The Virgin Spring
"God, I don't understand you."
The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) is a 1960 film directed by the Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. Many people have referred to this as a "transitional film" for Bergman, which is a pretty good characterization if you're familiar with the man's work. While the film was not a commercial success in Sweden (apparently, his films rarely are) it received critical praise and stirred controversy in the United States for its then-graphic depictions of rape and violence. Ang Lee said this film was a "life-changing" experience for him, and upon watching it, it's not difficult to understand why. The Virgin Spring forces us to question the place of unbridled vengeance in a world where 'higher' forms of justice often seem lacking. The film is based on a 13th century Scandinavian ballad called "Töres dotter i Vänge" ("Töre's Daughter in Vänge") which is revered by Swedes in the area to this day.
Warning: spoilers follow.
This is an interesting Bergman film for a few reasons. First, its screenplay was written by someone other than himself (in this case, the novelist Ulla Isaksson). Second, this marks his first collaboration with his afterwards long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Third, the issues at stake in the film are ethical rather than psychological, in stark contrast to much of the rest of his canon. In most other ways, though, it's quite a typical Bergman film, as evidenced by the religious themes and the fact that two of his most frequent performers -- Gunnel Lindblom and the inimitable Max von Sydow -- star in it.
The film opens with Ingeri (Lindblom) wandering around in a darkened room. She is attempting to light a fire in the furnace and when she is finally able to do so, we see her dishelved and unkempt appearance. As she steps back into the light, we become aware of the fact that she is pregnant. She then sighs and whispers a forbidden prayer to Odin, a traditional Scandinavian deity of wisdom and strength. The scene abruptly cuts to the immaculately groomed Töre (von Sydow) and Märeta praying before a crucifix. Töre is the head of this idyllic 13th century household and Märeta is his devoted wife. She burns herself with candle wax to do penance and the household convenes for breakfast. Ingeri endures insults from the other servants and gets into an argument with Märeta about Karin, the latter's daughter, who is supposed to deliver some candles to the church, but has slept in late. Ingeri sarcastically charges that Märeta is afraid that her daughter will come under her "evil" influence and Märeta in turn orders her to go prepare Karin's lunch (which she does by placing a live toad in her bread). Töre and Märeta then argue about the fact that the former is too strict with Karin and the latter is too indulgent.
As if to underscore this, Märeta goes to see her daughter, fearing that she is sick. It turns out, of course, that she is just tired from a wild night of dancing in the barn. Märeta tells her daughter that she needs to get ready to go to the church (since, in her words, "only a virgin" can deliver the candles) or her father will be angry. Karin has her mother bring her her most beautiful and expensive skirt despite her weak objections. Märeta mildly chides Karin for dancing all night and tells her that she needs to be careful not to be led astray down the wrong path. Karin replies that she says her prayers, so she'll be fine (this is a characteristically Bergman statement; the comment represents a naïve interpretation of the hollowness of religious sentiment). Töre comes into the room and feigns anger at Karin's tardiness and it becomes clear as the two of them joke and laugh with one another that Märeta deeply envies and resents the close bond they share. Karin convinces her father to let Ingeri come with her to the church and in a matter of moments, the two are off.
As Ingeri and Karin ride their horses over the hill, the contrast could not be starker between the two of them. Karin is resplendent, almost holy in appearance, while Ingeri is dirty and quite obviously far from virginal. They stop and chat for a minute, with Karin saying she'd never let a man take her to bed before marriage. Ingeri scoffs at this, telling her that she'll see what happens to her "honor" the next time a man grabs her by the waist and pushes her down beneath a bush (an allusion to the true story behind Ingeri's pregnancy and a foreshadowing of what will come later). Karin insists she'd fight, but just then, one of her dancing partners from the night before appears and they have a conversation that visibly upsets Ingeri. Presumably, this is the man who forcibly impregnated Ingeri, and Karin slaps her after they argue about him. Karin then asks her for forgiveness, but refuses.
Eventually, the two reach a ford in the river before the forest that will take them to the church. At the ford is an old man in a shack and Ingeri suddenly becomes terrified, saying she cannot go into the forest. Karin says she will go alone and the man with no name allows Ingeri to stay with him until she returns. Karin rides off and Ingeri goes into his lodge. As we walk into the door with Ingeri, it becomes clear that this man's house is much different from Töre's. First, he is the only person who lives there. Second, it is somewhat dirty and in a general state of disarray. Third, the seat of honor is covered in pagan carvings, whereas the one in Töre's house is adorned with images of Christian saints. He reveals that he still makes sacrifices to Odin and that in his house, one can see and hear things that others cannot. On cue, Ingeri hears the sound of three phantom horsemen, "gallopping from the north," as the man says. He then cryptically tells Ingeri that he knew who she was the second he saw her and grabs at her, prompting her to run away from his house. He steps out of the shack and smiles as he watches her run off into the woods.
Meanwhile, Karin rides along and soaks up the sun as three filthy goatherders (one of whom is just a small boy) watch her lustfully. They take their goats and circle around to where it appears that they are simply crossing paths with the girl. She offers them some food and the only brother who can speak (the oldest had his tongue cut out and the youngest never talks) says they can only accept such a meal if she will eat it with them. Obliviously, she agrees. Symbolically, they turn her horse around and lead her astray down the wrong path. As they eat, she brags about how wonderful her house and family are as the brothers ogle her. At that moment, Ingeri stumbles onto the scene where she witnesses what happens next (but they cannot see her). The two older brothers suddenly grab Karin as she tries to get away, hold her down beside a bush, and violently rape her. (Is this what happened to Ingeri?) When they have finished, she slowly stands and lets out a few anguished sobs. The brother with no tongue grabs a large stick and bludgeons her to death. They then ransack her belongings, take off her clothes, and put everything they want into a burlap sack. The older brothers leave, telling the youngest to stay behind and watch the goats. It begins to snow and the boy tosses dirt onto Karin, ostensibly trying to bury her (but really serving the symbolic need for her to appear "dirty"). He then runs off to join his brothers.
We next see Töre at his house, talking to three men at his gate who, despite being covered in shadows, are obviously the three brothers. They beg for lodging and he somewhat reluctantly lets them in. They walk inside to the dining area where the mood of the servants is one of sobriety and somberness. Everyone is concerned because Karin and Ingeri (but specifically Karin) have failed to return. The middle aged female servant asks them what they're doing, and the speaking brother informs her that they met the master at the gate. My Swedish is pretty horrible, but if I heard him correctly, I believe the line is something of a pun; the Swedish word for "master" (as in "master of the house") is the same for "Lord." After a somewhat sad and tense supper, the youngest takes ill and throws up his food. The middle aged servant woman lays him down and tells him to say his prayers, reminding him that "the Lord is merciful" (using the same master/lord word). As Töre and Märeta retire for the night, they pray and argue about Karin. A noise in the other room stirs Märeta and she sees that one of the older brothers has beat the youngest one. As if to make amends for being caught, the speaking brother offers Märeta some clothes allegedly belong to their fictional deceased sister; it is, of course, Karin's beautiful skirt and it's covered with blood. Märeta suppresses her tears and says ominously (to us) "I must ask my husband what would be a fitting reward for such a valuable garment."
Upon seeing it, Töre grabs his sword and storms out of the bedroom. On his way in to confront the brothers, he sees that Ingeri has returned and he grabs her by the throat, demanding to know what happened. She tells him everything, including the fact that (a) she stood by and did nothing and (b) that she wished it would happen. She claims the brothers were possessed by "him," although it's unclear if she's referring to Odin or Satan. She cries into Töre's chest and he tells her to prepare a bath. As she does so, Töre goes out into a field where a lone birch tree stands. It glimmers in the early morning light and it is obviously young, an obvious reference to Karin. He uproots it and tears it down with his bare hands, grabbing several branches off of it. Inside, he has disrobed and is beating himself with the branches in an act of self-flaggelation as he washes himself, a symbolic purification rite that melds elements of both ancient paganism and medieval Christianity, blurring the distinction between the two even further.
Töre and Märeta then make their way into the dining hall where the brothers are sleeping. Töre wakes them and then stabs the tongue-less brother in the chest with a knife. He struggles with the speaking brother and throws him into the fire, suffocating him with his own body. He then turns his attention to the small, whom Märeta holds and tries to protect. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, he grabs the boy away from his wife, lifts him up, and throws him into the wall, either breaking his neck or bashing his head in. When he has finished his bloody vengeance, Töre looks at his hands and he realizes that despite his bath, he is covered in dirt and blood. In this moment, he is now like Ingeri, the brothers, the man in the lodge, and (as we saw earlier) Karin. He has meted out his pagan justice but realizes that his Christian absolution is yet to come. He begs for forgiveness as Märeta cries over the boy's body.
Ingeri leads the entire household to the scene of the crime, where Märeta tearfully confesses that this is all her fault, and that God was punishing her for the fact that she had come to resent the closeness between her husband and her daughter. Töre answers that "God alone knows where the blame lies," a suggestion that everyone bears some responsibility for what happened in a metaphysical sense (this is also a cover for the fact that Töre cannot make sense of it all). Upon seeing Karin's body haphazardly covered in dirt and in a long shot similar to the one in Winter Light, Töre falls to the ground and sobs profusely, crying out to God that he doesn't "understand" how He could have let this happen, but that he still wants His forgiveness. He then pledges to build a church on the spot of his daughter's death, saying that he only understands what he does with his hands (a possible reference to the fact that Töre is only a relatively recent convert to Christianity and that he still lives in the framework of a far earthier heathen faith). As he moves his daughter's body, water spontaneously erupts from the ground like an ever-flowing stream. Ingeri wipes herself off with it, appearing clean for the first time in the entire film, and perhaps symbolizing a conversion. The parents wipe Karin's face clean with the water, posthumously restoring her honor, as the film ends with a traditional hymn in the background.
Sadly, the most enduring legacy that the Virgin Spring has had in the English-speaking world of pedestrian cinema is that it served as the basis for the "shocking" 1972 Wes Craven horror film the Last House On The Left. The story of ambiguous redemption set against the conflict of paganism and Christianity is in expert hands with Team Bergman and has only recently been made available on Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is a must-have for Bergman fans and anyone else who claims to be a lover of film.