it is to see. From the bully to the bullied, no one is free from responsibility. To varying extents, everyone is guilty. At the moment we learn such lessons, we hopefully move toward a concrete set of personal ethics, giving us the strength and the substance to make a stand, no matter the consequence. It is then that we truly start growing up. Maybe that is the age we are supposed to be coming to not in actual years, but of enlightenment.
EXTRAS: Criterion provides fascinating extras to help explain "Young Torless". From its literary roots to its importance in the New German cinematic movement, the few featurettes here are exceptional. The main material comes from an interview with director Schlondorff, who walks us through his career and influences. Starting with his training in France, and detailing his friendship with fellow German director Werner Herzog. Schlondorff gives us a detailed account of his life and times leading up to "Torless"'s successful screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Along with a trailer, a gallery of production stills, and an essay on the film's significance and symbolism. It's rich with important details about "Young Torless" and its creator. Schlondorff is a wonderful and appealing interview subject. He is a man with no misgivings about what he has created, or what it stands for, and to hear him discuss the film as a whole, as well as specific significant scenes, would have been a real film lover's delight. It is understandable if the man himself declined an invitation to add his thoughts to the disc, but if Criterion failed to give him such a chance, they missed a truly golden opportunity to supplement their release with an important piece of cinematic history.
"Young Torless" receives my highest possible recommendation.
"Young Torless" is a thought-provoking and mildly disturbing movie. When the students walk away from the train station in their crisp uniforms in the opening sequence, I originally thought they were marching off to war. Actually, that is not such a bad metaphor for the activities at this particular boarding school as far as inhumanity goes. While it would be easy to assign the label of the biggest monster to either Reiting or Beineberg, it should be remembered that despite having grave doubts about the school, Torless does nothing to intercede. And Basini does not put up any kind of resistance, lending a sort of perversity to the sadomasochism of the whole ordeal.