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DVD Review: The Virgin Spring

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Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) is, despite its winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961, one of his lesser outings. Part of this is, no doubt, due to the fact that the bulk of the film was not written by Bergman, but by novelist Ulla Isaksson, who based her thin script upon a medieval ballad called Töre’s Daughter At Vänge.

The title of the film is a double entendre which refers to the chaste lead character’s outing during the springtime, and a rivulet of water that emerges from where her corpse is eventually found by her family after she is raped and murdered. Compared to the films which preceded it, it lacks the emotional heft of The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries, and compared to the films that followed it, it lacks the filmic daring of Persona or A Passion.

It is an odd film in the Bergman canon, and ranks with Cries And Whispers and The Serpent’s Egg as one of the few filmic mediocrities the director ever crafted. Its characters are wooden, almost unintentionally comic. Their motivations and reactions are wholly stilted and artificial, and the symbolism is often heavy-handed. Fortunately, it’s only an hour and a half in length. It’s little wonder that only a dozen or so years later horror filmmaker Wes Craven (and Sean Cunningham) would launch his forgettable career with a film heavily influenced by, if not flat out based upon, it, called Last House On The Left, with its infamous scene of an angry and vengeful mother biting the penis off one of her daughter’s killers during fellatio.

No, there is no oral sex in the Bergman film, set in medieval times, when Christianity was just displacing the Norse religions. But the film, itself, while miles better than Craven’s initial outing, is almost as wooden in some spots. Some critics have tried to place this as a transition film for Bergman, which it is chronologically speaking, but I think it’s merely a clunker. As said, it lacks all of the qualities that made prior and future films classics.

The story is rather simple, as a spoiled blond virginal beauty named Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) oversleeps on a day she must go to church. Her parents, Töre and Märeta (Max Von Sydow and Birgitta Valberg), are Christians (Märeta is a devout convert, while her husband is bored by the religion) who spoil her rotten. This causes a great deal of friction between Karin and her foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who is dark, gaunt, pregnant out of wedlock, and still worships Odin. Even in such basics, Bergman is far too obvious, as the film never rises above the archetypes that the original medieval ballad establishes.

Ingeri wishes Karin dead, and when the two girls are sent off into the forest alone, they both meet up with evil, of varying sorts. The naïve Karin and Ingeri argue, and they end up splitting up at the shack of an old and perverse Odin worshipper. In their trip we can see the condescending and arrogant way with which Karin treats Ingeri, even slapping her for her presumed insolence, thus seeing why her hatred for Karin exists, as we can easily extrapolate the ways that Karin and her clan have abused Ingeri, and this fact will have devastating consequences for the both of the girls later on.

Karin leaves Ingeri behind, and rides on alone to church, ignorant of the evil that awaits her in the form of three goatherd brothers. They are the lead brother (Axel Düberg), the mute brother (Tor Isedal), and the preteen brother (Ove Porath), who portrays one of the few child roles in Bergman’s canon. They stop Karin, give her a story of woe, and she shares her food with them. In repayment, the two older brothers rape her, with the mute clubbing her to death. They then strip her of her Sunday clothing, and take off. This is the most effective, and real, scene in the film, and Bergman wisely lets it play out without musical scoring, as is done in so many melodramatic Hollywood films that need to emphasize every false emotion to its most ridiculous extreme.

The young boy, who says nothing in the film, is sickened by the sight, vomits, and is deeply affected the rest of the film. He tries, half-heartedly to bury Karin, but cannot. Witnessing the crime is Ingeri, who initially picks up a rock, as if to intervene, but then stays silent, and does nothing, for no real reason. Yes, we know why she resents Karin, but for her to not intervene is just a contrivance left over from the ballad, not what any real human being would do, despite her pregnancy. This is especially so since we have seen her fend off the sexual advances of the lecherous old Norse worshipper herself, and run away on foot, leaving behind her horse.

Eventually, the trio of brothers end up at Karin’s parents house, where they are offered work, shelter, and food. It seems that Karin’s parents are relatively prosperous land owners, if not the royalty Karin bragged of to the brothers before her death. The young boy, however, vomits his soup at the table, and then is scared by the preachments of another of Karin’s parents’ guests, a beggar they have housed. Hearing a noise, Märeta goes back down to the barn where the brothers are sleeping, and the lead brother makes the error of offering to sell her Karin’s dress, stained with blood, claiming it belonged to their now dead sister. Already worried for her daughter, Märeta now knows what has happened, and tells Töre.

They lock the brothers in the building, and when Töre sees Ingeri, she confesses that she saw the whole rape and murder, and did nothing. Töre plots his revenge, and goes through a long psyching-up process of taking a steam bath and uprooting a sapling. He then enters the building, stabs the mute brother to death in the neck, strangles and tosses the lead brother into the fire, and then takes the scared young boy, over his wife’s objections, and tosses him across the room, violently, thus breaking the child’s neck. In his rage, Töre fears that he has descended to the animalistic level of the two older brothers, and become as bad as they were by killing the young boy, who we have seen is a victim of his two older brothers’ malignance.

The next morning, Töre, and all those dependent upon him, set off to find Karin’s body. Ingeri leads them there, and Töre, upon seeing it, goes off to the river to question God. This could have been a great scene and moment, for Bergman wisely dos not let us see Töre’s face, only his back, thus allowing us to interpolate our own ideas of anguish into the scene, not something he has spoonfed us. Yet, then Töre, inexplicably, claims he will build a chapel on the spot where his daughter was murdered, and an underground spring bursts forth from where Karin’s head lay. It is a miracle (as well as needlessly preachy), and the film ends in solemnity, yet hope.

The acting is all over the place, starting with Von Sydow. At times, his Töre is emotionally convincing, as when he anguishes over killing the boy, or whips himself into a frenzy just beforehand. Yet, at other times he is an almost comically absurd figure, almost out of a Prince Valiant comic strip. The rest of the acting is in simple emotional blacks and whites, save for the superlative performance by Ove Porath, as the young boy. His has to be the finest film portrayal by a child in the post-silent film era, if not by any actor of any age.

The lighting and black and white cinematography by Sven Nykvist, in his first full time collaboration with Bergman, is outstanding. The influence of Akira Kurosawa’s tracking through the woods in Rashomon, as well as the use of branches and thatch to show the entrapment of Karin, directly echo the same devices used by Kurosawa when the bandit in his film kills the defenseless samurai. Many have claimed that Nykvist did not really break with the style of prior Bergman cinematographer Gunnar Fischer until the next film he made with Bergman, Through A Glass, Darkly, but they obviously have missed the scenes just described, the likes of which had never before appeared in the Bergman oeuvre.

What was first used in this film, stylistically, is a clear break with the past, at least visually stylistically, and an indication of why Bergman used Nykvist for all his subsequent films, and broke with using Fischer. Editor Oscar Rosander also makes some interesting filmic choices in cutting between Karin’s face and that of her attackers, as well as between close ups of the crime and the point of view of Ingeri, which forces the viewer to be at once empathetic and dispassionate. Similar cuts in the scenes where Töre goes berserk also highlight the dichotomous emotions that scene portrays.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with a booklet filled with essays, including the original ballad, Töre’s Daughter At Vänge, an introduction by filmmaker Ang Lee, who claims The Virgin Spring changed his life, interviews with actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson, an audio recording of Ingmar Bergman during a Q&A session at a 1975 American Film Institute seminar in Los Angeles, and, best of all, a choice between subtitles and a dubbed English soundtrack, which I’ll always listen to, if given a choice. After all, film is a visual medium not meant to entail reading, which distracts from the visual element. To prefer subtitling to dubbing is akin to saying one is a music aficionado, yet one who only watches the music videos of songs.

Unfortunately, the audio commentary, by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene (professor emeritus in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington), who wrote Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide, is one of those wholly scripted, and stiffly read by the numbers affairs, void of any real insight into the film, the participants, or the impact of this film on Bergman and the art of the day. Steene comments only on the most obvious bits of symbolism, metaphor, and imagery, and reveals them to the listener as if they are not able to grasp the simple concepts. The film is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which is almost exactly full screen television size, and shows how often the widescreens that many modern films are filmed in are used simply to differentiate them from telefilms, rather than to be put to any good artistic use.

Yet, the reason why this film fails to live up to the high standards of most Bergman films — although, by contrast, it’s still worlds better than 99.9% of the Hollywood crap churned out today — all boils down to that most important, yet overlooked, reason why all films fail or succeed, and that’s because, despite being a visual medium, a film must be well written, with well developed characters and a scenario that can emotionally affect a viewer, be that in the archetypal or realistic vein, to succeed artistically.

This film never gets off the stylistic fence and decides whether it is a realistic film or a symbolic allegory. Thus it fails on both scores, and the bulk of the blame for that can be laid upon the pro-Christian leaning script of the novelist Ulla Isaksson, who wrote an earlier Bergman film, So Close To Life, a few years before.

While there is no comparing Wes Craven’s 1972 spin on this theme, Last House On The Left, in any cinematic nor artistic terms to The Virgin Spring, in one odd way, Craven’s later film does seem more relevant, for it never attempts to find reasons for, nor make sense of, its anomic violence, thus it cannot fail on that level. Bergman’s film asks the big questions, and when its own silence bellows forth no answers, its hollowness only too easily engulfs its own inquisitions, which displays flaws the lesser film could only dream to be vilified for.

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About Dan Schneider

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    I have always been curious about this. My Bergman has thus far been limited to Seventh Seal.

    I must also take offence at referring to Craven’s career as forgettable. If only for the fact that he brought us Freddy. ( I enjoy about half of Craven’s output.)

  • bliffle

    Good review. Very thoughtful and provocative.