Insofar as the 1944 Swedish film Torment is much remembered or discussed at all, it's because the script was written by a 24-year-old named Ingmar Bergman, who was very eagerly in those days trying to kick-start a career in cinema, or theater, or both. He was successful in these goals. And this film is a big part of the reason why: it made quite a splash, raising a great deal of debate about how schools were run in Sweden, and on the strength of writing and assistant-directing the film (as well as directing its final scene which is, in fairness, notably clumsier than many moments throughout), Svensk Filmindustri gave him a crack at the 1946 film Crisis. And from there...

But in truth, if one were to approach Torment without knowing the future of the kid who wrote it, I don't think it's at all likely that one would be inclined to anoint the script as a primary source of the film's success. And I am perhaps begging the question: is the film successful? That great debate in 1944 would say so. The fact that Bergman parlayed the  film into the career that he'd have as well would also say so. For myself, I'm not quite as willing to say so. It's a very heavy film, taking itself very seriously, and in the process overworking its melodramatic scenario beyond the point that it seems ready to go. This story isn't nearly as grave and all-around consequential as Bergman, or his director, the very highly-regarded Alf Sjöberg, act like it is, and the result is... not silly, that's not at all the word for it. But there's something ridiculous about how po-faced it is.

The film is part of the long, glorious tradition of movies similar, but worse than, Jean Vigo's 1933 masterpiece Zero for Conduct. At a school in Stockholm, several boys nearing the end of their secondary school careers are suffering under the tyrannic rule of a Latin teacher they have taken to referring as "Caligula" (Stig Järrel). He treats his classroom like a kingdom - or more to the point, a dictatorship. Given the first draft's 1942 composition date, and the 1944 release date, it hardly seems reasonable to doubt that we have, in front of us, a metaphor for the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, though I do not know that either Sjöberg or Bergman ever claimed as much. Still, given Sweden's very particular situation during the Second World War - officially neutral but geographically close enough to Germany that it somewhat nervously acceded to German influence - and Bergman's own youthful fascination with Hitler's charisma, before the developments of the late '30s shocked that out of him, it is exceedingly hard not to see this as a story about contemporary politics, and not just a coming-of-age story about a student finding it in himself to resist a single teacher's casual brutality.

The student in question is Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), very smart and for this reason a particular focus of Caligula's mockery and meanness. Jan-Erik copes with this situation exactly as the hero of Bergman's very first screenplay ought to: with sex. One day after school, he comes upon local shopgirl  Bertha Olsson (Mai Zetterling), miserable and drunk; he takes her back to her home and tends to her until she's sobered up, and in the days that follow, he falls desperately in love with her. She reciprocates, but the looming spectre of an older, violent man fills her moments with dread. Meanwhile, Jan-Erik's libido is getting in the way of his studies, which makes Caligula all the more eager to bring the hammer down on the boy. After quite a bit - enough so that I ordinarily wouldn't mention it, but it's kind of clear that there wouldn't be a story otherwise - we find that the older man tormenting Bertha is none other than Caligula himself, and once he discovers that his two favorite victims are in love, it opens up whole new avenues of savagery for him.

That reveal puts Torment fairly securely in the realm of melodrama, which is a perfectly fine place to be, except that the filmmakers don't seem to want it to be just a melodrama, or at all a melodrama. This is a movie that everybody involved is taking extremely seriously, resulting in a film that's far heavier and glummer than it ought to be. Cinematographer Martin Bodin approaches this exactly like an American film noir, a couple of years before the films noirs really got going: high contrast, lots of intense, unforgiving pools of black. It's an exceptionally beautiful-looking film as a result, with Sjöberg staging the actors in individual little pockets within the frame to create a sense of dangerous isolation that fits in nicely with the sense of menace brought in by the noir-like lighting. It is all very polished and and lush, and this doesn't exactly work to counteract the feeling that this is all very overly somber and grave in ways that the story of a teenager and his mean teacher really just can't justify being, no matter how much of an allegory for Nazism it is.

It is still pretty watchable, when all is said and done: being gorgeous helps with that, as does Sjöberg's skill for keeping the pace fast, despite how little actually happens over the course of the story. It also has a pair of very fine performances by Kjellin and Järrel, who paradoxically save the film from itself by playing surfaces as much as possible: they treat the material as a battle of wills rather than a weighty tragedy, and Järrel in particular avoids any hint of playing his character as a concept rather than a specific nasty man. This only gets us so far: Järrel can't do too much to give Caligula any sort of actual motivation, and since we only see the teacher through Jan-Erik's perspective, we never get a real sense of him as anything but a force of vindictive, petty evil. It's not terribly satisfying as anything other than a potboiler, but it does at least work on that level.

Zetterling, in the meantime, is acting rings around her co-stars, instilling a deep sense of fatigue and sadness into Bertha, one that makes her tentative hope feel both sweeter and sadder. The problem with this is that Bertha is barely a character at all, rather than an accessory in the story of the teacher and the student contesting with each other. For a screenwriter who would create several of the strongest roles for women in cinema history, this is an especially frustrating lapse, though I suppose it is useful to know that Bergman didn't come into being with that strength fully-formed.

Between them, the three actors are able to focus Torment on its interpersonal dynamics, which isn't quite the same thing as keeping it focused on its characters. But it does make for a reasonably tight and quite watchable movie. This hardly seems like what Sjöberg and company had in mind, and in all honesty, I don't know that I would prefer the film they were aiming for: the more intellectual Torment gets, the more sludgy and unpersuasive it becomes. But at least the character dynamics work, and it's trying to say something important about the world, even if it's being graceless about it.