Ingmar Bergman centenary: Revisiting the cruel beauty of ‘The Virgin Spring’

A movie of indelible images and a masterful performance by Max von Sydow.

 “Proud Karin dons her silken robe.
A work of fifteen maidens sewed.
Proud Karin dons her petticoat fine
Richly embroidered  with golden twine.
Proud Karin dons her blue cloak bright
She rides to church now it is light.”

Birgitta Pettersson plays “proud Karin” with a rare blend of wide-eyed innocence and coy seductiveness in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The 1960 film was adapted for the screen by Ulla Isaksson from a thirteenth-century Swedish ballad, Töres dotter i Vänge (“Töre’s Daughter in Vänge”). Cinematographer Sven Nykvist uses high contrast lighting for interior sets designed by PA Lundgren and then captures the radiance of the golden girl on horseback as she rides through pastoral landscapes nestling under a Dalarnas summer sky. Nobody ever needs to see this in colour.

In the ballad, Karin is the hapless, helpless victim of a savage rape. Following the mutilation of her body, a pure spring bursts out from beneath her as proof of her innocence. Scrambling away from the scene of crime, Karin’s rapists – three young goatherds – find their way, by coincidence, to Karin’s home. They are offered hospitality by Karin’s parents and the goatherds attempt to sell them Karin’s robes and shoes. Karin’s enraged father kills them and instantly regrets his act.

“How can I this deed atone?
O God, I’ll build a church of stone.”

Why does the much-loved and very spoilt Karin travel unescorted? It is the question one could also ask the mother of Red Riding Hood, but the larger picture is the point. The ballad ends simply and abruptly with the themes of guilt and revenge merging in Töre’s act of atonement.

The Virgin Spring (1960).

In Bergman’s film, characters are added and fleshed out. Revenge and guilt are a layered and shared affair. Ingeri, a jealous and sullen stepsister, is played by an intense Gunnel Lindblom. Pregnant with an unexplained, illegitimate child, Ingeri is a malicious foreboding presence who ultimately holds herself guilty for wishing and then watching the worst on Karin. Töre’s wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) holds herself guilty for her daughter’s fate too. While Karin is virginal and childish, her flirtations with the goatherds do not give her the role of her completely naive counterpart in the ballad.

There is another significant departure from the ballad: the youngest of the three goatherds is not even a teenager and not guilty of participating in the rape. Yet, Töre (the superb Max von Sydow, whose face could well have been sculpted by Michaelangelo) in his vengeance does not spare the child.

In a letter Bergman wrote explaining his directorial decisions (included in the Criterion Collection DVD), he pointed out the importance of contrasting the actions of the herdsmen with those of the father: “I should like to point out that the rape sequence, in its mercilessness and detailed objectivity, corresponds to Master Töre’s administering of justice to the two malefactors, as well asand this is of primary importance – to his bestial murder of the little boy. We must, in our very bowels and apart from the aesthetic judgment, take part in the two herdsmen’s crime, but we must also, in despair, witness the father’s evil deed.”

The Virgin Spring (1960).

The controversy that eddies around The Virgin Spring chiefly concerns its anachronisms and confused symbols of paganism and Christianity. Critics also comment on the speech and actions of the characters being more for stage than screen and the camerawork being used to report rather than interpret. Symbols such as the crow, the toad, references to Odin (the devil) and other suggestions of primal nature seem to bog down the story. The conclusion of the film still remains a moot point. While The Virgin Spring is overwhelming even a Bergmanomaniac on second viewing would find it hard to refute Stephen F Jencks’s claim that it is “a brilliant failure.”

But ask fewer questions, demand less intellectual satisfaction and you still have a film of unforgettable (if somewhat disjointed) images. The extreme close-ups that make for the quintessential Bergman experience in Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1973) are missing, but The Virgin Spring is still cruelly beautiful. The Shakespearean weather change device of light snow falling on the dead girl, the Macbeth moment for Töre, as he stares silently at his bloody hands, a Rashomon type tracking of Ingeri as she rushes blindly through the undergrowth, the moment at which Töre wills his weight against a solitary birch tree – these are treasured visuals and not only for those bedazzled by Bergman. The most brutal sequences each take less than four minutes of screen time but for their searing truth, they are indelible.

Almost expunging it from his autobiographical works, The Magic Lantern (1987) and Images: My Life In Film (1994), Bergman described The Virgin Spring as an “aberration” (Bergman on Bergman, 1973).

Rather a harsh dismissal.

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