The Virgin Spring Review

In 1961, Ingmar Bergman won his first Academy Award for "Jungfraukallen" better known to us as The Virgin Spring. This was a somewhat delayed recognition by the commercial mainstream of a talent which had been producing staggeringly good, sometimes frustrating but always interesting work for the best part of 20 years. It's a little strange that he won the Oscar for a film that is so resolutely uncommercial, a bleak and cruel story that has its basis in a popular medieval folktale. Even stranger is that the film became the template for Wes Craven's Last House On The Left, a movie which is considerably more graphic on every level but not one tenth as powerful. Bergman demonstrates in this film his extraordinary ability to get under the skin of the people living in a small community and an even more impressive ability to place inside the minds of his audience things that they might rather not want to think about.

The film is, on one level, a rape-revenge melodrama and a classically structured one. A virginal young girl, Karin (Pettersson), goes to church with her pagan half-sister Ingeri (Lindblom), but is raped and murdered by some peasants on the way. The killers, lost and far from home, seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse which belongs to the girl's parents. Their crime is accidentally discovered and the parents exact revenge by killing their daughter's murderers. In other words, this is the same story that has been thrilling audiences in one way or another since the early days of the oral tradition right up to the considerably less expert treatment of the theme in a large number of films directed by Michael Winner. Indeed, this plot has rarely been as effective as it is here because Bergman is a lot more interested with causes and consequences than he is with gloating shots of men raping a woman. The intensity of the suffering, both of the girl and, emotionally, of her parents is hard to watch because it's presented with uncomfortable directness and the contrast between the bright, mischievous and happy (if knowingly insolent and lazy) Karin and her pathetic dead corpse is heartbreaking. As ever in Bergman, this is a cruel world and no-one escapes with their innocence intact - the same theme was returned to 20 years later in From The Life of the Marionettes but from the killer's perspective.

Bergman is also careful not to fall into the old Michael Winner trap of turning the rapist-killers into brutish stereotypes. One, played with sinister comic charm by Axel Duberg, is expansive and funny at first, being allowed to endear himself to the audience before his loquaciousness turns into abuse. The other, a superb bit of mime by Tor Isedal, a mute, is given some nice comic business in his first scene and his watchful patience is very different from the mindless thuggery that a lesser director might have offered us.

Equally, the parents are not allowed to be sentimental clichés. The father Tore (Von Sydow) is a strict but loving man, entirely recognisable as a type but not particularly likeable, and the mother Mareta (Valberg) is an intimidatingly self-righteous puritan whose own self-mutilation indicates the masochism involved in judging yourself even more harshly than everyone else. As they realise the truth about the men they have welcomed, their descent into violence is believable because it's done with minute attention to the detail of every stage of moral compromise followed by a sudden decision to put ethics aside and allow emotion - the very thing that the mother has tried to extinguish - to take control for a few terrible moments. Indeed, if we see this as a study of Puritanism in conflict with emotion then it's an important stage in Bergman's development towards some of his best films such as Winter Light and Cries and Whispers. In both of these, the emptiness of a life devoted to self-mortification and endless questioning of one's own worthiness to exist ends with awful, inevitable tragedy, and this theme is explored in embryo here.

As ever with Bergman, the recreation of a past, which is so recent in some ways yet so unknowable, is reminiscent of L.P.Hartley's words; "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there". The setting is 14th Century Sweden but it might as well be on a different planet because the customs and language spring from a culture that is completely alien to us. The film takes place in a time when, despite the ascendancy of Christianity over the continent, paganism still had a certain claim over the peasantry in Northern Europe and the memories of the Nordic triumphs were still strong. The two daughters offer us a direct contrast between the two. Ingeri, whose foreboding face opens the film as she rises out of complete darkness and invokes the name of the god Odin, is all animalistic rage, believing in the gods of her forefathers and scorning the platitudes of the new God of Christianity. Karin, in a rather simplistic contrast, is blonde, happy and smiling as she goes to church to offer candles to the Virgin. The contrasts don't end there of course - Karin is a virgin, Ingeri is experienced and bitter; Karin is trusting, Ingeri is suspicious and, most important, Karin is (broadly) rationalistic and Ingeri, fatally, is superstitious. It is Ingeri who places a frog in Karin's food before she rides off to the church; it is Ingeri who has raised Odin at the beginning of the day and, most importantly, it is Ingeri who - after a bizarre meeting with a hermit - has invoked an old Nordic curse which seems to have some bearing upon the events that follow. Yet, Karin's God - supposedly loving, rational, fair, omniscient - seems no more of a comfort than Ingeri's Odin. As is so typical of Bergman's work, the viewer is left wondering whether God is actually listening to mankind anymore. It's this suggestion - that God has fallen silent - that binds together Bergman's work into one of the great visions of the 20th Century, and which provided the stimulus for the trilogy of intense, uncomfortable masterpieces, which followed this film.

Yet, this is not a film devoid of hope. Bergman allows us - as he did in Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal - a glimmer of hope and something more than simply silence and darkness. In this case, it's a miraculous manifestation of nature - a spring wells up where Karin was killed - and it's entirely deliberate that it should be Ingeri - the fallen woman, the sinner - who finds it. Whether this actually convinces you that Bergman is an optimist at this stage in his career or that it's a rather desperate attempt to avoid the implications of his somewhat apocalyptic vision is an interesting question. I suspect that Bergman became increasingly pessimistic in his work as he got older - just look at his brilliant screenplay for Liv Ullmann's Faithless for a story about total moral bankruptcy and life without hope - and that in these films he is honestly trying to work out a redemption for the world he lives in. So, Wild Strawberries has that rather sentimental catharsis for Victor Sjostrom's character and Seventh Seal allows life to triumph over death in the form of the travelling players and their child. For me, his work gets stronger and stronger the more pessimistic it becomes, but I know some people prefer his earlier work before all the 'God's silence' business takes centre stage.

The actors are remarkable. Gunnel Lindblom, who was so magnificent in Wild Strawberries in a very difficult role, is equally impressive here. She takes a character that is more an idea than a person and makes it convincing. Contrasted with Birgitta Pettersson, her cynical glances and dark, flowing hair are so beautifully tempting - at least for those of us who prefer experience to innocence - and her presence is so strong that she dominates the first ten minutes of the film with only a few lines of dialogue. Pettersson has an easier part but she does it well, suggesting the laziness and dangerous playfulness that lies behind her innocent face and golden locks. As for Max Von Sydow and Birgitta Valberg, they are beyond praise, embodying the ideas that their characters represent with immense force and charisma. Valberg, a prolific theatre actress who worked frequently with Bergman on stage, is exquisite as she shows the tiny little steps that turn her from a self-mutilating puritan to a self-justifying killer. Max Von Sydow has always been great but he uses his intimidating physical presence here in a way that hasn't always been appreciated (one of the things which made him so much fun as Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon). He's constantly posed in stereotypically macho attitudes by Bergman that contrast nicely with his subordination both in religious and, to some extent household terms to his wife, who considers him weak and too ready to compromise with Ingeri. When he learns of his daughter's death, he goes outside and wrestles with a tree - a moment which is both moving and slightly absurd.

The images are constantly astounding. Sven Nykvist worked for Bergman on many occasions but he rarely bettered his monochrome lighting here. His use of harsh contrasts between light and dark - the dark of the kitchen and the sunlit shoreline for example - is a key part of the central conflicts in the film and is often breathtakingly beautiful. The visual poetry of the figures silhouetted against glistening water has become part of film history in itself thanks to Nykvist's work here and that of Gunnar Fischer in The Seventh Seal. Nykvist also makes the most of the key visual motif of the film, which is running water, constantly present in the affairs of men and sometimes, as in the hermit's cottage, intruding directly into their lives. Another of Bergman's regular collaborators who should be mentioned is Oscar Rosander, who edited this film and all of Bergman's work up to The Devil's Eye. Because Bergman's films contain a lot of static shots designed to achieve the effect of gradually piercing inside the characters, the editing isn't often praised but there are moments here - the rape, the revenge, the opening collection of shots - which are assembled with a fine attention to pacing and detail. I'll also mention Erik Nordgren's sparse, unnerving music score which is a great example of how minimal scoring can be so much more effective than the saturation of images in saccharine which is so often the practice in current cinema.

The Virgin Spring is not my favourite of Bergman's films. It's fully realised and consistently impressive but it's also a little too neat and perhaps a touch too schematic. But it's easy to become involved in this film which creates a whole world and inhabits it with living, breathing people. The brutality, so subtly evoked yet so horrific, is brilliantly controlled - perhaps the most unbearable moment being the killing of the child who has been witness to the murders and has arrived with the men to what seems like sanctuary. In scenes like this, Bergman establishes his claim to being one of the great artists of the 20th Century, depicting things that seem unbearable with unflinching honesty and compassion.

The Disc

Another entry in the Tartan 'Bergman Collection', this is another good disc which only falls down on the sparsity of extra features. They seem to be taking an unconscionably long time to release the various titles that they have the rights to. This month sees the overdue arrival of Persona - hopefully a better print was used than the one which appeared at my local arthouse last week - and Autumn Sonata. Hopefully , we will soon see the release of some of the films which haven't been available in Britain for years, such as the majestic Shame.

The film is presented in the original fullscreen ratio. At the beginning, there are some white speckles over the credits - presented on slightly wishy-washy black - and my worse fears arose. However, after this matters improve. The blacks in the first scene are rich and deep and the contrast throughout - so essential to Nykvist's cinematography - is very good and sometimes excellent. The shimmering of sun on sea looks gorgeous and the indoor-outdoor contrasts are presented well. This is generally a an extremely good transfer.

The soundtrack is a Swedish language track in the original mono recording. It's a good track. The hiss problems which afflicted The Seventh Seal are not present here and the dialogue sounds natural.

The extras are sparse. We get the usual Bergman Collection trailer, a very brief and pointless stills gallery and filmographies for Bergman, Lindblom and Von Sydow. There are also some notes by Philip Strick which are useful. Sadly, Bergman did not include this film in his book "Images: My Life In Film" so there are no extracts from this. There are English subtitles, which are not burnt in and can be switched off, and 16 chapter stops.

The Virgin Spring is an important and very well made film which isn't quite Bergman's best work but is still head and shoulders above a majority of other films. The DVD is technically impressive and, until a special edition emerges, is the best way to see the film.

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