For 1960, The Virgin Spring is a real shape-shifter for the audiences back then fidgeting in their seats at such extraordinary, shocking story-telling. In fact, Ingmar Bergman’s incredible film would have gasps and quivers from today’s audience. A film that is at once beautiful and serene, where innocence is punctured, fundamentals of faith are broken, and sins take on many guises. In that, The Virgin Spring also condemns itself to unavoidable bleakness and heartbreak.
Adapted by screenwriter Ulla Isaksson, yes, a woman, The Virgin Spring was the first of three Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film for Bergman. Not that we are, or were, counting. The religious themes, so prevalent in the Swede’s films, invite us in the very opening scene. There is a Jesus on the cross upon the wall, this is medieval Sweden, and the notions of morality and spirituality are a way of life. That’s no secret.
By now, in Bergman’s filmmaking career, he had established himself as a formidable talent, but also become renowned for his poetic nature, imagery of serenity, religion, and the dark side of humanity. The director tipped his cap to Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950) in particular, with his directing dynamics on The Virgin Spring. It was also the first feature in which the majestic collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist began its glorious journey.
The Virgin Spring, then, is not an easy watch, even given the fact it is gorgeous to look at. Technical brilliance aside, the film came under some scrutiny with the censors of various sources. Some claimed the picture to be crude and far too shocking. Others wanted to edit out moments that perhaps revealed a little too much flesh. That of a teenage girl as she is set upon by two vagrant men. A crucial, and yes disturbing, point of the plot, Bergman’s final vision to which should be left well alone.
And that’s not all the film offers in terms of an eerie edge. An integral character, the heavily pregnant Ingeri (a fiercely great Gunnel Lindblom), visits a one-eyed man in a secluded cabin, who foresees upcoming events and claims to have sensed things other have not. He is right, though, when he tells her that “three dead men ride north”. Their demise comes after they have committed heinous acts, sending a Christian father, Töre (Max von Sydow in usual fine form), into a conscious state of vengeance.
It is his daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is victim to the brutality, on her way to carry candles to the church. A role given to the pure. And that Karin is, the innocent virgin, with blonde hair, and dressed like an angel. Her companion Ingeri, in contrast, appears unclean, darker, unkept hair, not to mention the baby in her belly signifies her loss of innocence. Their relationship is volatile, but somehow strong.
Almost the stuff of fairy tales, Karin is a sweet girl, but treats Ingeri like a lowly servant. And likewise, Ingeri holds an emotional grudge against the privileged white girl, an envy long-since morphed into resentment. “We’ll see how your honour is when a man starts fumbling you” she tells Karin, halting her idyllic outlook on her future. In her taunting, negative ways, there’s a life education in Ingeri’s words, which the naive Karin brushes off. You could argue that she is warned by her irritated company of the dangers that lie ahead.
The awful events that take place are far more creepier and frightful in its enduring build-up knowing how the film has influenced many similar set-ups of cinematic rape and revenge. The helpless, pleasant girl, and the battered-teeth, leering animals. Karin shares food with these vagabonds, two adults and a young boy, she insists they not eat until she finishes her prayer. Even a frog makes an appearance to add to the Biblical strokes.
When the two men ensnare her like hungry snakes, their words break Karin’s hospitality. “Such white hands. Such a white neck. Such a slender waist.” they whisper in either ear, they are the big bad wolves of this tale. One of the men even strikes Karin across the head when she attempts to leave. Then unclothe her body as though she is an unwanted old doll.
As chance would have it, the despicable bandits happen upon the family home of the now missing Karin. Like much of the film’s dramatic irony, it’s as though William Shakespeare wrote it. And again, the guests have to endure prayer before they took in. The young boy is unable to eat through the trauma of the previous events, just as he couldn’t in the forest. And the realization of who these men are when the mother, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), is offered Karin’s clothes, she is unable to make them aware of her immediate heartbreak. It’s pure tragedy.
The Virgin Spring is so atmospheric, so powerful, the sense of dread it feeds you never really leaves. Not even after the film has ended. Long after. The final scenes of merciful revenge are like having grit between your teeth. Still the tension is building, Bergman wants your experience on his terms. And so be it. As Töre smothers one of the men to death, they fall beyond the lit fire, the flames partially shielding our view. In keeping with the notion that the devil is behind all of this chaos.
For this family, the foundations of faith come crashing down, even before they know it themselves. Bergman is truly capable of conveying such heart-rending stories, without need for many words. Amidst the endless trees, the streams, sunlight, the reflections, and shadows of the house, the characters in the darkness. Touches of Norse mythology, the crippling feeling of guilt, the consequences of a religious crisis, Bergman’s brush brings it all to the canvas with distinguished strokes.
Not long before Töre begs for forgiveness in the dawn of his grief, the forlorn Ingeri declares her guilt, that she wanted it, Karin’s end. As they remove her body from the ground, it gives way to a fresh water spring. One of many moments of absolute symbolism, Ingeri instinctively washes her face in the stream. As the father promises God to build a church of stone as part of his own redemption, maybe that cleanse is the start of Ingeri’s penance.