The Virgin Spring (1960)

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*. I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman, or at least early Bergman. Not because I don’t think he’s a great filmmaker but because I’m not that sympathetic to his moral-spiritual vision.
*. Though perhaps my real problem is a niggling sense that he doesn’t believe in that vision either. What is the message of The Virgin Spring? It may be even more Christian than the 13th-century source (which, and this is significant, didn’t contain any juxtaposition of Christianity with a pagan past). In the twentieth or twenty-first century can we really identify with Töre at the end, and despite our doubts about the wisdom/goodness/power of God decide to build him a church anyway?
*. Does it matter that Bergman didn’t like the ending, indeed didn’t like the movie much at all? This leads me back to wondering why he made it in the first place (a question that I think also exercised Pauline Kael).

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*. This is a problem that’s exacerbated by the film adopting such a preachy stance. Everything is made to seem symbolic, an emblem of some higher meaning. The toad in the sandwich, the goats in the forest, the raven in the tree. And the dialogue is much the same. It will be a dull viewer indeed who doesn’t get the significance of Karin’s mother warning her about how the devil likes to destroy innocence.
*. The action is just as heavy-handed, with the evildoers being dispatched in almost ceremonial ways (one appears almost to be crucified while the other is tossed on the fire like a sacrifice). Even the rape scene is awkwardly choreographed so as to implicate both of the adult brothers. I mean, just what is the vocal one doing? Dry-humping his brother’s back? The way the three figures are stuck together suggests Bergman was just trying to find some way to get them all into the frame at the same time.
*. Some of this can be attributed to the source. Medieval ballads aren’t known for their moral complexity, so we shouldn’t be surprised if an adaptation plays out like a moral fairy tale. But I think Bergman wants us to see it as having contemporary relevance.

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*. Of course Wes Craven saw the commercial potential right away, and re-made it as The Last House on the Left. In doing so, did he grasp the real essence of the story? Or, in eschewing any spiritual considerations, did he just make it more a film for our time?
*. That’s a point worth expanding on. There’s a whole school of art criticism that looks to evolutionary psychology as providing a great code for interpreting fiction and film. A film like this one, or any from the rape-revenge genre, illustrates their point clearly (a subject I touched on in my notes on Straw Dogs). Looked at from this perspective, the religious message is just a superfluous, and meaningless, overlay. Which it may be, and which takes me back to that “niggling sense” I mentioned earlier that Bergman doesn’t really care about any of this.
*. Another element that adds to the abstract quality the movie has is the silence. I don’t recall any musical soundtrack, and even the dialogue is kept to a minimum (two of the three brothers have no lines at all). In particular, note the two big action sequences. Both Karin’s rape and Töre’s murder of her killers are conducted entirely in silence. Karin doesn’t plead with her attackers or cry for help. Töre never says anything to the three brothers, and they say nothing to him. This gives the proceedings a sense of taking place at some remove from reality, almost in a ritual vacuum.

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*. The photography by Sven Nykvist is fine, but one thing that bothered me was his penchant for shooting through some prominent foreground object (bits of set decoration, flames, branches, etc.). This is something that I notice a lot of inexperienced, or just plain bad, cameramen do because it’s an easy way to show off. I don’t see any point for it here, or at least doing so much of it.

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*. Is it too staged, too posed, too pretty? The outdoor photography is beautiful, but it’s the interiors (which were all shot in a studio) that bother me. I suppose medieval homes and kitchens were kept as clean as could be, but I didn’t buy how spotless the floors and whitewashed walls were. There’s even an early shot where Ingeri walks across a very wet and mucky yard, but when she enters an outbuilding her boots are clean and don’t leave the slightest mark on the floor. Karin’s nightdress is another example of clothes that are just too clean to be believed, but in her case you have to take it as symbolic of her purity and innocence.
*. More staged abstraction: that bright diamond-shaped light behind Karin and her mother in the bedroom scene. That struck me as so artificial that all I could think of when I was watching the scene was where on earth it could be coming from. I suppose it makes sense with the placment of the window in the roof but you just know it’s there because Bergman wanted it as a backdrop.

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*. What about Karin? Peter Cowrie notes “a dangerous hint of vanity and sanctimoniousness” in her, but it may go further than that. Birgitta Pettersson was 20 at the time the movie was made, and it’s hard to deny her sexuality. How innocent is she? Is her naivety only a dangerous act?
*. But then everyone here feels guilty about something. Ingeri blames herself for directing ill thoughts in Karin’s direction, but it’s hard to see where she has much to reproach herself with. She tries to keep Karin from going into the woods, and there was nothing she could have done to rescue her from the brothers. Märeta also blames herself at the end, and of course Töre takes it upon himself to do a special task of atonement. This may be one of the most striking moral differences between then and now. Today, the assessment of moral responsibility is a game of evasion. We are used to thinking of responsibility in terms of liability, a fate worse than death in some cases.
*. So your response to a film like this may boil down to a matter of temperament. It has a stark simplicity, beauty, and power, but also comes across as staged, meticulous, and artificial, with a heavy-handed moral that just doesn’t mean anything in the twenty-first century (or likely would have meant anything, I would argue, from roughly the eighteenth century on). As I began by saying, I don’t think it meant anything to Bergman either, which is probably why he gave up on this kind of material moving forward.

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