To mark the 25th anniversary of the Svensk Filmindustri, the studio commissioned six films to be made by prominent directors. Looking around for a suitable film for Alf Sjöberg, the studio offered him a script by a young, inexperienced writer called Ingmar Bergman. A story about the troubles of growing up, Torment was transformed on the screen by Sjöberg into something altogether darker and more dramatic, and the experience for the young Bergman, working as script-fixer and Assistant Director during filming, was to be significant.
In his final year of studies, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin) has a serious run-in with his Latin teacher (Stig Järrel), unaffectionately known as Caligula. The Latin master is a petty tyrant, sternly authoritarian and sadistic in his terrorising of all his pupils. Accused of cheating in his lessons, Widgren is disciplined two weeks before his final exams, but the young man is not too concerned and is confident that he will soon be leaving school for a comfortable artistic career, seeing himself settled down married to a nice girl. Things don’t work out that way when he meets Bertha Olssen (Mai Zetterling), the flirtatious girl who works in the local tobacconists. Finding her drunk and in great distress on the street one night, he takes her home and finds that she has been caught up in an abusive relationship. As he locks horns further with Caligula and becomes more involved with Bertha, he comes under considerable stress, jeopardising his chances of finishing school successfully.
Directed by Alf Sjöberg, Torment is nevertheless generally regarded as Ingmar Bergman’s first film. Bergman worked on the film as Assistant Director and as his first filmed script it has a personal Bergman touch, drawing from his own experiences as a youth in a way that wouldn’t be seen again until towards the end of his film career in Fanny and Alexander (1986). The film shares many of the themes of the director’s great masterpiece – the troubled family life, his estrangement from his father, the desire to be creative and to escape from a strict, authoritarian upbringing, climaxing in an act of rebellion. In the process Bergman also takes in other themes that interested him in his early films – society’s treatment of women, attitudes towards what is regarded as decent and moral behaviour and the hypocrisy of an education system that would try to mould upstanding citizens through systematic and institutionalised terror and disciplinarian methods.
More than anything else however, Torment is a full-blooded, coming-of-age melodrama, Sjöberg cranking up the tension, drama and the torment of Bergman’s script with strong use of shadows and light and dramatic weather conditions – using stifling heat around exam time and a thunderous downpour to complement the film’s climax. There are a lot of apparent film references here, from the school rebellion drama of Jean Vigo’s Zèro de Conduite (1933) to early Hitchcock, particularly in the melodramatic and shadowy Expressionist stylings of Blackmail (1929) or perhaps even Nosferatu (1922). The characterisation is strong for a melodrama however, relying certainly on standard archetypes but endowing them strong psychological characteristics and motivations. Caligula is one of Bergman’s greatest screen villains – he might as well be called Vergerus, and could well be since we only know him by the schoolboy’s nickname for him – played with menacing sleaziness by Stig Järrel. Much more than a traditional sadistic teacher, Bergman takes time to give him some background (although some Caligula family detail was eventually cut from the film), giving some motivation for his behaviour and his treatment of the pupils. His description of his treatment of a cat acts as a further metaphor for his mindset and is cleverly contrasted in the final scenes of the film, when Jan-Erik gently picks up Bertha’s pet cat Pelle, indicating a gentler more caring outlook for the future, breaking away from the destructive attitudes of the past.
This new ending was added by Bergman when the original ending finishing with Jan-Erik leaving the school gates was considered too dark a note to finish on. The final exterior scenes of Torment were filmed by Bergman himself, marking his first foray into film directing.
Tartan’s UK DVD release of Torment, like the other in their Bergman Collection, is Region 0.
The transfer shows excellent greyscale tones, with strong detailed blacks, clear whites and a fine brightness and contrast levels. The image often shows a great deal of clarity and sharpness, although it looks a touch soft in some scenes. This is quite an old film though, so there is some damage visible here – the occasional scratch and dustspot, one or two larger marks, persistent grain and what looks like some water damage or dirt marks down the sides of the print on some reels. The damage is not overly distracting however and the greater impression is of a strong, clear print. There aren’t too many signs of digital artefacts, although there is certainly some compression blocking and some flickering of the image in one or two scenes.
The sound quality is excellent. The underlying crackle of the original soundtrack has been well treated by the Dolby Digital noise reduction, retaining the clarity and warmth of the original recording.
Optional English subtitles are provided in white font, and are clear and easily readable.
The most useful extra feature here is likely to be the Philip Strick Film Notes, which should be present in the form of a booklet insert, but they weren’t seen with this review copy. A previously advertised trailer for Bergman’s most recent and probably final film, Saraband is not present on the disc however. The extras that are present include fabulous trailers for other Tartan Bergman Collection releases Autumn Sonata (2:22), presented in 1.66:1 letterbox, and Persona (2:30), presented in 1.85:1 letterbox. The Ingmar Bergman Filmography extensively covers all his work, including his TV, production, writing and acting work. Detailed filmographies are also included for Stig Järrel and Mai Zetterling.
A coming of age drama, the fine performances and characterisation in Torment mitigate some of the stylistic excesses of the film’s melodramatic plot and Alf Sjöberg’s direction. Although there are some familiar touches – such as a particularly disturbing dream sequence – as Bergman’s first film work, this is far from the typical tortured psychodramas that the director would come to be known for, but it is an excellent and thrilling drama that shows great strengths in scripting and a fascinating introduction to the director’s early themes and personal development. The DVD is another nice addition to Tartan’s Bergman Collection. It’s pleasing that these early films are being presented so well and Torment – one of my favourite early-Bergman films – is certainly worth seeing.