This was the first screenplay Ingmar Bergman got filmed. According to one of his autobiographies, it was also his first experience of actually shooting scenes. After the film was made, a few more scenes had to be completed. Director Alf Sjöberg was no longer available and Bergman was asked to shoot the last exteriors. As he did it, he felt more ”excited than I can describe”. I’m sure that getting the experience of watching Sjöberg in action taught the aspiring filmmaker a lot.
Tormented by the Latin teacher
The story takes us back to school. Jan-Erik Widgren’s (Alf Kjellin) last year becomes a challenge as he’s tormented by the Latin teacher. ”Caligula” (Stig Järrel), as he’s been nicknamed by the students, believes in instilling fear in his classroom. Unlike the beloved principal of the school (Olof Winnerstrand), ”Caligula” professes no love for or interest in the well-being of ”his” boys; his classroom is a place where you come to be humiliated. As Jan-Erik keeps struggling with his studies, he meets a girl. Bertha Olsson (Mai Zetterling), who works in a tobacco store, ends up in his care one night; she’s very drunk and Jan-Erik helps her home.
She seems to be terribly afraid of someone and he stays with her that night to make sure she’s OK. As Jan-Erik gets to know Bertha, it becomes clear that the man she fears is ”Caligula”…
Inspired by Bergman’s upbringing
In the winter of 1942-43, Bergman was a sick man and spent time in hospital. While recuperating he wrote the script for this movie and was subsequently hired by the SF studio as a writer and assistant director. Bergman had a theater background, but fell in love with movies. The story for Torment seemed inspired by his own upbringing, which hurt the principal of his school who complained to a nationwide newspaper of his former student’s feeling that school had been ”hell”. Bergman refuted the notion, saying that his school had been ”no better or worse than any other”. The writer wanted to criticize the educational system, not one school in particular, and those sentiments are obvious in the film.
The most powerful aspect of Torment’s script is the way students are portrayed as victims of injustice, trapped in a system that not even the decent principal of the school can do much about. ”Caligula” is a villain, representing the worst of adulthood, a man who punishes his students with glee while also sexually dominating an innocent girl. Jan-Erik’s parents are depicted as hopeless, unable to understand younger generations. Combined with the wickedness of ”Caligula”, parental failures and misbehavior would be a recurring theme for Bergman. Järrel is magnificent in his most memorable role, wielding his pointer like a weapon in class, finding an eerie balance between intimidating and pathetic, conjuring all the worst traits of a person in authority who shouldn’t be. Sjöberg was chiefly a theater director, but created something very special and cinematic together with his cinematographer Martin Bodin. Often shot from a low angle, with ominous shadows emphasizing oppression, the film brings a sense of dread and horror to the school and Bertha’s apartment.
Near the end, the film offers hope after all, which is more than Bergman originally wanted. His vision was of ”Caligula” winning. But the new ending doesn’t strike a false note; the power of the film remains intact and perhaps even strengthened by it.
Torment stood out from most other Swedish films at the time, showing a maturity and darkness that audiences weren’t expecting. To some extent it is virtually a horror movie that blew fresh air into the nation’s cinema.
Torment 1944-Sweden. 101 min. B/W. Produced by Harald Molander, Victor Sjöström. Directed by Alf Sjöberg. Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Martin Bodin. Music: Hilding Rosenberg. Cast: Stig Järrel (”Caligula”), Alf Kjellin (Jan-Erik Widgren), Mai Zetterling (Bertha Olsson), Olof Winnerstrand, Gösta Cederlund, Hugo Björne… Stig Olin, Anders Nyström, Gunnar Björnstrand.
Trivia: Original title: Hets. Released in Britain as Frenzy. Later a stage play.
Last word: “There are teachers one never forgets. Men one liked and men one hated. My revered headmaster belonged and still belongs (in my case) to the former category. I also have the feeling that my dear headmaster has not yet seen the film. Perhaps we should go and see it together!” (Bergman answering his former principal in a letter, IngmarBergman.se)