Bergman wrote Torment during the winter of 1942-43 as he was suffering from an illness and hospitalized. The story focuses on a Latin teacher (Stig Järrel) who, because of his cruel and sadistic nature, is nicknamed "Caligula" by his students (after the Roman emperor regarded as an insane tyrant). Caligula comes down especially hard on Jan-Erik Widgren (lanky, handsome Alf Kjellin), even though Jan-Erik is a diligent and idealistic student doing his best with his studies. The boy gets little support from his ineffectual parents, and eventually becomes sick from the strains of coping with tensions at school. The doctor who comes to call blames Jan-Erik's teachers for his illness, describing them as "narrow-minded specialists."
Outside the classroom, Jan-Erik meets and is seduced by a troubled young woman named Bertha Olsson (the beautiful young Mai Zetterling) who works as a clerk in a tobacco shop near the school. His schoolwork suffers further because of his involvement with Bertha, who has a weakness for liquor and men - including a creepy older man who terrorizes and assaults her, although she refuses to tell Jan-Erik his name. It develops that this older man is Caligula, who learns of Jan-Erik's association with Bertha and makes life even more miserable for the young man, threatening to suspend him from school.
This tangle of sex, passion, deception and violence grows ever more intense, eventually leading to tragedy and causing Jan-Erik to feel more isolated than ever. The bleak ending imagined by Bergman was changed at the request of the film studio, who wanted a more positive resolution that shows Caligula suffering from his sins while Jan-Erik walks away in the sunlight to face new opportunities.
The altered ending aside, Bergman was able to tentatively explore themes that would permeate his later work as a filmmaker, including the child's place in his family and relationship with parents, the conflict between the repressive standards of society and church and the individual's own moral code, and the attempt to find one's self through romantic liaisons and creative expression. (Jan-Erik writes and plays the violin.) The film, a Svensk Filmindustri production, was shot at the Filmstaden studios north of Stockholm and the Sodra Latin High School in downtown Stockholm, with exterior filming on the streets of the city.
One issue with which Torment created controversy in its day, causing a spirited debate in the press, was conditions in Swedish schools. The newspaper Aftonbladet published a letter from Henning Håkanson, principal of the high school Bergman had attended, complaining about a critical interview Bergman had given to the same publication on the day the film was released, October 2, 1944.
"Our friend Ingmar was a problem child, lazy yet rather gifted," Håkanson wrote, "and the fact that such a person does not easily adapt to the daily routines of study is quite natural. A school cannot be adapted to suit bohemian dreamers, but to suit normally constituted, hard-working people." Bergman responded, in part: "I hated school as a principle, as a system and as an institution. And as such I have definitely not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools."
The success of Torment, both at home and abroad, helped attract world-wide attention to Swedish films. It brought the Grand Prix du Festival at the Cannes Film Festival to Sjöberg, an acclaimed director in Sweden best known for his work on the stage, where he became First Director of the Royal Dramatic Theater. He also was a pioneer of television dramas in his native country. His visualization of Torment (photographed by Martin Boden), with its high-key lighting and looming shadows, was starker and more expressionistic than the lyrical style Bergman would later bring to his films.
Torment also was a breakthrough in the career of Swedish-born Mai Zetterling, who later relocated to England and enjoyed international stardom, acting opposite such leading men as Tyrone Power, Dirk Bogarde and Peter Sellers. Still later she became a director, and her films had some of the same frankness about love and sex that characterized Torment.
Alf Kjellin worked regularly in films and television from the 1940s through the '60s. He used the name Christopher Kent when appearing in American films and television shows. He also directed episodic TV and the 1969 film Midas Run, starring Richard Crenna and Fred Astaire.
Also in the cast of Torment are Olof Winnerstrand as the school's kindly principal, Gösta Cederlund as another teacher, Olav Riégo and Märta Arbin as Jan-Erik's parents, and Stig Olin and Jan Molander as his fellow students -- the jittery Petersson and the callow Sandman. Stig Järrel's role as the ruthless Caligula was said to have been partly based on his role as another Latin teacher, Sjögren, in the 1942 film Lågor i dunklet, directed by Hasse Ekman.
As for Ingmar Bergman, his painstaking work shooting the closing scenes of the film clearly marked the moment when he fell in love with filmmaking. "They were my first professionally filmed images," he wrote in his autobiography. "I was more excited than I can describe. The small film crew threatened to walk off the set and go home. I screamed and swore so loudly that people woke up and looked out of their windows. It was four o'clock in the morning."
By Roger Fristoe