Where do the boundaries between inactive witness and active voyeurism, between gradual doubt and late insight, between bewilderment and fascination become blurred?
The inconspicuous and devote Basini has been caught stealing money from his dormmate’s closet in order to pay his dues. Beineberg and Reiting, the victim of theft and the creditor, demand a much higher repayment: his dignity.
Regardless the matter, from now on Basini will be their slave. Törless, a friend and follower of both dormmates also becomes a witness of the brutal and occasionally bloody fights, tortures, and humiliations that take place every evening in the attic of the boarding school. Without success he tries to convince Beineberg and Reiting to denounce their dormmate which would result in his exemption from the boarding school. However, from initial shock evolves a secret desire, and Törless therefore becomes a knowing accomplice of the sadistic actions. He now comes to recognize that there is only a fine line between power and powerlessness, between good and bad.
“All this is reminiscent of the Nazi regime, the practices of the takeover, Himmler’s speeches and the attitude of the enlightened bourgeoisie that only watched the primitive Nazis – until it was too late.” (Schlöndorff 2011,p. 160)
“Does good cooperation pushes towards hatred? Decent life asks for crudity? Peaceful coexistence demand inhumanity? Order long for being teared apart?” (Musil, quoted by Schlöndorff 2011, p. 161)
The film adaptation of the novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless), published in 1906 by Robert Musil, marks not only Volker Schlöndorff’s motion picture debut – but primarly, DER JUNGE TÖRLESS (Young Törless) initiated numerous other literary adaptations by the director. For the Austrian novelist Musil the novel Die Verwirrung des Zöglings Törless also marks the begin of his career as an author in which he (like Schlöndorff, 26 years old at the time of the filming) processes his youth spent in various military schools at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “Musil’s narration took place in a world that I was familiar with: boarding schools– and the observant, nobel and distant, not really engaged in life attitude of the young Törless complied very much with my own” writes Schlöndorff about the work for the processing of his own education in a Breton boarding school. (ibid., p. 129)
“It may well be that one creates better and more successful films later in life, but the urgency and ‘innocence’ of the first time never recurs. Everything that has accumulated in life until then wants to be released.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 151)
Preliminary work and shooting
“We don’t consider any movie offers”, was the response of Musil’s literary executor Prof. Otto Rosenthal from New York, to Schlöndorff’s requests for a film adaptation of Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless). Nevertheless he starts composing a screenplay for his first feature film while working as assistant director for Nouvelle Vague celebrities like Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Resnais. In 1963 this draft was initially rejected, after his father’s intervention, by the newly created Deutsche Filmförderung in Wiesbaden-Biebrich. Upon winning Franz Seitz over as his producer, Schlöndorff wrote a new draft, which would receive a funding of 200.000 DM right the next year. The liaison with Seitz was a surprising choice as he mainly stood for films which the signees of the Oberhausener Manifest would dissociated themselves from in 1962. Schlöndorff gets his mentor Louis Malle as co-producer on the team. Schlöndorff was able to enlist his boyhood friend Franz Rath, who started out early as camera assistant, to operate the camera. In addition, the filming is secured by lending guarantees for Germany and abroad until the shooting can finally take place in mid-November of 1965, after the legal release of rights from Rosenthal and the German publisher for Musil Rowohlt. Upon the suggestion of Werner Herzog Schlöndorff visits sites in Burgenland, the Austrian state near to the Hungarian border. For the torture scenes he chooses film locations like Schloss Eggenberg in Graz, a gymnasium of a secondary school in Munich and the attic of a Benedictine monastery in Schäftlarn. The film is completed in 42 days.
“To avoid expansive test recordings, there was no video recording back then, I had formed a new habit of test methods in Paris. For each actor I used up a whole film on my Leica while being in conversation with them or while they read a few lines of their part. The pictures on the contact film then showed if the face was expressive, if it could change, or if it mostly stayed the same and had the same expression.“ (ibid., p. 158)
He recognizes the expressiveness in Mathieu Carrière and engages him as Törless. “The fifteen year old Mathieu Carrière truly amazed us in his main role, finding always the right pitch, the right glances, the expression and the tempi, to the point that Franz Rath alleged that I was practicing with him at night.” (ibid., p. 162) Bernd Tischer and Alfred Dietz, as Beineberg and Reiting, were discovered in a club on Munich’s Leopoldstaße. The two recommend their class mate Marian Seidowsky, a real schlub, for the role of Basini. In contrast to Carrière, it was most difficult to work with him as the two teenagers developed a very strong rivalry, even behind the camera, which ends in skipping a scene, which, until today, is bitterly missed by the director: The love scene between Basini and Törless, where “both let their pubertal confusions run wild.” (ibid., p. 163)
Hans Werner Henze not only composed the music for DIE VERLORENE EHRE DER KATHARINA BLUM (1975) (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975) and EINE LIEBE VON SWANN (Swann in Love, 1983/84), but also for Schlöndorff’s debut film DER JUNGE TÖRLESS (Young Törless, 1965/66). Schlöndorff, who at the time of the filming was listening to composers such as Béla Bartók and Antonín Dvořák, desired a similar, melancholic music for Törless. The producer Franz Seitz finally recommended the opera composer Henze, who came up with an exceptional idea for the instrumentation.
In contrast to the mostly symphonic instrumentation of motion picture orchestras, Henze suggested unusual instruments of the medieval times, such as bass viols, hurdy-gurdies, wooden recorders and violas. These instruments were not yet capable of a vibrato or any other virtuosic effects: resulting in a quite simple, uncomplicated music. In Henze’s words, the reason for using such simple instruments was to reflect the “characters of the boarding pupils”, whose characteristic traits were still “incomplete” (http://www.volkerschloendorff.com/personen/hans-werner-henze/).
Structure and setup of the musical accompaniment
The unusual musical accompaniment in Törless is also visible in the structure of the composition. Henze achieved this through the composition of various short musical elements, which when merged result in a single piece: The last note of the first musical sequence connects with the first note of the second musical sequence. Henze later released this composition as a concert suite called “Fantasia for string sextet”.
Function and effect of the music
It can generally be said that the musical accompaniment is bound to the figure of Törless and does not represent the emotional world of Basini, the victim. This is done to avoid a too intense emotional involvement of the audience with Basini. Music is only heard after Törless has attented an offence by the group—just as Törless in the aftermath thinks about what had happen, the music as well represents a distant reflection of the action. The music is left out during the actual offences, stays mute, which corresponds Törless’ passivity.
Through the use of neither melancholic nor threatening tones, but quite cold tones, the sound characteristics reflect Törless’ distant, neutral attitude and his inability to obtain a position. The music, likewise to Törless, is constantly ‘observant’ and is neither used for the emotional guidance of the audience nor to illustrate the emotions of the protagonists. Moreover, due to the cold acoustic colour an emotional connection to the protagonists is difficult to obtain. The, for the current and former audience, foreign sound of the medieval times instruments increases the feeling of immerging in a different, not quite accessible world. The lack of any leading melody, which would allow to empathize with the different roles, but instead rather short, disharmonious sounding fragments results in the fact that the music is being as hard to follow as the feelings and the thoughts of the protagonists.
Overall it can be said, that the soundtrack of Törless is used intentionally to create a feeling of alienation, and not, as usually common, to illustrate the actions, feelings and motives of the protagonists and to get them across to the audience.
1966 is considered the year of the New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film). Besides Young Törless, another two films from young West German directors are released that rebuff the old fashioned ‘Daddy’s’ cinema (Papas Kino): Ulrich Schamoni’s ES (1965/66) and Alexander Kluge’s ABSCHIED VON GESTERN (Yesterday Girl, 1965/66). Schlöndorff’s first film, Young Törless, received various awards after the completion of the postproduction. It was not only rated “especially valuable” by the Wiesbadener Filmbewertungsstelle (Wiesbaden’s assessment center for films), but also received the Golden Gate Trophy from the International Film Festival in San Francisco, as well as three times the Filmband in Gold for Best Film, Best Direction and Best Script. Furthermore, the movie received the Max-Ophüls-Preis from the Internationale Filmfestspiele Nantes and the Kritikerpreis of the FIPRESCI-Jury in Cannes. “Surprise in Cannes:’Törless'” reads the feuilleton headline from the Wiesbadener Kurier, celebrating the director as their great local hero.
However, not all parties share the same unexceptional excitement for Schlöndorff’s debut. Fierce controversy was caused by the explicit showing of sadism and torture and its symbolic projection onto the policies of power of the Third Reich. On top of that, the fronts become intensified by cultural attaché Dr. Bernhard von Tieschowitz leaving out of protest the gala performance in Cannes during the torture scenes. “I thought it as my obligation, so to speak in the name of the present-day German people, to publicly profess our profound disgust at the reality shown in the film and thereby implicit at the infamous actions of the Nazi criminals”, explains the head of the German delegation in Cannes afterwards in a transcript of his oral coverage to the Federal Foreign Office and to Schlöndorff. Still way too present was the post Nazi fear in the war generation, which Schlöndorff escaped to France in the 1950s, and which now caught up with him on French soil.