Tribute

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.

Play
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.”

Play
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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Expressing grief can take on creative forms

Even the most intense feelings of loss can be accompanied by the need to celebrate memories, as this new project shows.

Grief is a universal emotion and yet is one of the most personal experiences. Different people have their own individual ways of dealing with grief. And when it comes to grief that emerges from the loss of a loved one, it too can manifest in myriad ways.

Moving on from grief into a more life-affirming state is the natural human inclination. Various studies point to some commonly experienced stages of grieving. These include numbness, pining, despair and reorganization. Psychologist J.W. Worden’s 4-stage model for mourning includes accepting the reality of loss, working through the pain, adjusting to life without the deceased and maintaining a connection with the deceased, while moving on. Central to these healing processes would be finding healthy ways of expressing grief and being able to articulate the void they feel.

But just as there is no one way in which people experience grief, there is also no one common way in which they express their grief. Some seek solace from talking it out, while some through their work and a few others through physical activities. A few also seek strength from creative self-expressions. Some of the most moving pieces of art, literature and entertainment have in fact stemmed from the innate human need to express emotions, particularly grief and loss.

As a tribute to this universal human need to express the grief of loss, HDFC Life has initiated the Memory Project. The initiative invites people to commemorate the memory of their loved ones through music, art and poetry. The spirit of the project is captured in a video in which people from diverse walks of life share their journey of grieving after the loss of a loved one.

The film captures how individuals use creative tools to help themselves heal. Ankita Chawla, a writer featured in the video, leans on powerful words to convey her feelings for her father who is no more. Then there is Aarifah, who picked up the guitar, strummed her feelings and sang “let’s not slow down boy, we’re perfectly on time”, a line from a song she wrote for her departed love. Comedian Neville Shah addresses his late mother in succinct words, true to his style, while rapper Prabhdeep Singh seeks to celebrate the memory of his late friend through his art form. One thing they all express in common is the spirit of honouring memories. Watch the video below:

Play

The Memory Project by HDFC Life aims to curate more such stories that celebrate cherished memories and values that our loved ones have left behind, making a lasting impression on us. You can follow the campaign on Facebook as well as on Twitter.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HDFC Life Insurance and not by the Scroll editorial team.