In the first weeks of 1960, Ingmar Bergman premiered The Storm, his fourth television film in three years, and quite an important milestone in his screen career it was. No artist in any medium was a more obvious influence on the director, nor more readily acknowledged by him as such, than the great playwright August Strindberg, and with The Storm, he directed a film adaptation of a Strindberg play for the first time in his career (he'd do this only once more, with 1963's A Dream Play). The results are every bit what I would have hoped for from such a momentous development: for the first time in Bergman's dalliance with making plays for TV, the end results aren't just a more or less worthy curio, but a genuinely strong piece of filmmaking and psychological storytelling, within the limits of a telefilm budget.

And the limits of the material he was working with, to be fair. The Storm (or Storm Weather, though I believe the former is the literal translation) is not A-list Strindberg; he wrote it near the end of his life, as the first in a four-play cycle from 1907 collectively referred to as the "Chamber Plays", pioneering a genre that would become quite important in theater in the first decades of the 20th Century, as well as inspiring some of Bergman's most celebrated films of the '60s and '70s. The third of the Chamber Plays, The Ghost Sonata, has gone on to become one of Strindberg's best-known and most frequently-staged works; that I am aware of, the other three remain comparatively obscure. I won't go and be snarky and say something like "and they deserve to!": The Storm is a fine piece, based on the version Bergman presents for us here. But it does have a certain stiffness in the way it moves from scene to scene and a distinct archness in the way it presents its characters; this is the kind of play where the protagonist is just called the Gentleman, and his actions carry all the freighted metaphorical weight that a man with no proper name could be expected to embody. This is less about laser-sharp psychological acuity, and more about unexpressed emotional currents running against each other; Strindberg used musical metaphors in discussing this cycle of play, and it is apparently the case that part of his goal with this work was to experiment with rhythms and motifs rather than straightforward dramatic development. In the case of The Storm, I think the results of the experiment are inconclusive.

The gentleman (Uno Henning) lives in a well-appointed apartment in a fine neighborhood, and we meet him as he is advancing into his later years. He seems to be a somewhat friendly, somewhat aloof sort, prone to having meandering, lightly philosophic conversations with his brother (Ingvar Kjellson) - the brother actually has a name spoken in dialogue, Karl Frederick, but it's not given as such in the film's dramatis personae. It is a form of decrepit comfort that could undoubtedly last for years, except that Karl Frederick is about to run into his brother's annoying new upstairs neighbor: as it turns out, it's Gerda (Gunnel Broström), the much younger woman who was the gentleman's last wife, who ran out five years ago with their young daughter. Having incorrectly heard that he had moved away, Gerda has come back with the daughter and her current husband, in a marriage that's starting to show the wear and tear of limited affection and infidelity. This is all happening while a storm starts to build up: lightning flashes are naturally enough used to punctuate key moments and add a sense of impending dread, both of the real storm, and the metaphorical one brewing these five years between the gentleman and Gerda.

How this later storm develops is one of the play's more impressive surprises, so that's all I have to say about the plot. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of scabbed-over wounds being wrenched open, and plenty of spaces for the three characters (there are several more, but these are the ones that get the most care and depth) to spill their bloody guts all over the stage. Or the film set, as the case may be. Bergman has committed some lovely bit of alchemy with The Storm, managing to suggest a piece that very much feels like it was designed for the stage (it was not; in fact, he never directed a stage production of The Storm. He would, however adapt it for radio in the late 1990s, radio drama apparently being a thing in Sweden many, many decades after it ceased to be a thing in the anglosphere), while also using a full range of cinematic techniques to put over the characters.

The most important of these, bar none, is the use of close-ups. Bergman had been developing his use of close-ups at least since 1953's Sawdust and Tinsel, but it was in the late '50s, particularly Brink of Life in '58, where he started to get really aggressive and even experimental with the device. That experiment would start to bear some extraordinary fruit in the '60s, but even right at the dawn of that decade, there's already a tremendous amount of probing psychological insight Bergman is able to conduct by carefully managing not just the distance between his actors and the camera, but how he positions them in the frame. For there is a difference between the luminous confessional quality of a human face precisely in the center of the frame, versus the relationship we have to that same face skewed to the corner. And things change again still when he has the actor look right into the lens, as we sometimes get here. In fact, The Storm has what I believe to be the first experiments in the kind of quasi-surreal, spatially abstract close-ups that would be used to such legendary effect in Persona in 1966: when Karl Frederick and Gerda have their long conversation in which she explains what's going on, but actually they're laying out the emotional stakes of their characters and bemoaning the fatalistic sensibility of their lives, they're positioned next to each other at a diagonal, with Gerda over Karl Frederick's right shoulder, both of them staring into the camera while having a conversation with each other; at a certain point, Gerda crosses to his left shoulder and in so doing plunges her face into shadow, with the camera obligingly panning curtly to the right to re-create the composition. Now, sixty years later (and largely because of the incalculable impact Persona had on world cinema), this is pretty much pure cliché, but in 1960, and on television, no less, this was transformative stuff. It completely changes the nature of this already very heavy, fraught conversation, wrenching it from realism and placing it securely into the realm of dreamlike abstraction, with two characters having a conversation with each other but also directly addressing us, in blocking that makes it almost impossible to reconcile how they're occupying a space.

The nifty thing about is that, fundamentally, this isn't anything that couldn't be part of a theatrical staging. Plays have actors orient their bodies and faces towards the audience all the time, and deliver their lines outward into the empty space over the audience's heads. Plays do. Movies don't. And weirdly, just by literally translating a theatrical device before the camera (well, not completely literal - the diagonal over-the-shoulder staging would have been pretty weird onstage, I imagine), Bergman has manage to render the banal convention of one medium into a radical alien intrusion into another medium.

Most of The Storm isn't operating nearly at that level, but it does have the same general sense of this being a very weird, artificial movie, rather than this being a relatively normal theater piece. The use of frequently-changing shot scales and cinematic, rather than theatrical lighting have quite a lot to do with this, I am sure. One thing this does is to redefine the piece for its new medium - if Strindberg was indeed trying to experiment with rhythm, I'm even tempted to say that film is a better home for The Storm could ever be, what with film's built-in rhythm-controlling technology, the edit, and with the use of close-ups and and wider shots subbing for musical dynamics.

On top of which, it's also a fine showcase for actors diving into Strindberg's tense situation and anguished dialogue, and finding rich depths to play. These are not the usual familiar faces from Bergman's productions in the '50s (though several cast members had played very small roles in one or more of his features), which I imagine has something to do with Bergman's changed situation. 1959 was a transitional year for him; he ended his extraordinarily productive relationship with Malmö City Theatre, and began working with Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre - he would become the managing director of the latter in 1963, in fact. Presumably as a a result of this upheaval to his life, he did not direct a single production released in 1959: not for television, not for cinemas, not for the stage. By the time of The Storm, he was perhaps thus recharged and ready to try out new ideas, and without having Malmö's ensemble at his fingertips, he was trying them out with a host of new actors. The performances they give him are generally excellent, moving through naturalism to arrive at something heightened enough to match the strange, uncanny quality of the staging and sets. Broström in particular does remarkable work, going towards something broad and even caricatured in Gerda's breast-beating and and miserable raging, but somehow making it feel perfectly organic and tightly-fitted to the way she is moved relative to the camera.

This is, by all means, an interesting and even important transitional work, and I imagine it's obscurity is due mostly to its television origins; none of these early plays for TV have lingered on as anything but forgotten footnotes in Bergman's career. In this case, at least, that's definitely an unjust fate. The Storm feels every bit as significant in the director's solidifying his aesthetic as he headed into a new phase of his career as the theatrical features Brink of Life and The Magician (and both of those are already somewhat overlooked, compared to the features he made on either side), and I think it's entire possible to argue that it tells a better story than either of them. As of this writing, it can be found without too much difficulty through a YouTube search, in a pretty battered-up copy (a 1960 Swedish television production, not looking in tip-top condition? Jeepers), and while I wouldn't say that everybody should run right out and see it, I do think that, as you're the kind of person who would read an 1800-word review of an extremely rare and obscure Ingmar Bergman TV movie, my suspicion is that you probably might want to consider it. I assure you, your curiosity will be rewarded.