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No Need for Words:
The Role of Music in Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß (Young Törless)

Since its release in 1966, Volker Schlöndorff’s film, Young Törless, has perplexed and confused its viewers. The film is an adaptation of Robert Musil’s 1906 novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Törless), and the comparison between the two seems especially problematic. The consensus among critics and scholars is that major themes of the novel have been lost in the translation from page to screen. In Elizabeth Hamilton’s study on Schlöndorff’s film, she writes: “As a comprehensive rendering of Musil’s novel, Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß is not successful” (83). Bruce Fleming, too, found the transformation of Musil’s novel to film “less than ideal – to the point where the advisability of the whole film may be called into question” (110). Fleming keenly observes that Musil’s novel exists predominantly in the realm of imagination, thus causing Schlöndorff, “who through his reliance on showing and articulating seems to betray the very world of the unseen and the unarticulatable with which Törleß is experimenting” (112). As a solution to this problem of representation, Fleming proposes shooting Törless as a silent film, or as a sound film with only music as background. Here, he acknowledges Schlöndorff’s clever use of music in the film and writes: “As luck would have it, Schlöndorff already has the means of suggesting more than we can see, in the form of Hans Werner Henze’s edgy half-harmonies which accompany the film and that succeed in filling some of the empty spaces” (113). Hildburg Herbst, an outlier among scholars who have grappled with this film, believes the adaptation was successful in that it “preserved the bold psychology of the 1906 novella” (215) by retaining the atmosphere of confusion in the translation from novel to film. In part of her defense of this statement1, she fleetingly references the film music stating that Schlöndorff “uses Hans Werner Henze’s disturbingly modern sound to underscore the message of his images” (216). What both Fleming and Herbst come very close to identifying is what I believe to be the key in rectifying the novel and film in the complicated process of adaptation. In this article, I argue that Hans Werner Henze’s film music creates a unique link between Schlöndorff’s film and Musil’s novel by giving voice to Törless’s confusions so clearly portrayed in the novel, but not plainly represented verbally or visually in the film. 

Intermediality and Film Adaptation: Theoretical Concerns

Studying the interactions between image and sound requires a focus on the intermediality of film. Intermediality characterizes the interaction of two or more distinct media when signifying a human artefact (The Musicalization of Fiction 37). Important for this study on Young Törless is recognizing that the interacting media must always be understood in relation to one another in order for the human artefact - in our case, narrative - to be properly understood. As narrative cinema is intrinsically intermedial, in that there is (almost) always an interaction between image and sound, a complete understanding of the narrative cannot be grasped if one ignores either medium, which seems to have been the case for many of the scholars grappling with Schlöndorff’s film2. A deeper look into such intermedial interactions will reveal a significant narrative layer that will help to make sense of the film and to alleviate some of the confusion and consternation regarding Schlöndorff’s adaptation. In Young Törless the intermedial interactions create a dimension of meaning expressed in the relationship of image and sound. More on how this happens will be explained later.

Literary adaptation adds another layer to the discussion of intermediality in film. The Metzler Literatur Lexikon characterizes an adaptation as a reworking of a literary text to fit the structural constraints of another medium and requires that the content of the original source be retained to some extent in the adaptation (3). To what extent an adaptation should (or should not) adhere to the original has been a source of debate and dissention among scholars and many questions arise from such concerns, for example: How should an adaptation retain the content of the original source? To what extent should an adaptation retain source content? What elements of a narrative are most important to retain in an adaptation? In order to tackle questions of this nature, it will be helpful to consider Walter Benjamin’s understanding of translation that he addresses in his essay, “The Task of the Translator.” This seminal work has had much significance for subsequent theoretical reflections of translation and will also be helpful for understanding Schlöndorff’s adaptation. In the essay, Benjamin makes a case for understanding translation as a complex process of interpretation and specifies the translator’s task as “finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original” (258). Thus, following Benjamin, every translation is linked to the original and simultaneously a new creation that reflects the parameters of the other language or context. Seen through this lens, the goal of adaptation can then be understood as identifying the particular message of a narrative suitable to be expressed in the adaptation and echoing that within the technical constraints of the new medium. This nuanced view of the adaptation process gives directors considerable creative flexibility and proves very fruitful for understanding Schlöndorff’s thematic and aesthetic decisions. Arguably, one of the most powerful tools of expression that a film possesses is the medium of music. Benjamin Nagari points out that “music can be made to dictate mood whose power and capacity are stronger than the narrative itself, thereby ‘adding’ emotional input that the visual way or path cannot provide on its own” (42). While Nagari considers music as an aesthetic tool, I will argue that it can also be considered a narrative and translational tool used to open up new dimensions of a film that may be more difficult to express in a visual or linguistic manner.

The idea that music can speak where words and image alone fail is one Theodor Adorno addresses in an essay on music and its relationship to language3: “expressionlessness finds it expression in music” (141). In this brief but important formulation, Adorno is addressing music’s inherent extra-linguistic quality and claiming that it is within this extra-linguistic medium that inexpressibility finds its expression. The notion that music has the ability to find expression for that which is inexpressible is especially relevant to a discussion of Young Törless, as the limits of linguistic expression is a theme that runs through both the novel and the film. In adapting Musil’s novel, Schlöndorff had to confront head-on the difficulties concerning the expression of the seemingly inexpressible, namely, the confusions of a young boy struggling with desire and sexuality and the tension between his inner thoughts and their translation to external behavior. This theme of inexpressibility is indirectly alluded to in the quote from Belgian playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, which serves as the epigraph to Musil’s novel:

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way. We think we have plunged into the depths of the abyss, and when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it comes. We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered (2).

This epigraph problematizes linguistic expression and the image of a fathomless sea functions as a metaphor for the entire novel. Profoundly confused about the deep chasm he observes between inner, moral components of human thought and their translation to external human behavior, Törless continually struggles to reconcile these two realms and to verbally articulate his inner confusions.

While this is a prominent theme in Musil’s novel, Schlöndorff’s film seems to be far less characterized by this inner struggle. Here is where the music steps in to comment upon the filmic images and makes Young Törless a uniquely intermedial film. In fact, referring back to Benjamin, Schlöndorff’s grappling with inexpressibility can be read as the “echo of the original,” and in this case, we can literally hear the echo in Schlöndorff’s use of music to thematize inexpressibility. The film not only integrates the visual and verbal media to shape the narrative, but also, through the medium of music, integrates the novel’s pervasive themes of confusion and homoeroticism, which are not found in the visual/verbal record of the film.

It has been contended that Musil’s fiction harnesses a visual aesthetic that lends itself well to cinematic translation. Elizabeth Hamilton claims that Schlöndorff’s adaptation is a response to the cinematic writing in Musil’s text4, which she argues is a reflection of how Musil himself regarded cinema. As Hamilton points out, Musil’s ideas concerning cinema are expressed in his 1925 review of Béla Belázs’s Der sichtbare Mensch (The Visible Man). Musil concentrates on the aesthetics of the film image and on the full experience of art, also reflected in a desire for the Gesamtkunstwerk. He thinks that the experience of art has the ability to bridge two basic conditions of life – der Normalzustand (the normal condition) and der andere Zustand (the other condition). Musil views der Normalzustand as one’s relationship to the world, to others, and to oneself. Der andere Zustand (the other condition) are the experiences of a spiritual, religious, mystic, or erotic nature that go beyond der Normalzustand and, as such, are particularly difficult for humans to express. Taking this one step further, Hamilton reads that when the experiences of der andere Zustand are expressed, “these outward manifestations […] become corrupt” (71), as they do not and cannot accurately represent the experience itself. This notion harkens back to Musil’s epigraph, excerpted from Maeterlinck, and the concept of inexpressibility that I argue is essential in understanding Musil’s novel and its translation to Schlöndorff’s film. In the novel, Törless struggles with reconciling the two disparate realms of external human behavior (der Normalzustand) and the seemingly inexpressible metaphysical components of human thought (der andere Zustand). The film, too, grapples with this but does so more subtly through its use of music.

The Film Score

In a special features section of the DVD highlighting Hans Werner Henze’s atonal film music, Schlöndorff says he intended the music to be used to create a specific atmosphere in the film, that of “vastness and forsakenness” (Weite und Verlorenheit)5. Based a review written in 1967 by film critic Vernon Young, the music seemed to have its intended effect. Young writes: “I wish I could give [the film] unreserved praise but the occasional music of Hans Werner Henze, one of those calculatedly unmelodic achievements of our advanced mode, irritated me [sic] no end, for it seemed to chill the air and was quite out of harmony with the time and tone of the story” (292). Although the music ostensibly ruined the film for Young, it succeeded in creating the disconcerting atmosphere Schlöndorff desired. Henze accomplished this musically by composing a dissonant, atonal score with an early music instrumentation. According to Schlöndorff, Henze was intent on this specific instrumentation, comprised of instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and lute, as he considered it particularly well suited to correlate to a young Törless. Schlöndorff quotes Henze: “I would like to write something that refers to these boys, who are still so immature. I would like to fill it [the music] with old instruments – instruments that do not have vibrato, that are not yet as refined as fully matured characters – medieval instruments like the hurdy-gurdy and such.” This instrumentation, so “out of harmony with the time and tone” of the film, is meant to reflect Törless’s own feelings of isolation and incongruence to his surroundings.

Considering the prominent effect the music has on the viewer, it is worth noting that the music is present in the acoustic soundscape for a total of 16 minutes in the 84-minute long film. The rest of the soundtrack consists only of dialogue and diegetic sound. The longest stretch of music is in the opening sequence, where it plays for a total of two minutes, setting the scene and creating an aural reference point to which the rest of the music refers. While all the remaining musical interludes are only 30 seconds or less, they nevertheless successfully create a thematic unity throughout the film, as there are no other sounds on the soundtrack when the music is played: no sound effects, and no dialogue in the fore- or background to distract from what is being heard. The special status given to music indicates that the function of the 16 minutes of music lies beyond mere musical accompaniment and creates another layer of meaning to the film, which is key in linking it to the novel. In fact, many of the sequences in the film that the aforementioned scholars have found particularly problematic or dissatisfying can be understood much differently when the music is taken into consideration. In the next sections, I will examine some of these scenes and demonstrate how this music functions to represent Törless’s confusions throughout the film.

Törless in Context

In order to understand more fully the role that music plays in conveying that which is beyond linguistic expression, basic knowledge of the plot of Musil’s novel is necessary. The story is characterized by Törless’s struggles to understand the moral and ethical implications of events pertaining to his fellow classmate, Basini, and even more broadly – to human nature. Törless’s classmates, Reiting and Beineberg, have caught Basini stealing money and proceed to make Basini pay for his crime by subjecting him to psychological, physical, and sexual degradation. While most of this is done by Reiting and Beineberg, Törless is alongside, watching, sometimes participating, but most often pondering what motivates his friends to treat Basini in this way. At the end of the story, Basini leaves the boarding school, Reiting and Beineberg’s actions are justified, and Törless is called in by the school leadership for questioning. The story concludes with Törless’s release from boarding school and his return back home.

In the film, the viewer does not witness Törless’s inner struggles and confusions directly onscreen, nor does one hear about them through a voice-over narrating Törless’s thoughts. In fact, when comparing the content of the film with the novel, one is left wanting in regard to the inner turmoil so clearly portrayed in the book. It is perhaps for this reason that the novel and the film have two different titles. Musil’s novel, The Confusions of Young Törless, focuses on the unstable psychological condition and confused sexuality of young Törless, which is rendered by a third person subjective narration of his inner thoughts. In the film, Schlöndorff rendered, as Meghan Goder put it, “Törless’s mistrust of words to express his sensations” (52) by foregrounding Törless’s external reality, rather than adding a layer of voice-over narrative to express his private thoughts and confusions. Yet, even without direct verbal expression, the film is not ‘silent’ about Törless’s inner workings, but rather addresses the issue in a subtler, nonverbal way by the music. In the remainder of this article, I will explore a few instances of this interaction of word and music, image and sound.

Törless’s Confusions

When approaching Musil’s novel, Elisabeth Stopp suggests that readers must ask themselves two questions. What kind of problem is Törless facing and by what artistic means does Musil make it tangible for the reader (95)? Törless is faced with moral and ethical dilemmas around identity, conformity, and issues of right and wrong. In the novel, the reader is given access to Törless’s personal thoughts concerning such questions by Törless’s inner, figurative point of view conveyed through a third person narration. When applying Stopp’s questions to Schlöndorff’s film, the problems Törless faces remain the same, but the artistic means by which they are expressed have been adapted to fit the filmic medium. In order to understand this, a closer look at a few key scenes will demonstrate how the music helps to express what is unseen and unspoken.

The film commences with a panorama of a train station. The surroundings are desolate –  a non-descript, empty field with train tracks and a train station. The novel, too, begins at this station, but a few months earlier. Schlöndorff has skipped Törless’s initial arrival to the boarding school, his bouts of intense homesickness, and a brief but significant relationship he has with a young prince who spends a short time at the school. Why Schlöndorff chose not to include these events may not be possible to say with certainty, but it is noteworthy that these first few scenes in the novel are some of the most wrought with confusion and turmoil. Törless struggles with the confusing desire he has for the young prince, suffers with the painful separation from his parents, and ponders ad infinitum the often incongruent translation of inner morality to human behavior. The film omits all of this and begins instead as Törless and his fellow classmates are returning to school after a vacation. As the empty field and train station appear on screen, the soundtrack begins with Henze’s dissonant score. In this case, dissonance arises from a lack of musical resolution to the tonic. Conditioned Western listeners long for the tonic, or tonal center of chord or musical progression. In the opening musical bars of the score, the first interval heard is a sustained minor seventh, which, in tonal music, is a particularly dissonant interval and (almost) always comes before the tonic. Yet the minor seventh is followed by further ascending, dissonant intervals that do not resolve. The upward movement of the notes intensifies the dissonance, as the music rises in pitch, volume, and intensity, but never reaches its peak. This combined with the music’s lack of tonal resolution creates the unsettled feeling in the score and helps to set the unsettled mood for the entire film.

This disconcerting feeling is also reflected in the first words we hear in the film. Törless’s father asks Beineberg to watch out for his son, as he “always appears to be so unsure and unbalanced.” Standing in contrast to the unsettling music and contrary to his father’s description, Törless does not seem unsure of himself. In fact, he wears an expression of smugness as he walks slightly behind his father and Beineberg. After hearing his father’s entreaty of Beineberg, Törless responds with an incredulous: “What’s going to happen to me?” This scene in the novel has a contrastingly morose tone. After his parents leave the train station, Törless’s inner turmoil colors his entire reality: “Törless became very sad. Perhaps it was down to his parents’ departure, although perhaps it might only have been the dull, chilly melancholy that now lay heavily upon the whole of the surrounding landscape, and even as little as a few paces away blurred the shapes of objects with heavy, lackluster colours” (Musil 13). The melancholy that characterizes Törless’s thoughts and feelings are seemingly absent in the scene in the film. Yet by turning an ear to the music, the melancholy becomes audible. The music subtly incorporates the parts of the novel Schlöndorff has left out and expresses Törless’s inner melancholy and confusion, creating a separate aural reality that contradicts the portrayal of Törleß as calm and content on screen. Without the music, this scene would lose much of its meaning and significance. Here, music’s presence connects the external, visual reality of Schlöndorff’s film with Törless’s internal reality as expressed in Musil’s novel.

Near the end of the film, the music again contradicts what is spoken and seen on screen and connects it thematically with what took place in Musil’s novel. The school leadership has learned of Basini’s crimes and of the harassment he suffered at the hands of the other students as a result. Törless discovers that all students will be called upon to testify concerning Basini and decides to flee from school to ponder how he will testify. At this point in the novel, Törless is deep in thought, hashing through events of the preceding few months, still very confused:

He felt unsure of himself. And now he grew anxious about standing before his teachers tomorrow and having to justify himself. How? How would he explain it to them? How could he explain the dark, mysterious path that he had taken? If they asked him why he had mistreated Basini he wouldn’t be able to answer [...] And before nightfall Törless was in a state of feverish, fearful excitement. (150-51)

This “fear” and “excitement” is completely absent from the filmic images. Where in the novel Törless is confused and worried about how to answer his teachers’ questions, in the film he is composed and confident. Törless wanders aimlessly around town outside of the school nonchalantly swinging his arms as he walks, casually eating an apple, and calmly watching trains pass. We then see him sitting in a café just before returning to school to be questioned. Božena, the town prostitute, serves him an espresso and asks if he will get in trouble for fleeing from school or for his role in torturing Basini. Törless looks up calmly and replies with a decisive: “It does not matter to me. I am done with it” (see Figure 1). Although what we see and hear from Törless indicates confidence, the music suggests things may not be as they seem. As Törless wanders around town, another variation of Henze’s dissonant music begins and stands in sharp contrast to the filmic images. The viewer experiences the distinctly unsettled feeling created by the music but perceives Törless’s actions as anything but unsettled. Here, the music’s dissonant interaction with the image creates a discord that bridges the gap within the film by symbolizing Törless’s inner confusions and turmoil without verbally expressing them.

No Need for Words:
The Role of Music in Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß (Young Törless), 
 Literature/Film Quarterly, Melissa Elliot
Figure 1: Božena serving a calm and indifferent Törless

When Törless finally presents his case to the school leadership, it is one of the very few times in the novel and the film that he verbalizes his confusions. During his explanation, his teachers question him:

‘You must express yourself more clearly, my dear Törless.’ ‘It can’t be put any other way, Headmaster.’ ‘Yes it can. You’re agitated; we can see that; confused – what you said was very obscure.’ ‘Well, yes, I do feel confused; I had found a much better way of putting it [viel bessere Worte dafür]. But it all comes down to the same thing, there was something odd happening within me …’. (153)

The inability of Törless to verbalize his inner musings results in his estrangement from his teachers and his subsequent dismissal from the school. The translation of this scene from novel to film is one that Herbst, who considers the adaptation largely a success, finds to be an exception. She writes: “Törleß’s speech is one of the rare instances in the film where the transformation from word into image has not been solved quite satisfactorily” (218-19). Herbst does not elaborate on this, but I will contend that it is because Törless has attempted to verbally express his inner, spiritual musings concerning morality (der andere Zustand). And, as Musil states, when these experiences are manifested outwardly (verbally), they become corrupted.

While music’s presence can clue us into a layer of meaning not immediately apparent on the surface level, the absence of music, too, is significant for understanding the connections between the novel and the film. A key example of this is when Törless learns about the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers. He cannot fully grasp the concept and decides to meet with his math teacher to discuss his questions. In the film, there is no music during this meeting. As is the case in the novel, the professor rambles on, attempting to give a philosophical explanation of the concept, but ultimately makes no logical sense. He justifies his ramblings by concluding that Törless is unable to understand imaginary numbers, because he is still too young and immature. Yet, by the end of their meeting, it is quite evident it is the professor who is unable to express himself outwardly. The effect of this sequence is analogous to that of the epigraph’s metaphorical image. The objects from the fathomless sea, when brought to the surface, are revealed as stones and shards of glass and are not the treasures one expected. When the professor attempts to verbalize his inner philosophical musings on imaginary numbers, his words are corrupted, and his confusions revealed. The corrupted words and the musical silence of the soundtrack that seems to reverberate in the viewer’s ears results in an ultimate undermining of the professor’s intellectual authority. This is also true in Törless’s speech to his teachers. The viewer experiences the demystifying effect of words used to express inner confusions – an effect underscored by the absence of music. 

Törless’s Confused Sexuality

Another prominent facet of Törless’s confusions is his sexuality. In the novel, Törless’s homoerotic desires play a major role in characterizing the novel’s atmosphere of tension and confusion. Yet, the film is much more reserved in expressing the confusions Törless feels at his sexual desires. In fact, the lack of homoeroticism in the film has been noted by scholars. As mentioned above, Bruce Fleming considers the transformation of Musil’s book to Schlöndorff’s film “less than ideal” (110), and Fleming is particularly perturbed by the elimination of Törless’s thoughts from the film, many of which express “a sense of Törless’s turbulent sexuality [which] is almost completely missing” (112). Taking only the filmic images and verbal dialogue into account, it would seem that Fleming is correct in noting the absence of Törless’s “turbulent sexuality.” Yet, in the following section, I will demonstrate how Schlöndorff’s differentiated use of music incorporates the seemingly inexpressible (homo)erotic nature of Törless’s inner reality (der andere Zustand) without doing so by visual or linguistic means.

The first scene in the film in which this is made clear is when Törless and Beineberg are in a café discussing Basini’s crime. In the novel, this scene is told from the point of view of Törless who is concerned much less with the conversation about Basini, than with the confusing sexual feelings he is experiencing. As Beineberg speaks, Törless gazes at him, lost in thought and distracted by Beineberg’s beautiful hands:


But those slender, dark hands, which were skillfully rolling the tobacco in the paper, were actually beautiful [...] There was something indecent about them. [...] And there was something indecent in the impression of dislocation that his body produced. In a sense it only appeared to collect in his hands, and it seemed to radiate from them like the presentiment of a touch, which sent a twinge of nausea over Törless’s skin. He himself was amazed by this idea, and a little shocked. Because this was the second time that day that something sexual had forced its way, unsuspected and without any real relevance, between his thoughts. (19-20)

Törless is simultaneously disgusted and aroused by these unsolicited homoerotic desires, which have been directed not only at Beineberg, but at Basini and the young prince earlier in the novel.

In the film, this passage is rendered as a sequence of images that, with the help of the music, convey Törless’s tortured sexuality. The scene begins with a waitress approaching Törless and Beineberg’s table. Törless turns to look at her and the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of her neck, mouth, and hands, thus sexualizing her for the viewer. In these clips, the only diegetic sound is Beineberg reading a newspaper article in the background. A few seconds later, the camera cuts to a close-up of androgynous hands rolling a cigarette and a mouth licking cigarette paper (see Figure 2). In this shot, the viewer initially only sees the hands and mouth, and the action is underscored by the music. As the camera pans out, there is a moment of strange tension as the viewer realizes the hands and mouth are Beineberg’s. As Törless and Beineberg gaze silently at one another, the music continues to play the same dissonant theme that has represented Törless’s confusions throughout the film.

No Need for Words:
The Role of Music in Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß (Young Törless), 
 Literature/Film Quarterly, Melissa Elliot
Figure 2: Extreme close-up of Beineberg licking cigarette paper.

Peter Horn notes the tension in this scene and ascribes it to the nature of the experience of such intense desire that goes beyond linguistic expression. He writes6: “The intervention of desire in the gaze becomes clear when Törless would ‘gladly have locked eyes’ (T 21) with Beineberg in the cafe, but does not, because then something would have to be said that Törless cannot bring to words” (85). Here, Horn compares the film’s lack of dialogue used to explain Törless’s inner sexual confusion with Törless’s mistrust of words in the novel. Turning an ear to the music in the scene confirms Horn’s observation and functions to reveal more than the filmic images alone. The important difference between the sequence with the waitress and the one with Beineberg is the presence or absence of music. The sequence with the waitress is sexualized through the camera angle and the extreme close-up, but the lack of music underscores the normalcy of Törless’s gaze. On the other hand, Törless’s gaze directed at Beineberg is sexualized not only by the camera angle, but by the unsettling, dissonant music. The music begins extremely softly, such that it sneaks in without calling attention to itself, thus reflecting Törless’s homoerotic desires that creep unknowingly into his thoughts. The music, just as Törless’s desire, then gradually builds until it becomes nearly impossible to ignore. The music that has been used throughout the film to express Törless’s confusions is played here, thus suggesting Törless’s confusion at his own homoerotic feelings. In this scene, Schlöndorff renders Törless’s avoidance through filmic means, thus translating the significance of this scene into the filmic medium by heavy reliance on the music.

Nowhere is sexuality thematized more prominently in the film than in the following scene with Božena, the town prostitute. Törless and Beineberg have joined her in her room after leaving the café. Božena is portrayed as a beautiful, sultry woman from a lower social class who exudes sexuality and confidence. The scene consists of Beineberg groping Božena on the bed, Törless watching, and Božena pontificating about the boys’ high-societal upbringing. In the novel, Törless’s relationship with Božena is wrought with confusion, as she represents for him a foreign realm of sensuality and immorality; one which Törless can neither fully grasp nor reconcile with the propriety and morality of his upbringing. The translation of this scene from novel to film is particularly bothersome for Fleming. He criticizes Schlöndorff’s visual rendering of this scene, because in the novel, it contains “some of [Törless’s] most complex thoughts [that were] translated visually as nothing more than a boy sitting quietly” (111). What Fleming overlooks – or rather overhears – here is the way in which Schlöndorff’s use of music contradicts the filmic images and subtly incorporates the themes of homoeroticism and sexual confusion.

At the end of the boys’ visit in the novel, Božena directs her attention solely toward Törless, who, up until this point, has been lost in thought. She wonders why he has been so silent and teasingly suggests it is because of his homesickness. Božena walks over to Törless, runs her fingers through his hair, and pulls him close to kiss him. Just as she does, Törless’s inner thoughts are conveyed:

Törless wanted to say something, to stir himself to make a crude joke. He felt that everything now depended upon saying something irrelevant, but he couldn’t utter a sound. With a petrified smile he stared into the ravaged face above his own, into those vacant eyes, then the outside world began to grow smaller ... to move farther away [...] then he was quite alone. (37-8)

Božena’s close physical proximity seems to send Törless into a spiral of confusions, resulting in a mental retreat that abruptly ends the scene. This scene is exemplary in highlighting Törless’s confused sexuality, as he is torn between his simultaneous attraction to Božena’s sexuality and his abhorrence of the realm of immorality she represents. In the film, none of this confusion is expressed verbally or visually. In fact, compared with the novel, the scene seems rather glib: two young boys beguiled by the sexuality of a woman, who is othered by her class and ethnic differences. Yet, if attention is paid to the music, a further layer of meaning is revealed.

This sequence in the film comes directly after the scene in the café, where Törless finds himself surprisingly aroused by Beineberg. This is important as it sets the tone for Törless’s tumultuous sexuality and stands in contrast to his seemed detachment from the overt sexuality Božena represents. When the boys enter the guesthouse where Božena lives and works, violin music is heard playing softly in the parlor downstairs. The music slowly grows louder and louder, until it becomes accompaniment to a man singing in Hungarian; the only vocal music featured in the entire film. The choice of the Hungarian language is of particular interest, as it is not a language either Törless, Beineberg, or the viewer would likely understand. Yet it is consistent with my argument that Schlöndorff has avoided putting Törless’s confusions into words. By choosing a song in Hungarian, he bans the music to the realm of the exotic and incomprehensible without losing the effect of the male voice, which, as we will see, is key in understanding how homoeroticism is invoked in this scene. The man’s dominant baritone singing voice is obvious in the soundscape in this scene and presents a stark contrast to the exceptionally feminine figure of Božena. As Božena approaches Törless to kiss him (see Figure 3), the man’s voice crescendos, moving sharply into the foreground just before she kisses him. Rather than representing an emotional climax, the presence of a masculine voice underscores Törless’s homoerotic feelings as music is used as a representation of Törless’s inner life and as a symbolic representation of his confusions. Fleming’s criticism of this scene stems from his focus on the visual that, alone, portrays an atmosphere seemingly incongruent with the novel. Shifting one’s attention to the music reveals a remarkably powerful translation of the confused, homoerotic atmosphere present in the novel onto the screen.

No Need for Words:
The Role of Music in Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß (Young Törless), 
 Literature/Film Quarterly, Melissa Elliot
Figure 3: Božena kisses a stiff and detached Törless.

Throughout the novel, Törless balks at his homoerotic feelings, critically examining them and questioning their legitimacy. This holds true throughout but for one brief scene where Törless finds himself alone at school with Basini. The other students have left on break, and only the two boys have stayed behind. Leading up to this scene, Törless had been battling an intense, sexual attraction to Basini. This tension comes to a head, when his affections are unexpectedly reciprocated as Basini climbs naked into bed with Törless and proclaims his love for him. At first, Törless tries to resist Basini, but soon surrenders to his homoerotic desire and gives in to the sensuality that Basini represents: 

Then Törless stopped searching for words. The sensuality which had been gradually seeping into him from his isolated moments of despair had now reached its full extent. It lay naked beside him and covered his head with its soft black mantle. And it murmured sweet words of resignation into his ear and, with its warm fingers, it pushed away all questions and obligations as vain. And it whispered: ‘In solitude everything is permitted.’ (122)

Here, Basini is replaced in Törless’s mind by a personified sensuality stemming from all his previous sexual confusions. Törless gives up his struggle to find words, then literally and figuratively gives in to the object of his confusions and desires.

While this pivotal moment in Törless’s sexual development is not included in the visual record of the film, I am arguing that it is intimated by the music. We see Törless lying alone in his bed, hands behind his head in a posture of contentedness and serenity. For just a few fleeting seconds, we hear soft, rhythmic guitar strumming, reminiscent of classical Spanish guitar music. The tone of the music here is striking, as the sudden shift to consonant, classical music is so utterly different from the music heard before and after. Yet, the viewer perceives this change in musical landscape for only a brief moment, for Basini walks into the room and the music abruptly switches to the familiar, dissonant music heard elsewhere in the film. The shot then focuses back on Törless who subtly licks his lips while gazing at Basini (see Figure 4).

No Need for Words:
The Role of Music in Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törleß (Young Törless), 
 Literature/Film Quarterly, Melissa Elliot
Figure 4: Törless gazes lustfully at Basini.

Understanding the music as the medium through which the novel’s themes are not only incorporated into but also more significantly translated in the film helps us make sense of the music in this scene, which would otherwise seem entirely out of place. While Törless’s sexual encounter with Basini is not represented directly on screen, the music intimates the themes of sexual attraction and homoeroticism expressly thematized in the novel. The five softly strummed chords can be read as the “sensuality” to which Törless surrenders. Indeed, the music itself is almost sensual as it is the only consonant sounds heard, contrasting strongly with the abrasive, dissonant music heard throughout the film. The uncontextualized guitar music shocks and confuses the viewer, just as Törless’s homoerotic feelings for Basini shock and confuse him in the novel. 


Falling in line with the many critics and scholars mentioned above, Herbert Linder’s review of Young Törless held that to enjoy the film, it would be better to know nothing of Musil or his novel (Rentschler 180). Yet, as we seen, an exploration of music’s role in expressing Törless’s confusions and homoeroticism reveals that an intimate knowledge of both the novel and film adds to a much richer understanding of Schlöndorff’s adaptation. The music closes the gap between the novel and the film that many have found so problematic, in that it successfully mitigates the difficulties Musil thematizes concerning linguistic inexpressibility. Schlöndorff expresses Törless’s unspoken thoughts and confusions in the dissonant score composed by Hans Werner Henze. The music punctuates, insinuates, and contradicts the various scenes in which it is found, creating an unexpected and fascinating link to Musil’s novel.


1  Herbst argues that the film retains the atmosphere of the novel in a number of ways: Hans Werner Henze’s film score, Schlöndorff’s choice of setting, use of black and white photography, the camera work, and the translation of Musil’s commentary to cinematic signs (216).

2  It is important to note that when referring to sound in film, sound should be broadly understood as the soundtrack, including dialogue, sound effects, and music.

3  Translation is my own.

4  Hamilton also understands Musil’s flexible integration of movement, light and show, and manipulation of time to be examples of his cinematic writing. She argues that “Schlöndorff’s faithfulness to the novel is less important than the ways in which he responded to the cinematic in Musil’s text” (70).

5  All translations of film dialogue are mine.

6  Translation is my own.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. "Fragment über Musik und Sprache." Literatur und Musik: Ein Handbuch zur Theorie und Praxis eines komparatistischen Grenzgebietes, edited by Steven P. Scher, Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1984, pp. 138-41.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of the Translator." Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, vol. 1, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 253-63.

Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Fleming, Bruce E. "Thoughts and Their Discontents: Törless-Book to Film." Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 2, Jan. 1992, pp. 109-14. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43797641.

Goder, Meghan. "Törless as Extrovert: Schlöndorff's Variations on Musil's Novella." Kodikas, vol. 14, no. 1-2, Jan.-June 1991, pp. 49-63. MLA International Bibliography.

Hamilton, Elizabeth C. "Imaginary Bridges: Politics and Film Art in Robert Musil's "Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß" and Volker Schlöndorff's "Der junge Törleß"." Colloquia Germanica, vol. 36, no. 1, 2003, pp. 69-85. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2398180.

Herbst, Hildburg. "’Young Torless’: Schlöndorff's Film Adaptation of Musil's Novella." Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, Jan. 1985, pp. 215-21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4376225.

Horn, Peter. "Der exzentrische Blick des Zuschauers und das Spektakal der Macht im Film: Schlöndorffs Verfilmung von Musils Törleß." Acta Germanica, vol. 24, 1996, pp. 81- 89. MLA International Bibliography.

Musil, Robert. Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2013.

Musil, Robert. The Confusions of Young Törless. Penguin Books, 2001.

Nagari, Benjamin. Music as Image: Analytical psychology and music in film. Routledge, 2016.

Rentschler, Eric. "Specularity and Spectacle in Schlöndorff's Young Törless." German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, edited by Eric Rentschler, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986, pp. 176-92.

Schlöndorff, Volker, director. Der junge Törleß. Arthaus, 2010.

Schweikle, Günther, and Irmgard Schweikle. Metzler Literatur Lexikon: Stichwörter zur Weltliteratur. J.B. Metzler, 1984.

Stopp, Elisabeth. "Musil's "Törless": Content and Form." The Modern Language Review, vol. 63, no. 1, Jan. 1968, pp. 94-118. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3722648.

Wolf, Werner. "Music and Narrative." Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. edited by David Herman, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan, 2010. ---. The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. Editions Rodopi B.V., 1999, pp. 35-50.

Young, Vernon. "International Film: Tensions and Pretensions." The Hudson Review, vol. 20, no. 2, Summer 1967, pp. 285-93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3849165.