The Virgin Spring [subtitled]

The Virgin Spring

The Virgin Spring is a black and white Ingmar Bergman film from 1960.

I had never seen a Bergman film before this. What little I knew from his reputation didn’t appeal to me, because my impression was his films would be incomprehensible, slow-paced, surreal, artsy, subtitled works that are all about obscure symbolism. And even granting that they’re the best or among the best movies of all time of that type, I’m not convinced even the best such movies would appeal to me. So I’ve never felt any urgency to see his films.

The Virgin Spring apparently is a little different though. From the descriptions I read going in, it sounded like it was somewhat closer to a regular movie, that it has a linear understandable plot, etc. Still an intelligent movie, still some symbolism and such, but not super obscure.

And I’d say that turned out to be pretty accurate. I didn’t struggle to understand this one any more than I have with the typical foreign film, or even a lot of indies.

The story comes from a Medieval Swedish ballad. If the movie itself is set in that time there are some anachronisms (they eat sandwiches, and they make reference to Sleeping Beauty, both of which I believe originated centuries later), but in any case it’s certainly set in the “olden days.”

It is the story of a prosperous (though I don’t think literally royal) family. It is mostly told in a realistic style, but some of it is exaggerated or simplified in more the style of a fairy tale, and it does have elements that at least suggest the supernatural.

The mother and the otherwise somewhat stern father are putty in the hands of their beautiful teenage daughter Karin, who is their only child who survived infancy. She is spoiled and used to having her way, but is more charming than arrogant. She is meant to represent not a conniving, manipulative person, but a simple, naïve, pure, kind-hearted person who has never known a life where she is not happy and well treated.

The household also includes a few relatives and/or servants who live there and are treated as near-equals, dining at the same table and such.

These include Karin’s counterpart, a dark-haired brooding girl named Ingeri, who was in some sense adopted into the family and who has a love-hate relationship with her “sister.” Karin treats her well, in the sense that she’s friendly and cheerful toward everyone, but Ingeri envies her and the fact that everyone adores her. Ingeri is pregnant, which lowers her status all the more, and she’s none too happy about the way all the boys in the area, including the one who got her pregnant, compete for the attention of the “princess.”

The family members are pious Christians, but Ingeri secretly practices the traditional Norse religion. She prays to Odin to bring grief down upon Karin and the family.

The Norse deities are not presented as an alternative religion so much as Odin is a kind of Satan figure. Not sure why Bergman would take a shot at paganism like that, unless he’s just staying true to the original ballad, which presumably would make just such a connection.

Karin sets off on a journey to deliver some sacred candles to the church, asking Ingeri to accompany her. In a visually striking depiction of social custom, the noble, pure Karin awkwardly rides side saddle for the whole long journey, so as not to part her legs. Ingeri rides conventionally, as it’s no big deal that her legs are spread.

Part of the way there, they separate when Ingeri freaks out for no discernible reason and Karin suggests she wait at the hut of an old fellow they’ve just encountered. Perhaps Ingeri is faking because she has some reason to know what will happen up ahead if Karin rides alone, but it’s not clear how she’d know that.

The old man seems to be Odin/Satan, or some messenger of Odin/Satan, and he hints around that he can grant Ingeri’s desire for Karin to meet her downfall as he lasciviously makes a move on Ingeri. She flees in disgust in the direction Karin has gone. (It seems relevant she apparently does not agree to any deal, though perhaps it’s equally relevant that she does not explicitly turn it down.)

Karin meets up with two creepy herders and a boy, who claim to be three brothers. (They may not be, especially the boy, who later is threatened by them and treated kind of like a slave.) She kindly offers to stop and share her lunch with them. She is unrealistically unafraid of them, but I think this is one of the oversimplified fairy tale elements that’s meant to convey that she is the epitome of purity and goodness, an ideally innocent, trusting soul.

Which makes it even more of a powerful contrast when the two herders repay her kindness by brutally raping and murdering her in a scene that’s emotionally if not physically graphic. That is, you’re really not seeing more in terms of body parts and such than you’d expect from a 1960 movie, but what you can see is shockingly effective in its way in conveying the destruction of Good by Evil.

Ingeri arrives in time to observe at least part of this from a distance. Ambivalent, she thinks about calling out or throwing a rock toward them to distract them or scare them off, but she freezes.

The herdsmen steal what they can off the corpse to sell, and continue on their way. By coincidence, they seek, and are granted, permission to pass the night at the home of Karin’s family, not knowing of course that that’s where they are.

Just before turning in, they show the mother the fancy garments (from their dead “sister,” that they reluctantly must sell out of desperation). She is obviously crushed but doesn’t let on she recognizes the clothes. She quietly locks them in the room and informs her husband.

He is understandably enraged. But instead of confronting them immediately, he bathes and dresses and prepares himself in something of a ritualistic manner, like someone getting their mind focused before going into battle.

Then, with the wife watching but neither urging him on nor objecting—though she does make a brief effort to shield the terrified boy—he enters their room with a knife and proceeds to take his revenge on all three.

The whole household then marches off sorrowfully to retrieve the body. The father calls out to God in lamentation, declaring that he cannot understand how God can allow such things to happen, but pledging to build a church on this spot to atone for his role in the tragic events. The grieving mother lifts her daughter’s corpse, and spring water bubbles out from the ground where it lay, as all look on in wonder.

The story itself held my interest reasonably well. Certainly there are some beautiful shots, albeit in black and white. The acting seems very good throughout. I especially liked that instead of just showing enough of the family to get the point across of who’s who and what their relationships are like, the movie really conveys just what Karin means to her parents. She is their life. You really see it in how the mother looks at her, how she speaks to her, how she puts up only the most perfunctory defenses before indulging her every whim.

Because Karin is depicted as so pure, and because their love for her is so total, the impact of the loss is correspondingly maximal.

What I also appreciate about the movie is how morally interesting and complex it is. The characters look inside themselves for flaws in the aftermath of what has happened, with seemingly no one wanting to blame others due to their own guilt and uncertainty.

Ingeri tearfully confesses that she had developed a resentment toward Karin, that she had wished her ill, that she had witnessed the crime and failed to intervene. The mother confesses that she sometimes felt jealous of her own husband when it seemed that Karin was closer to him than to her.

The father especially is burdened. Though at one level his anger was a righteous one, and his revenge just by almost all moral conventions, his heart and his pious nature tell him that he has erred in returning evil for evil. He is tormented not only by the horrible way he lost his beloved daughter, but by what it called up in him and resulted in his doing. (Including the murder of the boy, who had no more than the passive guilt of failing to intervene, which surely would have been futile anyway. The killing of the boy perhaps represents that when you give yourself permission to commit even the most supposedly justified violence, you are unleashing something that will invariably result in additional collateral damage.) He pleads with God for understanding not only of the herders’ acts, but of his own.

In its way it’s an extraordinary moral maturity, the crushing despair of Job combined with the realization of the awesome obligations represented by Christ to “love thy enemies.” His breakdown and resulting pledge to atone are worthy of the miracle of the virgin spring.

There is much more going on in The Virgin Spring, some of which I caught, and much of which I’m sure I didn’t.

Suffice to say, it’s a beautiful film.

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