Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring earned 1960's Oscar for best foreign film. Its tale of violence and revenge in a medieval setting proved an irresistible combination of foreign-film class and exploitable conflict. The appeal of its subject matter is universal - every parent can identify with these tragic events.
The Virgin Spring pulled in a wider audience than did many of Bergman's later films of the 1960s. It also cemented the renown of Max von Sydow, Bergman's leading man from The Seventh Seal. Bergman often skipped this title when writing about his career, perhaps because he did not write it, or because it was popular in a conventional way. That's too bad, as it might be his most accessible and satisfying early film.
Far removed from the psychological ruminations that would soon dominate his work, Ingmar Bergman's third film with Max Von Sydow reaches far into the past for a morality tale about crime and punishment. The original story idea came from an ancient ballad and was enlarged by screenwriter Ulla Isaksson to dramatize the conflict between Sweden's newly adopted Christianity and its old pagan gods. Von Sydow's Töre may have converted but human nature has not, and the most visible addition to the inner lives of the characters seems to be a thick fog of guilt. The working girl Ingeri voices her resentment by calling to her secret pagan gods, and feels all the more debased. Mother Märeta is virtuous but appears to worship the purity of her picture-perfect daughter, to the point that she's jealous of the affection young Karin gives her father.
As for Karin, she's a sheltered and self-centered jewel of the family incapable of recognizing guile or malice. She is pure of heart, but faith alone is little protection from a brutal world. Karin doesn't return from her trip, and proof of her murder comes in the night. The herdsmen have sought shelter in Töre's own house, and present Märeta with the torn and bloodied dress that Karin was wearing only hours before.
The parents are transformed into calculating killers. Töre reverts to rituals of the past, taking his armor and weapons from a trunk and preparing himself by striking his skin with birch branches. The family forgets its new faith to take a bloody vengeance.
The Virgin Spring is beautifully directed. We're constantly shown contrasts - pride and charity, familial love and seething resentment. The innocent Karin is despoiled and murdered by three vile wanderers and revenged by her father in an orgy of bloodletting. Both violent events are depicted in powerful, wordless sequences. Töre and Märeta recover their daughter's body with tenderness and are rewarded with a miracle of faith, a harsh fairy-tale ending that provides an emotional release. Töre doesn't understand how God could permit such evil to occur yet humbly atones for his sins with the promise to build a church.
The Virgin Spring is an almost perfect film and as such is often recommended as initial viewing for newcomers to Ingmar Bergman. It was the director's first full collaboration with cameraman Sven Nyqvist. Bergman's 13th century is beautifully created in a spring forest where the last of the winter snowfalls have yet to subside. Töre's little wooden compound is dominated by an imposing carved Christ on the crucifix, yet the dining hall is decorated with definite pagan carvings.
Criterion's DVD of The Virgin Spring looks even better than similar titles from the same company and bears a new color logo from Svensk-Filmindusri. The extras are satisfying but we wonder why the single-disc release is listed at Criterion's higher price point; perhaps the new transfer accounts for this. Ingmar Bergman author Birgitta Steene offers a fine analytical commentary and disc producer Johanna Schiller has produced a fine interview documentary featuring both of the film's young actresses 45 years later. Birgitta Petterson remembers the filming of the rape scene as being bearable because the lead herdsman was played by Axel Düberg, a personal friend. Looking at early portraits of the beautiful Gunnel Lindblom we are struck by her close resemblance to Bergman's other star Bibi Andersson. Lindblom would later become a director.
The disc offers plenty of direct Ingmar Bergman input through audio recordings made at an AFI seminar in 1975. The fat liner booklet contains essays from Peter Cowie and Ulla Isaksson and the original source ballad. A letter from Ingmar Bergman makes a case against censoring the film's rape scene, which was nevertheless cut for the first American release.
The only questionable extra is the Introduction by Ang Lee. These spoiler-laden personal ruminations should be given a different function, as they tend to pre-program the viewer to read the film with a single, 'authorized' interpretation. And the use of today's star directors will date the presentation in a way that other Criterion extras do not.
The disc offers a choice of the original Swedish soundtrack with removable English subtitles, or an English dub track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Virgin Spring rates: