- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, who died this summer at the age of 89, entered the movie profession in 1942, at the age of 24, when hired for the writing staff at Svensk Filmindustri, the leading Swedish production and distribution company.

He had attracted the attention of the management with a play of his own, “The Death of Punch,” which he also staged at Stockholm University’s Student Theater. While continuing to direct plays around the city and to regard himself as an aspiring playwright, the young Mr. Bergman gained access to the company’s film library and read, revised or polished screenplays for his new employer.

Eventually, Mr. Bergman also submitted an original of his own, “Frenzy,” a mordant romantic melodrama about a restless university student involved with a shopgirl, whom he cannot protect from the coincidental lust of his most hated teacher, a homicidal Latin master known as Caligula.

According to the author, this unsolicited manuscript was received without comment by his supervisor. Before long it did arouse the interest of a prominent theater and film director, Alf Sjoberg, who permitted the writer to remain on the set (as an inexperienced “script girl”) while transforming the material into a semi-classic expressionistic thriller of 1945.

“Frenzy” collected four awards from the Swedish Film Society, best screenplay included. It reached the American art-house circuit in 1947 under a new title, “Torment,” which caught the spirit of the movie a bit more accurately while also anticipating a recurrent emotional theme in the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. “Torment” was recently packaged with four movies from the late 1940s that he directed: “Crisis,” “Port of Call,” “Thirst” and “To Joy.” They now comprise a Criterion Collection DVD set called “Early Bergman.”

It isn’t complete by a long shot. During the same apprentice period of his film career, Mr. Bergman directed four other features and four of his screenplays were directed by others. Never a slacker, he was even more productive during the 1950s while emerging as an international name — he completed 13 features and staged an equal number of plays. The early surge was also haunted by a tempestuous private life — Mr. Bergman had exhausted two marriages and fathered five children by the end of the 1940s.

“Thirst,” eventually imported to the U.S. under the curious title “Three Strange Loves,” remains the most intriguing and poignant cinematic testament to the marital wreckage. The second Mrs. Bergman, Ellen Lundstrom, a former ballerina, choreographed the movie’s dance sequences.

Although she was the mother of four of those early offspring, she may also be a prototype for the heroine, a childless and high-strung ex-dancer named Ruth (played by Eva Henning). Most of the movie revolves around her wrangles during a train journey with husband Bertil (Birger Malmsten, Mr. Bergman’s favorite leading man of the period).

These episodes remain some of the most inventive depictions of claustrophobic, seriocomic intimacy in the Bergman library; indeed, his prowess at sexual sparring and interplay probably begins with this movie, which also served to refine and showcase virtuoso patterns of lighting and portraiture with Gunnar Fischer, the principal Bergman cameraman for more than a decade, starting near the end of the 1940s.

“Thirst” also preserves some characteristic oddities and shortcomings of early Bergman. Structurally freakish, it incorporates extended flashbacks that have no persuasive bearing on the bond between Ruth and Bertil; they do provide the movie with at least four strange loves, a smoldering but abortive lesbian encounter included.

Mr. Bergman didn’t originate the material of the four movies from this collection he directed, but he was an active rewriter. The results echo the short-winded tendencies of “Torment,” which unravels after about 70 minutes. You’re not quite sure whether the filmmakers have rushed the climax or overlooked the need for a third act.

The drifting sensation that stalls “Torment” reoccurs in the subsequent movies, all diverting or absorbing in fits and starts. Given the renown Mr. Bergman later enjoyed with period evocation in “Smiles of a Summer Night” and “The Seventh Seal,” it’s interesting to recall that these early features rely on topical stories, often linked by similar social problems (juvenile delinquency, generational conflict, unwed pregnancy, abortion) and distinguished by a promising range of observation, from docks and factories to dance halls, beauty parlors and concert halls. An attraction to ominous dream states and psychological disorder is mitigated by a fondness for courtship interludes and the vicissitudes of young lovers.

There are numerous incidental reasons for rediscovering these films. It’s gratifying to be reminded of the early Bergman stock company. The youthful Mai Zetterling, cast as the ill-fated heroine of “Torment,” became a Hollywood transplant for a time in the 1950s. Gunnar Bjornstrand, a principal leading man for Mr. Bergman in the 1950s, first appears in “Torment” as a teacher in long shot, chasing a little boy who hopes to evade mandatory prayer services.

Metaphorically, he seems to be chasing Mr. Bergman’s own memory of himself as a child. Stig Olin, the father of Lena Olin, is a distinctive impish asset to both “Torment,” where he’s the sarcastic pal of hero Alf Kjellin, and “Crisis,” where he’s an enigmatic gigolo, initially menacing and then poetical-suicidal.

The most stirring of early Mr. Bergman leading ladies, Maj-Britt Nilsson, helps prop up the ramshackle plot of “To Joy” while cast as a doomed spouse. A year later she was sublimely heartbreaking as the heroine of “Summer Interlude,” a breakthrough Bergman movie in several respects. Now unavailable, it”s a good candidate for a second “Early Bergman” collection.

TITLE: “Early Bergman”

CONTENTS: Five movies: “Torment,” “Crisis,” “Port of Call,” “Thirst” and “To Joy” written or directed by Ingmar Bergman between 1944 and 1949.

RATING: No MPAA rating (all films released long before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional elements of violence and sexual candor; fleeting profanity and nudity)

RUNNING TIMES: Between 84 and 101 minutes

DVD EDITION: Eclipse Series of the Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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