Friday, February 15, 2008


Volker Schlöndorff's Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966)

It should have been a mere co-incidence that I read Schlink and watched Young TÖrless in just nearly a week’s gap. But this has made more sense than any other recent co-incidences to me, in that the second incident has cast an entire new light on the first and I need to re-consider The Reader now. The essence in Young TÖrless is still stymieing a clear path of thought. Perhaps, it would never consolidate in words, for I think the cinema meant more than just an explainable and satisfactory logic. TÖrless’s eventual acknowledgement and acceptance of the principle of torture, hideousness and shame, in one sense, does relate the film to a rational conclusion. But his passage to this conclusion puzzles me in more ways than one.
The precocious TÖrless observes:
the need to discipline;
the forces that discipline;
the to-be-disciplined;
diabolic leaps of minds;
losing the good in the bad;
Realization of the blurred divides between both,
And finally comes to a stoic acknowledgement of it.
The stark black and white frames put the boys together, in the beginning of the film, on an effete field. They move to a pub, where Basini loses his money in gambling. In a follow-up Reiting insists Basini on returning his money, and in desperation Basini steals from Beineberg’s closet. Next morning, however, it does not take much time for Reiting to put two and two together, and Basini is exposed. Or is he? At many a point in the film, Reiting and Beineberg use 'exposing' Basini to the general crowd as their token to torture him. The moment of exposure culminates the tension in the film, and the damage has been done: the few silver lines that separated humility and humiliation break away. The claustrophobic nature of the military school, and the atmosphere laden with sadistic and homo-erotic tension pulls the cork out for TÖrless. Though he considers himself untrained to adequately express the lesson he has learnt, he understands that he has learnt it. The imaginary numbers that the mathematics professor has been talking about would help in making a real firm and usable bridge, as how the imaginary in the thoughts of the human – the layer that slides betwixt Reason and Psychic urges – the Imaginary where each carry his own values, perennially attempt a coming to terms or compromise with either reason or psychic urges. And in understanding this as “perfectly normal”, there is the lesson that TÖrless grasped.

The Military as a system of pure-logic (of sadism) and the Erotic (closet homosexuality and masochism) installs itself triumphantly inside the structures of the State. In bringing together Reiting, Beinberg and TÖrless under this roof, the clearer symbolism of Bestiality, Fascism and Existential Stoicism apart, Robert Musil and Volker Schlondorff were also giving light to the standing prospects of humans as social/rational animals. Disciplining the criminal is a given; the means to discipline but, turns to be, nothing less than sequestering each of the victim’s (it’s almost naturally that the shift from criminal to victim happens) ‘properties of the self’: his sense of being one with the community (Basini is desperately trying to be so all through the film); his will to action (this is insisted ad nauseum by the perpetrators), his sexuality, and in a wicked twist later in the film, his soul (the hypnotizing scene). All communications of the victim is cut off: internal and external. In being alone, and in being under ‘surveillance’ he should find pleasure by serving the ‘considerate’ punishers.

The court of law is played out in a miniature in the film. The power to punish becomes the monopoly of Beinberg and Reiting as how order is the monopoly of the modern governing machine (and not the people). what separates Basini from the three (TÖrless shall not be considered otherwise) is the latters' access to violence. That’s perhaps the reason why even when he does nothing materially harmful on Basini's persona, TÖrless feels himself more righteous than him (in the beginning. Later the decisions take on a dramatically different mode of reasoning). In the company of the three boys, TÖrless learns a peculiar morale. As I have said earlier this principle is passed over as a feeling and not a concrete or even tenable argument. And when he gives an honest (garbled, nevertheless) attempt at saying this, he is deemed to be mentally unstable and is sent back home. He would not help Basini escape the torture. He would not support the punishers either. He leaves them to their fates. Running away from the school he wanders off, eats at wayside inns, meets up with Bozena one last time (outside her apartment), and tells her that he is done with the school. Meanwhile Reiting and Beinberg record their statements and are vindicated beyond a shadow of doubt, off their behavior. Not that TÖrless cares anymore (as is clear from his statement at the office).
The last scene has TÖrless leaving the Gasthaus with his mother in a horse carriage. He looks out of the carriage as they pull around Bozena’s apartment. In a dash of recollection, we see Bozena under the hanging bright bulb demanding a kiss from TÖrless, having said both he and Beinberg were no bigger than her little kid in the cradle. Frame darkens with the leafless trees at the railway station in sight.

I should have been with Rafael now.


For a plot-driven analysis of TÖrless, that would help get the point i was tryin to make:


Zeinab said...

Couldn't resist commenting.
"Musil and Schlöndorff" makes it sound like the two actually made the film together. No. That's definitely the wrong idea. The novel was written in one context, the film made in another, and there is actually no connection between these two and how we actually receive it today. Remember Satre's idea: the writer...once he has written, has no control over his words.
I also think the entire soliloquy at the end of the film is just a farcical attempt by Törless at his first public speech; he is never a part of the school, he always considers himself either above or below the crowd. He also knows that he can always go back to his home. He has this luxury, so what he indulges in is a bit of forced "communal living".
Musil has actually expressed a remarkably insightful thought about how reality can be thought out, or thoughts lived out in reality.

ARUN said...

i can see that there was a little bit of assurance about familial security in Torless's behaviour. but would like to think that the soliloquy had something to do with the final turns that expose quite a few shades of life he has not accessed before. his tone rings of a public speech where the speaker takes pride in the fact that he is "speaking": in that sense, yes, it is a farce he pulls off.

Zeinab said...

I read your Törless article again, I wanted to read something which made sense. Thankfully, this still does. You have covered quite a bit of ground here, and you have also (thankfully) pursued most of the threads. (Lately you seem to have developed the habit—might be due to a lack of time—of leaving things dangling in the air.) You have missed a simple point, which is that when a sly one or a strong one (either of these can completely dominate a bunch of teenage boys in any school at any age anywhere in the world)—here there is a potent combination—Beineberg and Reiting respectively—appear, the others are easily bent into submission. The strong one is needed for intimidation, and intimidating a few will do nicely. The cunning is what does the trick, and Beineberg has it in plenty. What follows in any school would be little different from a Fascist pigpen. Schlöndorff's genius is in effortlessly siting this common-enough turn of events at a post-WWI Austrian boarding school.

Best wishes,