The appearance of Young Törless in 1966 signaled not only the debut of Volker Schlöndorff as a major international filmmaker but also the beginnings of what would become known as the New German Cinema, one of the most important film movements of the twentieth century. Through the early 1960s, Schlöndorff had apprenticed in France (where he’d been educated as a teenager) with several of the major figures in the French New Wave, including Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Pierre Melville. This connection would be a crucial springboard for Schlöndorff’s career, since it provided him with an early training in the stylistics and politics of an alternative cinema, while at the same time making him aware of his own country’s lack of an active national cinema. Appropriately, the first of the numerous international awards for Young Törless—Nantes’ Max Ophüls Prize—came from the country where he got his start.
Surrounding and suffusing Young Törless is an oblique but profound dialogue between modern Germany and its twentieth-century heritage. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany boasted one of the most dynamic and influential cinemas in the world, located most famously in the power and presence of Ufa Studios, which provided the creative space for directors such as Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. The massive loss and trauma that Nazi Germany bequeathed the nation after World War II, however, resulted, in the 1950s, largely in a cinema of “rubble films” (topical postwar works set in a destroyed Germany), heimatfilm (escapist tales of love and family set in the countryside), and Hollywood imports. On February 28, 1962, at the Eighth West German Short Film Festival, a group of twenty-six filmmakers and critics publicly acknowledged these historical ruins and the absence of a cultural home for a modern German cinema when they presented the Oberhausen Manifesto, a document often credited with announcing the start of the New German Cinema, crystallized in its powerfully rhetorical admission and demand: “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new.” Several years later, Young Törless would become, for many, one of the first and most convincing responses to this famous call to arms, as it paved the way for a multitude of other films that, in very different manners, would investigate the terms of the present by uncovering the losses, repressions, and denials of the German past. While the realistic style of Young Törless appears more traditional than the more radical experiments of other New German filmmakers who followed (such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog), Young Törless stands out as a remarkably subtle and chilling depiction of a psychological and social history that modern Germany, until then, had often sought to deny.
Based on Robert Musil’s 1906 novel The Confusions of Young Törless, Schlöndorff’s debut film was also the first of his literary adaptations—which would become his hallmark, including Coup de Grâce (1976), from Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel; his celebrated film of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum in 1979; the Proust adaptation Swann in Love (1983); and a U.S. production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1985). A longtime admirer of Musil’s work, Schlöndorff negotiated for a considerable period to obtain the rights for the novel, which were controlled by Otto Rosenthal and sought also by Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. Schlöndorff ultimately succeeded, and his producer, Franz Seitz, purchased the rights for 20,000 marks in the fall of 1965. Yet Schlöndorff and co-scriptwriter Herbert Asmodi needed to work carefully and creatively to translate Musil’s complex stream-of-consciousness narrative into a more direct and commercially viable film, an approach that would allow Young Törless to reach large audiences both in Germany and abroad. Focused on clearly embodied characters and strong performances (most notably that of Mathieu Carrière as Törless), Young Törless develops a conventional, straightforward narrative and realistic cinematographic style. What is most remarkable about its achievement, however, is that within these traditional terms, the film creates a highly complex ethical and historical meditation, whose implications extend well beyond Musil’s original story.
As with Schlöndorff’s other adaptations, Young Törless is not, then, simply a respectful recreation of a great literary work; rather, it uses the novel as a refractive lens through which to examine contemporary German history and, more exactly, the violence and psychological strain that have linked public and private life in modern Germany. Set in the gray and dreary countryside of Neudorf, Young Törless explores the fabric of society through the microcosm of an Austro-Hungarian boarding school for young men, concentrating on the psychological and moral trials of young Thomas Törless as he anxiously moves between the worlds of childhood and adulthood in his new school environment, emotional and psychological worlds distinguished most prominently by his relationships with his loving but aloof mother on the one hand and the brash and seductive local prostitute Bozena on the other. At the heart of this drama, Törless becomes an “observer” of good and evil, watching his schoolmates Beineberg and Reiting take control of and abuse Basini, another mate who is not coincidentally of Jewish origin. Visually, Young Törless describes a gray twilight zone where ethics and subjectivity struggle, and Törless wanders tensely between the open and empty landscapes that surround the school and the tightly framed interiors that demand definitions and answers. In the end, 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 he has witnessed is that people must be “continually on guard.”
Although critics of the film sometimes misread Törless’s passive and intellectual response to brutality as the message of the film, there is too much dark historical irony in this drama to be denied. Seen from Schlöndorff’s perspective in postwar Germany, this prewar tale of the Austrian upper class becomes a chilling anticipation of a culture stifled by authoritarian regimes and attitudes and secreted in the violent obsessions and weaknesses of individuals supporting those regimes. Like other films with similar boarding-school plots, such as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and Lindsay Anderson’s if.... (1968), Young Törless investigates the social rituals that shape and repress adolescents in a rite-of-passage drama. But unlike those other two films, there is no rebellion against the institution in this German drama but instead a frighteningly stoic withdrawal.
Following the critical success of Young Törless in 1966, and with Schlöndorff as a major creative and business force, German cinema would grow over the next two decades through three stages, from short films to feature-length films with wide international appeal and success: the Young German Cinema (describing films like Young Törless that clearly announced the first wave of this latest new wave), New German Cinema (the diverse and expanding body of films made after 1971), and New German Film (referring to those films that attained international acclaim in the 1970s and early 1980s). The same year as Young Törless appeared, one of the signers of the Oberhausen Manifesto and leaders of this new cinema, Alexander Kluge, released Yesterday Girl, a film that, with a more confrontational style than Young Törless, would also argue that there is no escape from Germany’s past and that its twentieth-century history is more about continuities than discontinuities. From Young Törless through Fassbinder’s 1979 The Marriage of Maria Braun and Helma Sanders-Brahms’s 1980 Germany Pale Mother, this motif would define a diverse group of films and filmmakers who would profoundly influence world cinema, in a way that no national cinema has done since the equally symbolic end of the New German Cinema with the death of Fassbinder in 1982. As a key film in the opening act of this movement, Young Törless would announce a remarkably vibrant future for contemporary German cinema through its unnerving look at a darkened past.
Timothy Corrigan is a professor of English and cinema studies and the director of cinema studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include The Film Experience, A Cinema Without Walls, Writing About Film, New German Film: The Displaced Image, and The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History.