Ingmar Bergman: Intro and Torment (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Sep/102

Ingmar Bergman: Intro and Torment (1944)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYIngmar Bergman is the greatest filmmaker that has, to this day, graced this planet.  No one has touched him in terms of inventiveness and playing with the medium of film as far as it can go without going into purely abstract territory.  For over sixty years he worked in theater and cinema, delivering countless classics asking the deep questions of what it means to be human and they way our emotions drive every action of our lives.

Bergman had a very painful and unique childhood.  Growing up in Sweden, he was born  in 1918 to a staunchly religious Lutheran father who would think of the most creative punishments.  Sometimes he would force young Ingmar to put on a dress, other times deny Ingmar permission to use the bathroom until he urinated on himself, and there was still room for old fashioned beatings.  This forged a deep suspicion in Ingmar of the church as a place of forgiveness and pity.  As he grew, those suspicions extended out to every institution such as marriage, government, schools and he played those out on the theater stage.

He learned to love the theater thanks to his extended family and, to some extent, the complicated relationship he had with his father.  Light shows would dazzle on the walls of his home and he would study the architecture and heightened emotions of his fathers sermons.  The theater grew to be a natural fit for him as it was the best place to play out his complicated feelings.  Eventually, Ingmar became a giant fan of film and began getting work doing script rewrites for movies.  That slowly spiraled out into jobs directing and off he went, plumbing the depths of our shared human experience for every raw nerve it can produce.

For the next few months I will be probing his filmography.  It's a daunting task, as his career includes dozens of films, many of which have not received a proper Stateside release.  So if you happen to stumble onto this site, or have a healthy interest in Bergman, and wonder why some films are missing - that is why.  I will do everything I can short of outright theft to procure copies of his films, but because of how prolific his career was it will be difficult to get all of them.

The man at work.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how influential Bergman's films have been.  A whole generation of filmmakers grew up on his cold black and white photography and metaphorically dense dialogue but no one has ever been able to successfully replicate the sensation of watching his films.  Untold numbers of film students direct their first feature films with tortured dialogue and film in black and white, thinking that it would produce the same experience.  But there is something about the way Bergman touched on those raw nerves that is unique to his films and few others have been able to approach.  His intense method has been widely mocked, but has earned a strong place in the pantheon of great directors.

I must admit, the first film of his that I am examining isn't entirely his film.  Bergman's first major studio production was as the screenwriter for the 1944 Alf Sjoberg film Torment while Bergman was working for Svensk Filmindustri.  I'm including it because as prolific a director Bergman was, he was equally prolific as a screenwriter.   He penned numerous films over his long career, including two films that were directed by one of his many lovers and frequent collaborator, Liv Ullman (but we'll be spending many weeks with her).

The plot of Torment is fairly simple.  We follow of life in a Swedish boarding school and a particularly sadistic Latin teacher nicknamed Caligula.  If the name isn't enough to tip us off, Bergman pains Caligula as a particularly unwholesome man who derives pleasure from tormenting his students.  There are good teachers in the school, and one confronts Caligula on his practices early on, but Caligula refuses to relent.

Sjoberg's compositions would not be out of place in a German horror film.

When we aren't following Caligula around the story centers on Jan-Erik, a student struggling to pass in his classes.  He becomes involved with a Bertha, a local girl, after helping her home one night.  She's got a taste for booze, and spends more than half of her screen time either drunk or getting ready to be drunk.  She claims to have her reasons and wants Jan-Erik around her all the time to keep her demons at bay.  But he's uncomfortable with her past, particularly her experiences with other men, and leaves her to fend for herself more often than not.

It turns out that the reason she is so afraid is because she is also involved with Caligula, who delights in tormenting her a far different way than his students.  He threatens to kick Jan-Erik out of school unless she acquiesces to his demands.  So she's caught up between the two of them, and the central tension in the movie develops around the question of if she can stand this for much longer or if Jan-Erik will become wise to Caligula's involvement.

Looking at the film on it's own merits, it's not too bad.  There's a good bit of enjoyable tension involving the unconventional three way and Bergman clearly has a knack for remembering the parts of his school experience that gave him the most grief.  There's also a lot of fun to be had with the more nervous students in school as they plot and beg their way to success with the other professors.  The score is about as unsubtle as any piece of music can be, but isn't necessarily distracting because of the context.  When the opening shot comes in of Jan-Erik and Bertha bathed in darkness and the violins well up to a horrific crescendo we know exactly what kind of film we're going to be watching.

The school, the church, and other surroundings are constantly looming overhead.

In the context of a Bergman film, it's kind of a disappointing start.  The characters, while interesting, are fairly simplistic and never really stretch beyond their limitations of their basest traits.  What's really unfortunate is how Bertha is treated.  One of Bergman's greatest strengths is how he writes female characters, and particularly confrontations between them.  However, in Torment,  Bertha is little more than a prop to hold up the fantasy space that Jan-Erik and Caligula constructed around her.

While the themes are present, the visuals are of a style that Bergman would not adapt for many of his feature films.  Alf Sjoberg shoots Torment with a visual dynamic that is not out of place with the classic film noirs.  Shadows loom long over the children and protrude from teachers that can barely conceal their hatred or disillusionment over the school.  There are many dark and quiet corridors for children to get lost in, as we see in the opening scenes with a little child running from the truant officer.  The architecture of the school and surrounding buildings are so well done that it becomes another character in the film, and Sjoberg does deserve some credit for clearly influencing Bergman's use of architecture in later films Winter Light and Fanny and Alexander.

All in all, an interesting first writing effort from Bergman, even if it's not the most sophisticated script that he has produced.  But by this time Bergman was a man midway into his twenties, and still had plenty of time to learn a few more nuances in his scripting.  What won't go away, as you'll see in these coming films, is Torment's sense of subtlety.  Bergman never really shied away from asking any of the deep questions and the depth of his emotion comes along for the ride.

Next week I'll be examining the first film that Bergman directed as well as scripted, Crisis.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Torment (1944)

Directed by Alf Sjoberg.
Written by Ingmar Bergman.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Just started my own trip down Bergman’s filmography. Looking forward to reading your reviews in conjunction with my journey. 🙂

    • Thank you Shibesh! I’m honored that you would go through your journey with Bergman and keep me in mind. Please feel free to share as many thoughts as possible as you watch his films.


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