The Virgin Spring

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July 8, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

By the time Ingmar Bergman made The Virgin Spring in 1960 his career was already launching him to the forefront of international cinema. With the financial success of Smiles of a Summer Night and the critical merits piled on both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries Bergman entered the sixties with a hefty weight of expectation on his shoulders. He would of course deliver on those hopes (with added interest) by crafting not only his stunning ‘God’s Silence’ trilogy but also the singularly impressive Persona. In a sense, although many of the themes and constructions here are somewhat evident in his earlier work, The Virgin Spring kicks off his later trilogy about the problems of God and of belief. Beyond the thematic elements the film also demonstrates a skill for stripped down narrative that was never before so evident in the man’s work, even in his earlier films which depended more on core storytelling. Based on a 14th century ballad the story told here would later resurface in the rather unusual guise of a grindhouse film, The Last House on the Left, that would introduce the world to Wes Craven and which would prove almost as interesting as the original albeit for wildly different reasons.

The story follows a small but privileged farmer (Max von Sydow) in old Sweden. He commands servants and has a wife and daughter. The daughter, the favoured of the household, is sent to deliver candles to the church in honour of the Virgin Mary. Also within the small community is a young woman (another Bergman regular, Gunnel Lindblom) who leads a life a world away from that of the privileged daughter. Taken in thanks to the farmer’s ‘kindness’ she is to bear an illegitimate child and is scorned by one and all for her fallen nature. Holding a great deal of hatred for the family’s daughter she wishes only the worst for the girl on her travels although, when the worst does indeed transpire, she is horrified and can only blame herself. The daughter, on her way to the church, meets with three young herdsmen who ask her to dine with them. She naively agrees and is raped and, almost as a stunned afterthought, murdered. Stealing her clothes the two older herdsmen take flight, bringing with them their brother who is too young to be held culpable.

Through pure chance (or is it religious preordination?) the herdsmen seek shelter with the family of the very girl they murdered just earlier that day. When they try to sell her clothes they reveal their crime and, with the eye-witness account of Lindblom’s character, their fate is sealed. In a fit of rage the father murders both men and hurls the young child against a wall. He then seeks out the body of his daughter and, to atone for his vengeance, vows to build a church in God’s honour on the very spot where his daughter met her end. Lifting her lifeless body from the ground, a new and crystal clear spring bubbles forth…

If I have elaborated fully on the narrative above it should offer no impedance to marveling at Bergman’s film. What impresses here is both the tightness and oppressiveness of the narrative and also its dual nature. Although they first (briefly) worked together in 1953, producing Bergman’s first ‘great’ film Sawdust and Tinsel, this film marks the first full collaboration between the director and cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. The relationship would prove fruitful as Nykvist would replace Gunnar Fischer as Bergman’s cinematographer of choice. Although many seem to forget Fischer’s genuine talents in the light of Nykvist’s contributions there’s no doubt that the latter’s skills proved more malleable to Bergman’s needs. The strong interplay of light and shadow throughout this film lends extra dimension to the generally sparse design. The sets are small and simple with the bulk of the film being shot outdoors.

The film is also entirely devoid of music aside from opening and closing to a few strains of period music (perhaps the ballad that gave birth to the project?) and a few scenes with a Jew’s harp being played by one of the herdsmen. Primarily the soundtrack is comprised of the gentle sounds of nature which prove a suitable backdrop to the all too natural horror which the story unfolds. Generally speaking the story weighs heavy on the viewer, its predictability and the religious fervour attached to each and every event building both a sense of dread and distaste. It is in this sense that the dual layered nature of the narrative springs to the fore.

It’s difficult not to compare this film with the work of another Scandinavian master, Carl Theodor Dreyer. The thematic overlaps between this film and Dreyer’s Vredens dag (aka Day of Wrath) are difficult to ignore. In both films the religious belief of the denizens of the story shapes the perspectives throughout but it is clear that the events are wholly of man’s doing and have no place in the realm of a god. If Dreyer’s film courted the horrors of Nazi occupation then Bergman’s is simply an early step in grappling with his own faith.

The maiden is sent with candles for the church. Praying to Odin the less favoured young girl wishes misfortune on her rival and, when such misfortune arrives, she very much believes her prayers have been answered and that she is culpable. Meanwhile the father and mother worry about coddling their young daughter but, upon finding she has met her end, act with outright violence against the guilty. The father declares he does not understand why God has done this but his vengeance is assured and unstoppable. Only then does he repent and vow to build a church. Such is the bitter cut of Bergman’s version of the ancient story.

This culminates in the final scene which faithfully represents the original fable’s religious elements but, thanks to the director’s careful moulding, comes also with a newly formed bitter irony. The film’s world is one untouched by God. In it religion merely offers vindication and structure for realities shaped purely by pragmatism, privilege, need and deprivation. Religious devotion shapes only the perception of events, not the events themselves and so, like the ‘witch’ of Dreyer’s film, the inhabitants here become slaves to their own blinkered perception. The father’s final action, to build a church, is a deed spurred on by religious fervour and with that church a new generation of tyranny, of slavish devotion to religious dogma and slave ideology will begin. Its future sway represented in the surviving young boy and the unborn child carried by Lindblom’s character.

Although obviously different in terms of thematic focus I can’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen’s two films Crimes and Misdemeanours and Match Point. Although the latter is largely identical to the former in terms of thematic concerns it built those concerns into a much tighter narrative form which impresses in its own right. Likewise although Bergman’s observations regarding religion would grow more nuanced, particularly with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light which would be made almost immediately after this, the narrative weight at the centre of this project convinces and assures the film a power all of its own. The story is age old and can be told and retold in various guises (Mr. Craven, for example) but the craft and undercurrent here is wholly indicative of Ingmar Bergman.

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