Ingmar Bergman is one of those foreign film geniuses that is an acquired taste. Brilliant as he was, his stuff is hard watching for anyone raised on standard Hollywood fare. He was an artist. He put art to film. He was even able to pull off wearing a beret. Not many guys can. Art is often hard to digest, and The Virgin Spring is no different.
From 1960, The Virgin Spring stars Max von Sydow as Töre, the patriarch of a prosperous farm in medieval Sweden. His boisterous and innocent daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), has been tasked with carrying candles to church, in what appears to be a local tradition. She is accompanied by Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a maidservant at the farm who, in addition to being very pregnant out of wedlock, is also a secret worshiper of Odin, the Norse god. Ingeri has obviously been catching a hard time on the farm for her pre-marital indiscretions, and it doesn’t help that she is in the constant presence of Karin, who has had the decency and moral restraint to remain a virgin until she is married. Ingeri carries herself as not just a person living with shame, but one who has become sick of being reminded that they are shameful. In a fit of frustration, Ingeri casts a pagan spell, placing a live frog in a loaf of bread that Karin will take along on the journey to the church.
Deep in the woods, Ingeri has a bit of a freak-out and leaves Karin, who continues on her way. Now in the story, a young, pretty, naïve virgin dressed in her Sunday best is traveling through the woods alone. It’s not long before she comes across a wayward group of poor shepherds, whom she invites to share her lunch in a clearing. What follows is a scene that was shocking in its time, and still carries a significant amount of weight today. The men rape and murder Karin while Ingeri watches from a distance, afraid to interfere. One of the attackers is just a boy, and after it’s all over he makes a guilty, feeble attempt at covering up the crime with a few handfuls of dirt. He sat out most of the attack and he’s struggling with the behavior of his older companions. He probably thought it was just a game until the screaming started and the blood began to flow. He digs into Karin’s pack and finds the bread with the frog.
Back at the farm it is getting late. Töre, his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), and the farmhands are becoming worried. Karin and Ingeri should have returned, yet there is no sign of either of them. While the troubled family waits, a trio of destitute shepherds appears at the gates, wishing for shelter for the night. They are invited in and fed, although the youngest of the three, just a boy, topples his bowl in a fit. Something is troubling him.
Later, one of the shepherds tries to sell some finery that he claims belonged to his sister to Märeta, who of course recognizes her own daughter’s now bloodstained clothes. Ingeri returns in the night and confirms what happened. Töre coldly, calmly, and ritualistically prepares to take his revenge.
Stylistically, the film is stark. Filmed in black and white, landscapes and forest look cold and dead as in winter, but the film appears to take place in the spring (the film is not named for the season). The forest is alive, and people are working the fields. Black and white provides an almost menacing tone to the film that would have been completely shifted had it been shot in color. I’m not saying it could not have been shot in color, but that Bergman used black and white as a storytelling device, as a way to convey a feeling of menace that the mind would pick up on no matter what was happening on the screen.
Max von Sydow provides a stern visage for Töre. Tall, devout, devoted to his family as much as to his God, he is a personification of religious morality. His views of the world and the universe are concrete and unchanging. And why shouldn’t they be? His is a happy existence. His hard work and piety has been rewarded with a successful farm, a loving wife and a beautiful daughter. When tragedy destroys the trajectory of his life, he responds not with despondency, but rather in kind by destroying his own morality, without hesitation, and without doubt. The Virgin Spring is not a film about the righteousness of vengeance. Rather, it shows that all of us, no matter how prosperous or content, live an illusion of security. At any time, inevitably, even, the worst day of our lives will make an appearance, and it’s always a deeply personal affair.
There’s a common theme in fiction that vengeance is hollow — that it does nothing to erase the pain that led a person to seek it out. The Virgin Spring does not touch on whether Töre’s vengeance was fulfilling, but it does explore his guilt. This makes sense to me. I can understand guilt at betraying core beliefs, including the idea that committing one of the deadly sins (wrath) can produce guilt in a pious man. But I’ve never bought into the idea that revenge brings no comfort at all — that it represents no answer. Rather, the idea of vengeance being worthless in healing pain feels more like an overused trope in fiction than anything else — vengeance as a convenient malapropism, easy to write about because it is rarely experienced for real.
The Virgin Spring focuses on what a father needs to do, not what he should do. Whether Töre ever makes amends is irrelevant, seeing how, at the end, a type of celestial approval makes itself known.
As mentioned above, the pace of the film is going to be tough for many viewers, including dedicated film buffs. But that’s okay. The Virgin Spring is a great film. Nothing will change that, even if it does take two or three sittings to get through.