Torment is the first screenplay written by Ingmar Bergman ever to be photographed. Directed by Bergman’s mentor Alf Sjöberg, the film concerns a bullying, sadistic high school teacher (Stig Järrel) and his destructive effect on a struggling student (Alf Kjellin). The film’s stark compositions and inky shadows give it the look of German Expressionist cinema, while Bergman’s script roams a tense and arid psychological landscape. When the studio requested a more upbeat ending, Bergman himself directed the revisions due to Sjöberg’s contractual obligation to another project. This roughly 10 minute epilogue is Bergman’s first turn in the director’s chair, and ironically his goal was to lighten up the film and make it more commercial. While Torment occasionally lapses into a typically bleak Scandinavian melodrama, it contains many of Bergman’s hallmarks, including complex, deeply conflicted characters locked in a slow simmering private war with their inner demons.
Stig Järrel’s Latin teacher, nicknamed Caligula by his less than adoring students, is a prototypical Bergman baddie. Bemused and bespectacled, at first blush he seems better suited to play a kindly watchmaker than an academic terrorist. But when he finds a student lacking in preparation, a dark cloud contorts his features unleashing a storm of invective and abuse. His refined, privileged preps wither under the criticism, and return to their desks in a shattered emotional heap. Kjellin’s Jan-Erik, a dreamy eyed young man interested only in the violin, is a frequent target of Caligula’s tirades. Equally, Jan-Erik is a typical Bergman protagonist of this period. Essentially a blank slate, he is susceptible to influences from all directions, with only vague notions of artistic pursuit steering his meandering course. One night he encounters a drunken young woman named Berta (Mai Zetterling) and unwittingly begins a decent to his undoing. But Jan-Erik’s spiral dive will not be a solo flight; his mortal enemy will also crash and burn in the process.
Torment offers sweeping insights into the nature of bullying and intimidation that are rare for 1944, along with a frank - well frankish - depiction of sexual codependency. The prolific cinematographer Martin Bodin puts the film’s gothic sets to good use, establishing a motif of long shadows that will serve as both a design and emotive element as the film advances. Zetterling’s turn as Berta provides the kick in this strange narrative brew. Flirtatious and giggly without ever seeming genuinely happy, her character’s parameters are quite subtle and tricky, but she pulled it off effectively.
Thanks to Bergman’s script, Torment strives for truth in an era of highly contrived and manipulative drama. In a few years, Ingmar Bergman would begin his journey to auteurist sainthood, far surpassing the accomplishments of Sjöberg and other early heroes of Sweden’s nascent film industry. The film stands as an important historical artifact, for it served notice to the world that a unique talent was finding his sea legs; a talent that would eventually alter the very notion of what a movie should be.