****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson
screenplay by Ulla Isaksson
directed by Ingmar Bergman
by Bryant Frazer A pivotal film in Bergman's corpus, The Virgin Spring is also perhaps the most disreputable. Borrowing the basic frame of a story from the 13th-century ballad "Töre's Daughter at Vänge," and set, to gloomy effect, during Sweden's transition from paganism to Christianity, it chronicles the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl carrying candles to church, her father's equally violent vengeance against the culprits, and (critically, because this is Bergman) his subsequent anguish at the silence of an apparently cruel and uncaring God. Considering the film offers what feels like a concentrated dose of the director's pet themes, it's interesting that Bergman has no writing credit on the picture. Instead, he hired the Swedish novelist Ulla Isaksson for the adaptation. Isaksson developed a colourful cast of characters and some background to bolster the material included in the ballad, but her biggest alteration was moving the miraculous appearance of the spring that gives the picture its title to the very end of the story.
Coming out just as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho set a new bar for on-screen depictions of violence, The Virgin Spring offered a fairly harrowing ride for early 1960s audiences. In fact, the central rape scene was censored for its U.S. premiere, and the film was declared obscene in Fort Worth, Texas--a decision that stood, despite appeals by distributor Janus Films, when the state supreme court declined to hear the case. Some latter-day critics have noted that the rape scene seems "tame" by today's standards, but I disagree. If you're on the film's wavelength, the whole sequence is plenty brutal, culminating in a wrenching shot showing the girl's eyelids fluttering uncontrollably before they close forever. Of course, the censors' concerns were less about the violence of the assault and more about the way Bergman dared to depict the violation itself, with two of the bandits' legs roughly intertwined with their victim's as one of them thrusts on top of her. It's still pretty rough, and it's no wonder Wes Craven was inspired, cynically or no, to remake it as his widely reviled--and wildly profitable--debut feature, The Last House on the Left. In some ways, American exploitation films of the 1970s have as much DNA in common with The Virgin Spring as with Blood Feast.
Bergman would probably recoil from that suggestion, but the director himself was notably cool towards the film, even though it earned him his first Oscar (for Best Foreign Language Film). He seemed particularly embarrassed by stylistic comparisons to Rashomon, a film he had seen no fewer than 18 times. (Kurosawa's moving camera in wooded exteriors was a clear influence on The Virgin Spring.) "Now I want to make it quite plain that The Virgin Spring must be regarded as an aberration," Bergman declared some years later. "It's touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa." The apparent excesses of The Virgin Spring are said to have hurt Bergman's reputation with local Swedish critics as well as with the French contingent who were embracing the playfully experimental works of the emerging nouvelle vague as Bergman puttered around once more with what they saw as overly sensationalized historical drama. Film scholar Birgitta Steene described these reactions in a piece for CINEMA JOURNAL in 1974, where she characterized them as part of "an anti-Bergman wave, bound perhaps to come sooner or later." It strikes me as a little rich that Bergman would gain the acclaim of the CAHIERS crowd with a film that depicts Death as a black-robed figure playing chess on a beach with a literal Crusader and then get scolded just three years later for making The Virgin Spring's vengeful father figure too much of a caricature, but such are the vicissitudes of critical taste.
The Virgin Spring was the last of Bergman's historical dramas; his later disdain for the film may have coincided with his stylistic shift towards the sombre and more abstract chamber dramas he became known for in the 1960s. But it does share some qualities with those smaller-scale pictures, not least of them the presence of cinematographer Sven Nykvist behind the camera instead of Bergman's longtime collaborator Gunnar Fischer. The closed-in settings of the family farmstead, where the story begins, and Bergman's then-escalating concern with the psychology of religious faith, also hint at the sort of films that would characterize his next decade. Certainly, The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman's more accessible works. It's compelling from its first scene, which suggests a pagan ritual as an angry-looking woman (Bergman regular Gunnel Lindblom) blows air over the top of a wood stove, eventually conjuring a roaring flame. The camera follows her for almost two minutes without an edit as she roams around the room, glaring at the sounds of a crowing cock as if resenting the arrival of another new day, then wraps her pregnant body around the long pole holding open a vent in the ceiling, through which morning light streams into the barely lit dining hall. As she looks upward, she implores her god repeatedly: "Odin, come!"
Though we don't understand yet what she's so unhappy about, a fundamental conflict is exposed as Bergman cuts to a close-up of a crucifix, then pulls the camera back to reveal a man and woman, Per Töre (Max von Sydow) and Fru Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), in prayer. We quickly learn that the stormy-eyed pagan worshipper, Ingeri, has been raised by Töre and Märeta as a foster child alongside their biological daughter, Karin (Birgitta Petterson), a fair maiden of impeccable beauty. Despite this kindness, we see that Ingeri is regarded with open scorn, made to labour in the kitchen while Karin sleeps late on Good Friday. "You two have always been as different as rose and thorn," Märeta tells Ingeri, following up the insult by contending, "We should throw you out after the mess you've gotten yourself into," an obvious reference to Ingeri's pregnancy. So, yes, Töre and Märeta are kind to Ingeri, but Ingeri remains jealous of Karin's status in the household, and her presumed purity. It's no wonder she has a chip on her shoulder.
The key issue on this holy day is a requisite trip to a church most of a day's journey away. By tradition, a virgin is expected to deliver candles on Good Friday. That virgin is Karin, who agrees to make the journey on the condition that she may wear her finest clothes, a demand her mother readily indulges, presumably revealing the girl to be not merely vain but a little spoiled, too. Ordered to prepare Karin's lunch, the jealous Ingeri surreptitiously slips a toad between two large pieces of bread. But when Karin, a model of generosity, asks her father that Ingeri be allowed to make the trip with her, he agrees to that request, too. It takes about 20 minutes for Bergman to set all this up, and the action includes little snippets of dialogue that hint at the larger lives lived outside the concerns of this particular ballad. When Töre objects to Märeta's self-mortification with hot wax from a candle, she calmly insists, "It's Friday, the day of our Lord's agony." The implication is that she is a devout Christian while he is somewhat less so. Later, Ingeri accuses Karin of having behaved promiscuously at a dance the night before; Märeta thinks she's lying (or at least she pretends that's what she thinks). As Karin packs for her trek to church, servant Frida (Gudrun Brost) sneaks a collection of cakes and candles into her hands, asking her to smuggle them to Father Erik. "Give him my best wishes and tell him they're for you-know-what," she says cryptically, adding, "and he should say five Our Fathers and fifteen Hail Marys." The little joke distracts, maybe, from the fact that this family is making A Bad Decision, preparing to send its youngest, vainest member, accompanied only by a foster sibling who hopes to feed her a toad sandwich, deep into the woods where wolves dwell.
How like a fairy-tale this movie is. As Karin and Ingeri venture into the countryside, which Nykvist's camera captures in fine detail and rich shades of grey, they encounter a succession of characters who pose a varying degree of threats to virtue. First, there is Simon, a local farmer whose transparent romantic interest in Karin inflames Ingeri's envy. (There is a suggestion that he is the father of Ingeri's child, and that Karin is trying to convince him to take responsibility for the situation.) Next is the pagan bridgekeeper at whose house Ingeri lingers, upset, as he unwraps a cloth full of vaguely identifiable bones and body parts and promises, "Here is a cure for your anguish, here is a cure for your woe." (He seems to be offering her an abortion, pawing at her crotch to underscore the suggestion.) Frightened, Ingeri scampers away on foot. It is here that Bergman's camera rushes along beside her as she pushes through the branches and brush, hurrying to catch up with her foster sister, who is now alone in the woods. Alas, it is too late: Karin has already encountered the trio of goat herders--one boy and two grown men--who leer at her from afar before approaching with exaggerated politeness and charm.
Won over by their assertion of poverty, Karin welcomes them to share her meal. Ingeri watches from a distance as the foursome laughs heartily over Karin's joking exaggerations of her family's wealth and her whimsical musings that the three ruffians might be "enchanted princes." So generous and naive is Karin's spirit that she doesn't consider that these men might mean her harm until the subject of their banter changes to her body itself. This turn in the conversation is presented as a chilling inversion of the pivotal dialogue exchange in "Red Riding Hood," with one of the herdsmen commenting dryly on "such white hands … such a pretty neck...[and] such a narrow waist." With that, her fate is sealed. The film reaches a harrowing emotional climax as the two men rape Karin and then bludgeon her to death while the boy looks on from nearby and Ingeri watches from afar, clearly distressed. Though Ingeri had wished for this to happen--had, indeed, implored Odin to bring a comeuppance to her spoiled blond foster sister--the reality of the event seems to crush her spirit, too. The boy looks shell-shocked. Minutes after the deed takes place, a gentle snow begins to fall. Hunched over, the boy moves to Karin's side and starts throwing handfuls of dirt on her body and face. It's not so much that he's trying to give her a proper burial, although that might be a generous interpretation of his actions. It felt to me like he was acting on base instinct, as an animal clumsily covering the mephitic turd his brothers left behind.
The second half of the film is given over to Töre and Märeta's revenge. In a nutshell: the three herdsmen--let's call them thieves; before they attacked her, Karin had noticed their goats had been stolen from a local farmer--stumble randomly onto Per Töre's farmstead, presenting themselves as charity cases. Töre's kindness in welcoming the strangers into his home, allowing them to sleep in his dining hall, is such that he may as well be wearing wings and a halo, but Bergman depicts him here in full-on Norseman garb, resplendent in a furred cloak and sheepskin cap. He cuts a fearsome figure. Indeed, the scrawny thieves pose no physical threat to such a man. So it's a particularly grave miscalculation when, late in the evening, one of them tries to sell Karin's finery to Märeta. She studies it carefully and replies that she must consult her husband on its value. This is a marvellous performance by Valberg: you can barely read the deepening furrows of shock and sorrow on her face, and you can feel the icy determination that reserves her full emotional reaction. Märeta makes it out of the room before breaking down, burying her face in the garment, and weeping. And then, just as suddenly, she collects herself, and goes to tell Per Töre what she has learned.
The ensuing series of scenes is extraordinarily gripping, even by Bergman's standards. Töre and Märeta barely discuss the matter, appearing to be in silent agreement on what needs to happen next. Töre's preparations are ritualistic. First, he heads out into the fields and struggles to topple a birch tree, bending it this way and that with his full body until finally bringing it to ground. The shot in which this happens is breathtaking, framed and composed in a way that emphasizes Töre's solitude, his smallness against a vast physical landscape, and his physical strength and determination. His closeness to the tree as he pulls it first one way and then the other is not unlike Ingeri's embrace of the wooden pole in the opening scene, suggesting a kinship between Ingeri's pagan entreaties to Odin and Töre's grim vengeance. At this point, Töre seems to find an ally in Ingeri, even though she confesses to harbouring a hatred for Karin so strong that she begged Odin to end her life: "It was him and me, not the herdsmen." She prepares a hot bath and watches as Töre stands nude before her, beating himself with branches sawed off the felled birch in a kind of cleansing ritual. It's another jaw-dropping shot, owing much of its power to Nykvist's precise lighting. Harsh key lighting is blasted across Von Sydow's torso from both sides, creating rippling shadows that reveal the shape of his body and his stark single-mindedness. Ingeri, watching from behind, catches ample fill to keep her from falling into darkness. The resulting shades of grey soften her generally baleful look, suggesting even her pagan sensibilities are cowed by the certainty of Töre's resolve. When he acts, the violence erupts quickly. Von Sydow stabs one of the men, then holds the other down in the still-flaming stove until he burns to death. The boy rushes into Märeta's arms and, for just a moment, it seems that he may be spared. Instead, Von Sydow tears him from her, holds him over his head, and dashes him against the wall, killing him. Task accomplished, Von Sydow pauses and looks upon his upheld hands, the instruments of his revenge, as Märeta watches over his shoulder. It's another indelible Bergman moment. "God forgive me for what I've done," he says. Then: "We must find Karin."
All that's left is denouement, as Ingeri leads Töre, Märeta, and the servants and farmhands out to recover Karin's body. His grief reaches a wrenching crescendo as he falls to his knees at the murder site and cries out to God through the trees: "You saw it! You allowed it to happen!" And then: "I don't understand you." This is one of the ways Bergman gets a bad rap: at least in this period of his career, he returns to this "silence of God" business over and over, positing it as one of the central conundrums of human existence. Bergman's harshest critics consider this stuff some combination of tedious, jejune, woefully self-absorbed, and/or they complain that Bergman is most successfully a theatre director whose cinematic work lacks formal ambition, if not sophistication. (Most of them do admit that Nykvist's black-and-white cinematography, at least, is unimpeachable.) Yet there's a simplicity to Bergman's presentation of this theological dilemma that really hits home. As he weeps over his daughter, and his god's failure to protect her, Töre makes a promise. He vows to build a church, "out of mortar and stone and with these very hands," on the site of his daughter's death, as penance for his sin of vengeance. He doesn't seem entirely certain why he does this; it's almost something to which he's resigned.
And then, as Töre and Märeta lift Karin's body from the ground, a spring bursts out from where her head had lain. It's very Christian; there's not a spare toad to be seen, and Ingeri actually washes her face in the spring water. God has broken his silence, yet he remains inscrutable and unknowable. Töre's cries of horror in the face of God's inaction are absolutely cathartic and, for a man of faith, necessary. Sydow's helpless cry of "You saw it!" raises the gooseflesh. Töre's subsequent avowal of faith is exceptionally moving to me, a long-declared atheist, and I can't tell you exactly why. It doesn't make me feel any better about the hideous violation that is the centrepiece of The Virgin Spring, or about the idea of vigilante justice. It definitely doesn't help me make sense of the complicated emotional satisfaction I get from revenge fantasies. Nor does it make me any more likely to become a believer. Still, the idea that God deigns, every once in a while, to throw miracle crumbs to us humans just to encourage our sustained faith, no matter how bad things get down here? I guess I find that depiction of our humble perseverance in the face of horrible abuse to be an insightful rendering of the human condition. Bergman's burbling spring is an appalling miracle, given that it flows as a monument to humility in the face of obscenity. But maybe sometimes, when you're simply too bone-tired and despairing to spend any more time staring into the abyss that faces you, the idea of God and his magic tricks is all that's left to shine a light. "I know no other way to make peace with myself than with my own hands," Töre says. "I don't know any other way to live."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's Blu-ray release of The Virgin Spring presents a new HD master derived from a recent 2K scan of the original camera negative done at Chimney Pot in Stockholm and digitally restored under the supervision of Svensk Filmindustri. (If Criterion itself had anything to do with this new transfer beyond the disc mastering, which took place at Pixelogic in L.A., it's not mentioned in the liner notes.) The picture itself, windowboxed to 1.33:1, is silvery and mostly quite clean, with only a hint of film granules visible in the image. Grain is more prevalent in some of the darker scenes. If you asked me to pick nits, I'd note a few of said scenes have a slightly strange texture, perhaps indicating some aggressive noise reduction; other shots are slightly harsh, in contrast to the more film-like textures seen elsewhere, suggesting it was challenging to match certain picture characteristics from scene to scene. You'd have to look for it, however, and it's more likely you'll be knocked out by the overall clarity and dynamic range of the imagery. As mentioned above, the scene of Töre bringing down the birch tree is a knock-out, and this transfer dials in an impressive amount of detail and dynamic range across the spectrum, from the shadows on the grassy landscape below to the swirling clouds of sunrise above and behind. High-contrast interior shots are rendered with similar attention to detail, making it easier than ever to appreciate the way Nykvist pours light onto a scene, illuminating his subjects while emphasizing the darkness surrounding them. There's less to talk about where the sound is concerned. Restored from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, the monaural track has been very nicely cleaned up. Dialogue is robustly reproduced, music and effects are cleanly delineated in the mix, and there is no audible distortion. The sound is quite natural, free of artificially-induced volume modulations, digitally-induced silences, and the like. An alternate audio track features the not-terrible English-language dub, in only marginally rougher shape.
As far as special features go, the new BD is basically a port of the Criterion DVD that came out in January of 2006. Bergman expert Birgitta Steene holds down the fort with a full-length audio commentary drawn from that earlier disc. She outlines The Virgin Spring's overarching themes, its use of pagan symbols (absent, she notes, from the ballad it was based on), Bergman's favoured camerawork and acting styles, and the film's overall place in the careers of both Bergman and Nykvist. For instance, she argues that Bergman's psychologically preoccupied films of the 1960s were too divorced from a contemporary social context to excite critics in Sweden and France, where he swiftly fell out of favour, and she notes that Nykvist didn't discover his signature techniques until 1961, when he had access to new, high-speed film stocks. I guess viewers find scholarly commentary to be a yawn these days, given the paucity of quality critical yakkers in recent years, but this is Criterion in its classic film-school-in-a-box mode, and it's well worth a listen.
Interviews conducted in 2005 with Birgitta Pettersson and Gunnel Lindblom are intercut and edited into a single feature (21 mins., 1080i), presumably because their histories with Bergman overlap--each of them met him as part of his Malmö City Theater. (Pettersson speaks in Swedish with English subtitles, while Lindblom is interviewed in English.) Both women share their insight into the film's family dynamic, describing the complicated relationships among the parents and siblings, and its medieval setting. "You had to find the real person in every part as if it was a contemporary piece," Lindblom says. "I don't think people have changed very much. Their feelings are very much the same." Pettersson regards her casting as a command performance for master Bergman, maintaining she wasn't suited for the role. "Karin is a spoiled girl, something I've never been in my life," she says here. (Also, she notes, "When I read the script, I became quite frightened of the rape scene.") More happily, Lindblom recalls getting treated for appendicitis during the production, when she met her husband, a doctor at the local hospital. Also on board is a short introduction (7 mins., 1080i) in which director Ang Lee pays his respects to Bergman, recalling that The Virgin Spring was the first "art" movie he ever saw--as well as the first one that made him realize what it is that a director does.
Finally, Bergman himself speaks in an audio recording (40 mins.) taken from a lecture the director gave in October 1975, as part of the AFI's Harold Lloyd Master Seminars series. Taking questions from the audience, Bergman discusses his work with actors (does he tell them the message of the film? "Oh, good heavens, no"), his preference for casting women ("Filmmaking is a job for good nerves, and women have much better nerves than men"), and his belief that cinema is the art form that comes closest to dreams ("As director, as creator of the picture, you are like a dreamer"). He closes by insisting that passion and the desire to communicate something specific to an audience is more important than any degree of technical facility, paying a bit of a backhanded compliment to L'avventura ("The picture is a mess... He succeeds without knowing how to do it") in the process. "You have to have something to come with, to give other people. Picture-making is some sort of a responsibility," he insists, then excuses himself. Worth a listen? Sure, though not exactly revelatory.
A simple 20-page booklet presents supporting textual material, starting with a typically erudite essay by historian Peter Cowie, "Bergman in Transition," that places The Virgin Spring in the broader context of Bergman's career in terms of themes, aesthetics, and the director's personal life. It's followed by "Some Reflections on The Virgin Spring" by scenarist Ulla Isaksson, which appeared in the original U.S. press book. This piece seems informative, but Isaksson was already on the defensive, insisting on what she calls the film's "uncompromising insight into human behaviour and a Christian message." The booklet features a version of "Töre's Daughter at Vänge," also from the U.S. press book, along with the usual liner notes. Only one element is missing from the 2006 DVD: "A Letter from Bergman," in which Bergman himself offered an apologia for the film's rape scene. Perhaps someone associated with the Bergman estate noticed that the letter included his contention that the act of writing it was "against my innermost conviction" and opted to nix it from future releases. The disc is available individually or as part of Criterion's 39-film box set "Ingmar Bergman's Cinema".
91 minutes; NR; 1.33:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); Swedish PCM (monaural), English Dolby Digital (monaural); English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion