When you watch on average a film a day for a period of years, you tend to see pretty much everything. I have watched films from directors such as Pudovkin, Chen Kaige, Peter Weir, Sembene, Hitchcock and Subiela. Depressingly, there are few surprises left for the ardent cinephile. Thanks, however, to critical neglect, uncategorisable directors, or unimaginative exhibitors/broadcasters, there are still some talents whose work remains obscure. Although TORMENT is most famous for the fact that it was written by the young Ingmar Bergman, director Sjoberg brings many good things that are uniquely his own, such as unabashed sensationalism, subversive ideas, sly visual jokes and a fertile contrast between his remarkably cool use of architectural space, and his hysterical Expressionism.
The film has often been compared to THE BLUE ANGEL, although Sjoberg lacks Von Sternberg's mordant irony, overriding intelligence, dramatic inevitability, visual genius or actors of such calibre as Dietrich or Jannings. Other superficial points of comparison might be ZERO DE CONDUITE without the anarchy; LES 400 COUPS without the lyrical empathy; or a psychologically loaded IF. What is most interesting is how Sjoberg takes what are now cliches of the school rebellion film, and transmutes them into a terrifying vision of mental collapse, while retaining its force of social critique.
The outstanding opening sequence is a case in point. After credits, in which two lovers embrace against a black background, cut off from any kind of reality other than that of their own making, Sjoberg shows us a school. From disorienting god-like overhead long shots, a small boy rushes across a bleached white courtyard, its vividness and unpopulatedness as striking as a dream.
This oneirism continues inside as the boy runs through the building, a frightening, neo-classical monstrosity, with forbidding steps, vast, empty circular corridors and labyrinthine stairways. The boy races as if in a Kafka nightmare, soon chased by some authority figure. The action is shot elliptically, to heighten the dreamlike, and when the boy is caught, there is an oppressive sense of foreboding.
This sequence encapsulates the film's theme in compact form. The school space is a social organism - its hierarchy and patriarchy mirrors that of the bourgeois world outside: the principal speaks of it as a training ground for that world. The imposing building represents the solidity and artifice of this system, as does the teaching of Latin (crucially considered a 'dead' language), foundation of European languages and hence social structure. But in this sequence, Sjoberg rejects it, and transposes it as a site of mental and social breakdown, continued in Caligula's lessons, where the outside rain reflects against the walls to make the room seem as if it is dissolving.
This idea of breakdown, rupture and fragmentation is centred in the character of Widgren. He exists in clearly defined realms - school; the archetypally bourgeois home with the stern father and over adoring mother - with clearly defined ideals (innocent love etc.), yet feels oppressed by both. His affair with Bertha, its transgression signified by her being a prostitute, tears him away from these realms, but also leads to mental instability, shared by the other character in contact with her, the sadistic Caligula. There is an underlying misogyny in this surprising in Bergman (although not if you are Amy Taubin), and the use of the heroine's death as a vehicle for male self-awareness leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
On the other hand, the scenes with the lovers have an extraordinary calm and beauty, even if they are constantly undermined by the melodramatic devices at Sjoberg's disposal. Nerve-jangling music, portentous use of shadow, and shock editing all combine to create an atmosphere of neurotic collapse, climaxing in two amazing sequences - Widgren's dream; and the scene with Bertha, when Widgren leaves after blissful lovemaking, and some unseen menace terrifyingly, graspingly, looms over her content. There is a rigorous examination of sexual sadism linked to social sadism: it is surely no accident that Caligula often resembles Hitler or Himmler, with his constant bullying, surveillance and moustache.
TORMENT is not quite the masterpiece it could be - on the one hand, the emphasis on narrative destroys the dreamlike poetry; on the other the lack of narrative coherence can be monotonous. But Sjoberg is an excellent melodramatic director, and if he can't quiet salvage epiphany, there is a rush of rejection and release in the film's final scene that is invigorating. This release is linked to nature, exulted in for the first time in a film oppressed by artifice, interiors and constructedness.
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