TORMENT (FRENZY) (HETS) (Alf Sjöberg, 1944)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, January 4, 1:30, and Monday, January 6, 4:30
Series runs January 2-19
MoMA explores the treatment of adolescence on the big screen in “Show Me Love: International Teen Cinema,” a twelve-program series that begins January 2 with Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (Two Daughters) and Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love). You won’t find any John Hughes or American Pie flicks on the schedule, which focuses on a more global appeal; the US films in the lineup are Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves, Michael Schultz’s Cooley High, and Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up. On January 4 and 6, MoMA will present Alf Sjöberg’s intense 1944 expressionistic noir, Torment, which had its US premiere at the museum in 1962. Although directed by Sjöberg, Torment, also known as Frenzy, was written by Ingmar Bergman, who also served as assistant director and made his directing debut in the final scene, which Bergman added at the insistence of the producers when Sjöberg was not available. A kind of inversion of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the film is set in a boarding school where high school boys are preparing for their final exams and graduation. They are terrified of their sadistic Latin teacher, whom they call Caligula (Stig Järrel), a brutal man who wields a fascistic iron fist. He particularly has it out for Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the son of wealthy parents (Olav Riégo and Märta Arbin) who think he should be doing better in school. One night Jan-Erik helps out a troubled woman in the street, tobacco-shop clerk Bertha Olsson (Mai Zetterling), who is being mentally and physically tormented by an unnamed man who ends up being Caligula. The stakes get higher and the teacher becomes even harder on Jan-Erik when he finds out the young man is having an affair with the wayward woman. When tragedy strikes, Jan-Erik’s soul is in turmoil as lies, threats, and danger grow.
The twenty-five-year-old Bergman was inspired to write his first produced film script by his experience in boarding school, which led to a public disagreement with the headmaster. In a public letter to the headmaster, Bergman explained, “I was a very lazy boy, and very scared because of my laziness, because I was involved with theater instead of school and because I hated having to be punctual, having to get up in the morning, do homework, sit still, having to carry maps, having break times, doing tests, taking oral examinations, or to put it plainly: 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.” Throughout his career, Bergman would take on institutions, including religion and marriage, but his defiance began with this hellish representation of education, which oppresses all the boys in some way, including Jan-Erik’s best friend, self-described misogynist Sandman (Stig Olin), and the geeky Pettersson (Jan Molander). While the headmaster (Olof Winnerstrand) knows how frightened the boys are of Caligula, he is willing to go only so far to protect them. The opening credits are shown over a dreamlike sequence of Jan-Erik and Bertha desperately holding on to each other, but Torment is so much more than a treacly melodrama, as if Sjöberg (Miss Julie, Ön) is setting us up for one film before switching gears into an ominous, haunting thriller.
Järrel, who played an evil, jealous teacher in his previous film, Hasse Ekman’s Flames in the Dark, is indeed scary as the devious, malicious Caligula, while adding more than a touch of sadness. Zetterling, in her breakthrough role — she would go on to star in such other films as Frieda and The Witches and direct such feminist works as Loving Couples and The Girls — brings a touching vulnerability to Bertha, a young woman who can’t find happiness. It’s all anchored by Kjellin’s (Madame Bovary, Ship of Fools) central performance, so rife with emotion it evokes German silent cinema. Torment suffers from Hilding Rosenberg’s overreaching score, although it is usually offset by Martin Bodin’s cinematography, filled with lurching shadows and deep mystery. The film was produced by Victor Sjöström, the legendary director of The Phantom Carriage, The Divine Woman, The Wind, and so many others in addition to his work as an actor, starring as Professor Isak Borg in another Bergman masterpiece, 1957’s Wild Strawberries, and as the conductor in 1950’s To Joy. “Show Me Love: International Teen Cinema” continues through January 19 with such other films as Jaromil Jires’s Valerie a týden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), Diane Kury’s Diabolo Menthe (Peppermint Soda), Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Tenkousei (I Are You, You Am Me aka Exchange Student), and Claire Denis’s Nénette et Boni (Nenette and Boni).