By André Crous
Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring opens with fire and closes with water. We expect a baby to be born, but instead, a virgin is raped and dies. We are reminded of God around every corner, but his apparent absence rings just as loudly. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to interpret these opposites as proof of balance or as markers of a fundamentally unpredictable existence.
Following on the heels of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, two of Bergman’s best-known films, Virgin Spring is less visual but equally interested in pressing questions related to mortality. In the opening scene, set in medieval Sweden, we see a wild-eyed servant girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), quietly beseech the god Odin to come to her aid. The evening before, she witnessed her master’s teenage daughter, the pale-skinned, blond-haired, ever-smiling and pure-as-snow Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), dance with many young men, and she envies the attention the girl received from everyone. We later learn that she is asking Odin to put a stop to all this, failing to realise that the answer may not look very pretty.
Karin, a single child whose strong bond with her well-to-do parents is emphasised from the beginning, is sent to deliver candles to a church. The candles need to be delivered by a virgin, and Karin fits the bill. She even wears a special dress sewn by 15 “maidens”. For her own safety, she is accompanied by Ingeri, who is not very keen on talking to her, but during a conversation along the way, Karin tells her “no man will get me to bed without marriage”. Rather ominously, Ingeri suggests it might not always be her choice to make, but they continue onwards through the forest before Karin can consider the implication.
In the first half of the film, which culminates in the shocking rape and murder of Karin at the hands of a trio of vagrant brothers, there is a very strong focus on the two very different women. Karin knows nothing of the evil in the world, but perhaps because she is killed, she elicits some empathy from the viewer. We almost forgive her her ignorance because she passes away after a vicious assault.
By contrast, Ingeri seems to be slightly more world-wise and suspicious of men’s intentions. But she also reveals herself to be just as weak as Karin. At many turns, she becomes positively hysterical when overcome by fear or guilt or uncertainty, which makes her look all the worse. This film seems to imply that women are passive victims, while men are either malicious or vengeful.
But it is the rape scene that defines the film. Although mild in comparison with films of subsequent years, the act itself offers a few excruciating seconds of indirect assault, as the camera is positioned next to Karin’s face while she is being violated. While it only lasts a moment, and Bergman quickly reneges by going for a long shot that shows the full assault, this initial approach is stunningly effective and shows the “less is more” adage in action.
With the actions of the three goat herders that lead to Karin’s death, the focus turns to the male characters. By a stroke of pure bad luck for them, the malicious trio subsequently turn up at the estate of the late daughter’s parents, seeking food and shelter for the night and offering her 15-maiden-woven dress for sale – the same one she was wearing when they killed her. The youngest among them realises too late their fate is sealed and his petrified silence leads to their own deaths.
But the prospect of death hangs over the entire narrative. At the very outset, Frida, the housekeeper, mentions she nearly stepped on two dozen little chicks at night. She picks one up and says, “You poor thing, live out your wretched little life the way God allows all of us to live.”
Much later, when Ingeri has an awkward conversation with a man living in the forest, he shows her a few rudimentary implements that we quickly realise are to be used for an abortion: “Here is a cure for your anguish. Here is a cure for your woe. Blood, course no more. Fish, stop still in the brook.” To emphasise this point, he grabs her by the groin, but she manages to flee the scene.
The film’s interest in Odin, perhaps the best-known deity from Norse mythology, is tied to two rather debauched characters: the hysterical, irrational Ingeri and the aforementioned perverted man in the forest. By contrast, The Virgin Spring associates the god of Christianity with slightly more rational impulses. Even when Karin’s father, Töre (Max von Sydow), takes murderous revenge for his late daughter’s death, he does so after felling a birch tree and taking a sauna. This is not impulse but considered action.
In the film’s final scene, Töre lifts his hands to the heavens and delivers a prayer in which he looks up towards the Sun and questions why God saw his daughter’s rape but did nothing, why he saw Töre kill the three men but did nothing. “You allowed it to happen”, he seethes.
Of course, what he gets in response is more nothingness. Just like God failed to listen to him when he prayed to his crucified son the previous morning and asked that he “guard us this day and always from the devil’s snares. Lord, let not temptation, shame nor danger befall thy servants this day.” Like so many other believers in the centuries to follow, Töre decides that God requires penance for others’ sins but does not have to justify his own actions (or, more accurately, his passiveness when evil happens). Töre resolves that his “sin”, namely that he killed those responsible for Karin’s tragic death on Earth, will be sufficiently washed away by him building a church in honour of this god of his.
But then, something miraculous happens. When Töre and his wife, Mätare, move Karin’s body, water bubbles up from where her head had lain. Ingari washes her face, presumably to wash away her previous belief in Norse gods and all of her sins committed under the label of paganism. She appears to be happy for the very first time. And for a moment, all we can hear is the flow of the water, the symbol of life, even as the very dead body of Karin is draped in her parents’ arms.
The Virgin Spring does not have the visual inventiveness nor the intellectual force of many of Bergman’s other contemplations on religion and existence, but its simple plot is stripped of excess and easy to follow. It lacks real depth and eschews any serious probing of the issues it raises, but the final deus ex aqua moment shows a director open to making the presence of the extraordinary felt.
Director(s) Ingmar Bergman
Screenwriter(s) Ulla Isaksson
Directors of Photography Sven Nykvist
Running Time 90 minutes
Original title Jungfrukällan
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩