THE VIRGIN SPRING (Ingmar Bergman, 1959)

Through the years Ingmar Bergman treated Jungfrukällan in two ways; either he repudiated it as an inferior thing to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), which may have inspired his making it, or he ignored it, failing often to mention it when he surveyed his career. Nevertheless, there are those of us who are deeply affected by the film, and not necessarily on grounds that match the ways in which the film is generally perceived. Although this is a rare—unique?—instance when Bergman did not direct from his own script* (I suspect the source of some of his reservations), the result is authentically Bergmanian. However, on the basis of nothing whatsoever in it, some of its viewers have obstinately read some sort of religious message into the film, and of course, as a matter of temperament as well as conscience, an avowed atheist such as Bergman could only recoil from this, throwing out the baby—in this case, the film—with the bathwater, in this case, the attendant misperceptions and misinterpretations. This sort of thing is hardly unusual when the “spinners” are religionists, who in such matters are either delusional or willfully miscomprehending; for example, nineteenth-century English poet Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” a poised statement of religious doubt and abiding hopefulness, was appropriated as the lyric for a gung-ho song of faith. The Virgin Spring could hardly be clearer; it analyzes rather than embodies or projects religious feeling. Nevertheless, Bergman may have blamed himself that visitors to the film so often, however wantonly, imposed on it their own uncritical religious beliefs. I, though, am perfectly happy with their obtuseness, because it prompted, at least in part, Bergman’s trilogy about the relationship between humanity and God, the final two films of which are among his most brilliant: Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). God, Bergman believes, does not exist, and his trio of films takes this into account in its portrait of dementia, ambiguous relationships, and solitudinous existence. In reality, the earlier Virgin Spring, far from gushing sentiments of belief, analyzes in particular Christianity’s mythmaking tendencies.

Perhaps the misunderstanding partly derives from the source of Ulla Isaksson’s script, a 14th-century ballad whose appearance of simplicity (as Garbicz and Klinowski point out, something unusual for a Bergman film) may for some viewers shift at least the demeanor of the film from its actual disposition to the simple feelings and basic drives of its legendary characters. Relatedly, Peter Morris attributes to the medieval source material a most counter-Bergmanian theme: “the abundant grace of God and the miracle of reconciliation.” To a certain extent, perhaps, the Carl Theodor Dreyer-factor of influence may have misled some viewers to anticipate something akin to a religious experience in their viewing of the film. Regardless, nothing in the film itself supports such a reception.**

The story is set at the time that the ballad was written. Töre, a rich landowner, adheres to the Christian faith, or perhaps one should say the form of the Christian faith, as a matter of propriety and head-of-household responsibility, not out of deep conviction. Märeta, his wife, on the other hand, is devout; her husband finds her routine mortifications, an expression of her devotion, needless self-injury. When he chides this practice of hers as being too severe, he is tacitly challenging the reasonableness of her faith while at the same time expressing genuine spousal concern. For Töre, Christianity serves the function of family and regional order; for Märeta, it is a matter of the utmost conviction. But they are a tolerant couple, especially where their 15-year-old daughter, Karin, is concerned. They indulge this only child of theirs, she with expansive maternal openness, he with his predictably crumbling façade of strict paternal authority. They are also raising Karin to be a dutiful Christian. Today, for instance, she is charged with the mission of journeying by horseback and delivering candles to church. Karin will not return. She will be waylaid, and raped and killed by the older two of a trio of impoverished, orphaned, goat-herding brothers. Not realizing that they have murdered the couple’s priceless child (well, certainly the two older ones do not realize this), the trio stop by the farm and try to sell the couple Karin’s gorgeous, special outfit. Relapsing into blood-vengeance from the Norse faith that preceded Christianity, Töre exacts an horrific revenge, killing all three of the visiting party, including the utterly innocent boy, whom his wife tries to protect, himself a routine victim of abuse at the hands of his brothers. The entire household journeys by foot to the scene of Karin’s violation and slaughter. Töre drops to his knees, asks God for forgiveness, and pledges to live a true Christian life thereafter, the symbol for which will be the church that he promises to build on the spot—a commemoration of his daughter’s suffering as well as Jesus’s. When they lift the head of Karin’s corpse off the ground, a new spring gushes forth: a sign, it appears, that God has answered Töre’s prayer and accepted the bargain between them. There is something icky about the moment when we realize that at least in part Töre is seeking to absolve his daughter of her rape, as though she were at all responsible for it. He is seeking a reconstitution of her purity—and also, now that he is a triple killer, of some measure of his own.

The unfortunate impregnated girl that the couple has taken into their household, Ingeri, is an old-religion, that is to say, Norse holdout until, presumably, the conclusion. Clipped shots of everyone in the party suggest transformed existences; what can be more spiritual than a virgin spring? Well, it is nothing of the sort, of course; it is an entirely natural occurrence, and Bergman has prepared us to be skeptical, if not entirely dismissive, about the religious import that is variously imposed on this first gush by the characters in the film. Earlier, another stream has routinely, quietly and sparklingly moved through successive frames. Thus it seems almost hysterical when each visitor to the site of “the virgin spring” silently reads into the natural event the religious import, and the silence provides an additional layer of distance that helps form the impression that the religious music which pops up on the soundtrack is, really, so much foolishness. This shifts our attention from God to the need for his existence evidenced by all these individuals in what has been shown to be a harsh, cruel, violent and economically unequal world. At the center of this human-made religious spectacle, then, is a father struggling to redeem his perception of a universe that would cut down his daughter and move him to commit, in response, the triple murder.

In passing, we viewers might note that two literary works seem to float in and out of the film: Hamlet, which also in part deals with a conflict between Christianity and an older faith, one preaching forbearance, the other blood-vengeance; “Little Red Riding Hood,” especially given Karin’s caped dress as she goes on her dangerous though elder-sanctioned journey. Indeed, the medieval ballad behind the film may be one of the streams that fed into the result that we know as the story about the child on her way to Grandmother’s, although surely other contributors to the story pre-date the ballad.

God is so absent in this particular film that not even a spider appears that might be mistaken for him (the reduction of God-as-spider reflects mental imbalance in the upcoming trilogy, after which, further reduced, God is revealed to be non-existent)—although other animals, including a raven, are shown in startling foreground closeup, the way they appear during the river journey in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). When Töre reaches out in prayer to God, what we are left with isn’t God but, rather, Töre’s reaching out.

Indeed, absence is a motif early on identified with Karin. After a hard night’s dancing, Karin sleeps late on the morning of the last day of her life. Hence she is absent from the breakfast table. This absence foreshadows her permanent absence. In addition, the breakfast scene is the first of three scenes of repast that structure the narrative. In the second, Karin shares her lunch with the brothers; there she appears at the center of the image, seemingly occupying a position of authority and command. Yet she is poised for her permanent absence as her rape-murder comes closer and closer, exposing her for the helpless child that she is. Once she belatedly realizes the danger she is in, Karin attempts an escape, her body getting caught in a bush of bare branches that suggest Nature’s entanglement much as the “virgin spring” will suggest Nature’s release of her—in effect, her release into family legend and poetic history. The final repast is dinner at Karin’s home, where the brothers have been invited in as guests as the minds of the family members worry about Karin’s absence, her failure to return home when expected. The expensive garment of hers that one of the killers attempts to sell to the family certifies Karin’s absence and seals the brothers’ doom.

One of the film’s striking features is the resemblance between the boy and Karin, which begins with their both being blond and looking, as indeed they are, innocent. After she is killed (with a log to her skull—a hint of crucifixion), the boy is charged with a family mission much as Karin herself had been; he is to guard her corpse as the brothers temporarily depart the scene (on what mission of their own, at this moment I can’t recall). The boy had not participated in either the rape or the murder; rather, these horrible crimes that he witnessed must seem to him a projection of what he himself has long suffered at the hands of his brothers. The boy is a mute—his speechlessness, emblematic of his powerlessness. (The boy “speaks” only through his tormented face.) One of his brothers has had his tongue cut out, leaving his “speech” an indecipherable series of grunts: the non-innocent version of his young brother’s affliction, another indication of the powerlessness of the poor and the harsh nature of life in general. The boy’s muteness in particular connects to the theme of God’s silence; the non-existence of his capacity for speech reflects the non-existence of God. Indeed, with his brothers’ temporary departure we see the boy as being all alone in the universe, undefended by any higher power that might take mercy on his circumstance. He covers Karin’s corpse with a handful or two of earth for three reasons: he is attempting to blot out the horrors he has witnessed—horrors perpetrated by his own brothers; he is attempting to blot out what may appear to him as an image of his own imminent cruel fate; he is acting upon a decent impulse. This is where the resemblance between him and Karin kicks in, for this decency of his reminds us that Karin’s sharing her lunch with the brothers, although there is certainly a measure of condescension to it, also was a decent act. Indeed, at some level the two innocent victims merge into a single character or symbolical entity. At the farm of Karin’s father, the boy evidences an intense degree of fear and discomfort that reminds us of Karin’s when she realizes that she is in danger. Is it possible that he alone among the brothers instantly realizes who the landowner and his wife must be? (Karin’s mother resembles Karin and himself.) Is it possible he understands that his own end as a result is imminent? For me, the film’s most beauteous shot—the black-and-white cinematographer is Sven Nykvist—heartrendingly conveys the spiritual relationship between the boy and Karin. When he is left alone with her corpse, an angled overhead shot of the boy records the falling of snow upon him—upon him, that is, and Karin’s corpse. It is a kind of haunting burial of them both.

Somber, poetic, luminous and melancholy, The Virgin Spring is an exceptionally beautiful film. It won the foreign-language film Oscar, and a special commendation at Cannes. The acting is excellent—except for Max von Sydow, who plays Töre and who is way beyond being excellent.

* I have since come across other films that Bergman directed from others’ scripts.

** Of course, whenever I revisit Dreyer’s Ordet (1954), which is a film I love a whole lot more than I do The Virgin Spring, I switch into a faithful mode. One takes films according to the filmmakers’ beliefs, not one’s own. Dreyer was a man of Christian faith; Bergman was not.

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