Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukllan) takes place at a historical crossroads between the decline of pagan worship and the spread of Christianity in medieval Sweden, and similarly the film itself stands at a crossroads in Bergman's career. Having achieved cinematic renown with his 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night and his late-'50s masterpieces The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957), Bergman was set to solidify his international standing. The Virgin Spring did just that, winning the International Critics Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and also the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It is also a crucial work for Bergman because it was the first to be shot entirely by Sven Nykvist, who would become his longtime cinematographer and therefore be largely responsible for shaping the visual aesthetic of his later works.
In many ways, The Virgin Spring is a slight, almost rudimentary film-a sparse narrative of vengeance and atonement-but its very simplicity is what strikes chords. The narrative's source is a 14th-century ballad "Tres dotter I Vnge," which Bergman had read as a student and had captivated him enough to cause him to entertain thoughts of turning it into either a ballet or a stage play. Once he saw its possibilities as cinema, he worked with novelist Ulla Isaksson to flesh out the characters and the historical details, but without diverging from the general narrative thrust of the sad ballad.
The story takes place in medieval Sweden and opens in the household of Tre (Max von Sydow) and Mreta (Birgitta Valberg), who are deeply religious Christians. That morning they send their favored daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is all blonde locks and girlish enthusiasm, on a daylong ride to the nearest church to offer votive candles to the Virgin Mary. Along with her is Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), Karin's foster sister who is in every way her opposite. While Karin is bright, cheerful, and blissfully unaware of the realities of the world, Ingeri is dark, brooding, and all too cognizant of how the world works. Ingeri's pregnant belly, conceived out of wedlock, is a constant and inescapable reminder of her shame. Not surprisingly, she resents Karin and her favored status, and early in the film she prays to the Nordic god Odin and puts a curse on her.
On the way to the church, Karin comes across three goat herders (Axel Dberg, Tor Isedal, and Ove Porath), with whom she offers to share her lunch. The two older herders, clearly aroused by her beauty and innocence, rape her and then kill her by striking her on the back of the head with a club. Ingeri, having separated from Karin, watches from a distance, as does the youngest of the herders, who is little more than a boy and has no power to stop his brothers' violent actions.
After stripping Karin of her clothing, the herders move on, eventually ending up at the home of Karin's parents. Unaware of where they are, they attempt to sell Karin's bloodstained clothes to Mreta, who takes it as a clear sign that her daughter is dead. Once she tells Tre, he goes into a frighteningly controlled rage that erupts into unrestrained violence against the herders, including the young boy whose guilt lies in little more than not having been strong enough to stop the others.
Much has been made about the nature of religion in The Virgin Spring, about the way Bergman contrasts the dark, heathen pagan worship, which is associated primarily with a troll-like bridge keeper (Axel Slangus), and the devout, repentant nature of Christianity. Although Tre forgets the Christian principles of forgiveness when he learns of his daughter's brutal death, thus allowing his darker inner core to take over, he realizes in the end the error of his ways and, in one of the film's most moving moments, begs God for forgiveness. It is a moment of divine atonement, yet it remains vaguely ambiguous because the cathartic jolt of seeing Tre dispense human justice to the herdsman is in no way absolved by his quest for forgiveness.
In fact, if The Virgin Spring has a central organizing theme, it is the nature of guilt. Several characters each want to claim guilt for Karin's death, including her mother and, most importantly, Ingeri, who realizes that Karin's rape and murder represent the fulfillment of her darkest wishes. Tre never feels explicit guilt for the loss of his daughter, but he does feel it for his actions against the herdsmen, especially when he viciously slaughters the boy even though we get the sense that he realizes the child had little or no complicity. Yet, at that point, his rage has taken over and is, in a word, uncontrollable. In the pagan/Christian divide, it is the moment when the darkest recesses of Tre's psyche, the part that would be fed by the mysteries and sexuality of heathen practice, bursts through the serenity of his Christian resilience. Even in our most genuine quest for God, Bergman seems to be saying, we remain forever, resolutely, and tragically human.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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