Young Torless (“Der junge Törless”)
At Boarding School
“Young Torless” takes us back in cinema time to 1966 when it was originally released and I do not know how it is that I missed this film until now.
At a boarding school in the pre-war Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pair of students torture one of their fellow classmates, Basini, who has been caught stealing money from one of the two. The two decide that rather than turn Basini in to the school authorities, they will punish him themselves and proceed to torture, degrade, and humiliate the boy, with ever-increasing sadistic delight. As each day passes, the two boys are able to justify harsher treatment. Torless is a passive member of the group who observes rather than participates and frustrates the tormentors by dryly analyzing their behavior.
The film opens 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 makes up a 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 he gives into 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 increases, Törless starts to fear that he himself may be the next victim of the bullies. He 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 however in the conversation that we hear afterwards, it is heavily implied that Reiting sexually abused 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 and his teachers and administrators consequently think he is unstable.
The film illustrates the inevitable conflict between the poles of naked, brutal sadism and the dilemma of standing by and remaining silent while cruelty takes place. 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 wear to the outside world when the circumstances warrant. Matthieu Carrière gives a fine performance as an innocent caught behind the barbed wire walls of his own soul and he accepts responsibility for his lack of action against the evildoing around him and learns to question authority when it is almost too late.
Volker Schlöndorff directed and adapted the film a novel by Robert Musil’s 1906 novel. It is a study of sadism and masochism among students and is a parable of fascism and its origins. That sadism makes the film sometimes difficult to watch at times but it is also what makes the film so entrancing.
It is a moody, disaffected piece filled with allegorical significance and social commentary. Most viewers will take away the discomforting symbolic parallels between the sadistic torments inflicted upon poor Basini by the two brutes who apparently dictate the dorm’s social hierarchy, and the similarity atrocities committed on an immeasurably larger scale by Hitler’s soldiers as the Nazis came to power. The savage physical cruelty goes unchecked in the boarding school that serves as a microcosm of the times.