In May 1966, for the first time in the postwar era, West Germany had a real contender at the Cannes film festival. After two decades of mostly marginal and irrelevant film production, Germany had produced a work that made the festival audience sit up and take notice: Volker Schlöndorff's Young Törless (Der junge Törless). FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) awarded the film its international critics' prize, and other awards soon followed. At home, Young Törless garnered three federal film prizes for the year's best direction, script, and screenplay. In Nantes, France, during the European Film Days, the jury presented it with the Max Ophüls-Prize. In the United States, Variety praised it as “a very impressive directorial debut” (Hans 19). The 1967 International Film Guide listed Young Törless as one of the top ten films of the preceding year and referred to Schlöndorff as “the foremost hope of the new German cinema” (Cowie, 1967 5, 78).
The film set up a pattern followed by dozens of subsequent works from the New German Cinema. It took a renowned literary text, assertively enacted it to strong cinematic effect, and dispassionately reflected on themes relevant to postwar West German culture: innocence and guilt, conformity and rebellion, solipsism and engagement. The movie evoked from spectators and critics a broad variety of interpretations. Some have analyzed Young Törless as a study of adolescence. Others debated whether the film proposed a political model of Middle European militarism. The film is effective on both counts. A viewer can best approach its psychological aspects by comparing the Törless film with the genre of literary and filmic narratives about adolescents and boarding schools that had preceded it. Similarly, an awareness of the way in which Schlöndorff's literary contemporaries had reinterpreted Robert Musil's novel makes clearer the motion picture's metaphoric import for postwar Europe.
The director translated to the screen, in convincing and inventive fashion, a classic of German-language fiction. During the 1950s and 1960s, West German critics and readers rediscovered Robert Musil's 1906 novel, Die Verwirrungen des