Ingmar Bergman was ‘script girl’ on Frenzy. He didn’t direct the film (the director was Alf Sjöberg) so it isn’t strictly one of the 39 that I want to see in the course of writing this blog. But it was Bergman’s screenplay, and since I’m working through his early career anyway, I figured that I might as well rewatch it.
The story is about a Latin teacher nicknamed Caligula (Stig Järrel), who is pretty nasty to the boys in his class. In his spare time he stalks a girl named Berta (Mai Zetterling). And in the course of the film Berta gets together with Jan Erik (Alf Kjellin), one of Caligula’s students. So there’s a neat little triangle for the audience to enjoy.
Although Frenzy is an engaging story, it isn’t immediately clear what you can gain from watching it. The script is putatively about torment (hence its American title, Torment), about the oppressive experience of going to a Swedish boys’ school with old-fashioned teachers. You get the impression that Bergman didn’t enjoy his time at school much.
Sjöberg played with this idea a bit and made the film symbolic of the Nazi threat in Sweden. Caligula is supposed to embody this threat, but despite his pleasingly nasty smirk, he doesn’t really command awe in his daylight scenes. Actually, you pity him more than you fear him. Torment doesn’t do torment all that well.
For me, what makes the film interesting is how Jan-Erik comes to terms with his attitude towards women. I can’t remember his exact words, but near the beginning of the film he talks about finding a girl who is wholesome, devoted… that kind of thing. And then he meets Berta. She has the potential to be the woman of his dreams, but he’s nervous because she’s a bit slutty when she’s drunk. She’s not the sort of girl he’d want to introduce to his parents.
Jan-Erik finds her alluring, but not alluring enough for him to be there for her when it matters, when she needs help. You could argue that the film is about selfishness: Jan-Erik puts his own needs ahead of his girlfriend’s and realises a little too late that this behaviour, which he has inherited from his selfish father, is bad for him and for those around him. Bergman could have made more of this in his script. In my view, it’s what makes the film worth watching.
That, and one of the most sinister staircase scenes I can remember: two helpless, nervous youngsters kiss each other good night and then, unexpectedly, the shadow of a third character’s hand creeps into view. It’s right up there with staircase moments in Psycho (1960) and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983; don’t laugh) for spook value.
The camerawork is beautiful, finding some great angles in the school’s lofty interiors. But that has nothing to do with Bergman: the production manager asked him to shoot a few scenes while Sjöberg was in Italy, but none of that footage made the final cut.