Robert Musil's "Confusions of Young Törless" was published in 1906, the twilight of 19th century certainties (Freud published "Studies in Hysteria" in 1895, "Interpretation of Dreams" in 1900; Franz Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" was published in 1890, first produced in 1906, and banned in 1908; Einstein's General Theory was less than a decade away), in Austria-Hungary, a semi-faux empire taking too long to rot away. The greatness of Musil's work lies in its distillation of the zeitgeist into a relatively simple narrative about an incident of abuse in a boys' academy. Once on paper, the novel (at times a meditation) transcends time and place, and makes a statement about adults and children dealing with passion, knowledge, order and justice, while trying to grasp within themselves that which in themselves they can neither control nor fully understand (ergo the metaphoric use of discussions about imaginary numbers) finally resorting to rationalization, dogma and discipline. Törless, his companions, his teachers and the school chaplain struggle in darkness, deluding themselves as having been truly enlightened in some fashion by experience, whereas each in their own way, seeks only to quiet internal turmoil and restore comprehensible order. Whatever else, the work is extremely ironic, nowhere more than in its title, as "Confusions" are not limited to Young Törless but to the whole world around him. Musil was 26 when it was published.
Schlendorf's film captures all of this. With one important caveat, it is an extremely faithful rendering of the novel and its spirit. The austere black and white photography, the faithfully sparse setting, the economical dialogue, strip the film to bare essentials: nothing distracts from its core. It is excellently acted. The caveat is sex. Sex is a pervasive and disruptive force throughout Musil's novel. At one point, Törless is sexually aroused when witnessing abuse. Beineberg, Reiting and Törless individually, albeit differently, use Basini sexually. Basini uses his sexuality to press his case with Törless; Törless rationalizes his own acquiescence. All four use the town whore. Part of Törless "confusions" is his intellectualization of his own sexual turbulence: does he act this or that way because what he thinks, or do his feelings shape his thoughts which then rationalize his actions? It is not a question of sexual identity as one would face in early 21st century, but an awareness of the disruptive power of passion within him. Schlendorff does not betray Musil, but, other than with the whore, sexuality is handled through cursory dialogue and inference, less centrally and pervasively than in the novel. The film was made in 1966; perhaps today it would be made differently, the challenge remaining to make it at least as well. Another, if unintended, irony about a work published sixty years before the masterful film was made.
The thoroughly anachronistic score by Hans Werner Henze reinforces the universal and timeless predicament the film depicts. Neither I nor, I think, Schlendorff see a premonition of Nazism in Musil's novel; such inference obscures meaning, deflects relevance and diminishes the work. What was true and relevant in the 1906 text remains true and relevant today. "Confusion" can still be apt description for humankind: arguably, the delusions, contradictions, and self-righteousness in contemporary America provide a good example. In the end, there is a touch of smugness to the irony with which Young Törless concludes, a detachment in both Musil and Schlendorff, which translates as apprehensive harbinger of our expanding awareness of ourselves, of what we can do, and of the absurdly infinite capacity and recondite ways we find to grant ourselves absolution. "Yes we can..." a frightening thought indeed.
The Criterion CD, again, as in all their editions, is pristine; truly a product of high quality.