Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 29min
Sin has taken on many forms in Ingmar Bergman’s films, from the creeping doubt of The Seventh Seal to the infidelity of Sawdust and Tinsel. The Virgin Spring marks the first time it manifests with such explicit violence though, deriving from bitter resentment and evolving into soul-crushing guilt. There is no undoing these physical actions the way one might deny an unclean thought, leaving this great shame to haunt every single character who manages to outlive the chaste, Christ-like Karin.
Tragically, it is her rape and murder which sets in motion everyone else’s reckoning with their own moral principles. After being sent off with her family’s servant Ingeri to deliver candles to a church about a day’s ride away, she is targeted by a trio of dubious herdsmen. One is simply a young boy, traumatically caught up in the devastating crime committed by his older companions. As witness to the incident, Ingeri is remorseful too, given that she had been jealously praying to Norse god Odin for Karin to be struck down. Even her mother and father bear heavy consciences, with Märeta confessing her own selfish desire to be the favoured parent, and the religious Töre being driven to commit a vicious act of vengeance upon discovering the identities of his daughter’s killers.
It is no accident that Karin’s death lands on a Good Friday here. Much like The Seventh Seal, the setting of medieval Sweden brings connotations of Christianity and paganism fighting over the souls of common people, and Bergman’s symbolism is perfectly pointed in its references to both. The night before Karin and Ingeri’s departure, he sets the scene for a Last Supper in the family’s modest dining hall, framing them beneath the heavy weight a giant, gnarled trunk which stretches its way across the room.
Later, a bastardised version of that holy feast takes places when Karin sits down for a picnic with her soon-to-be attackers, turning them into Judas figures who will betray her trust. Bergman’s photography in this forest is sharp, and yet it is frequently obstructed by dense foliage and collapsed trees, turning the natural location into an unruly, godless environment. It is also the perfect habitat for the one-eyed, Odin-like hermit that Ingeri encounters on her journey, offering ominous answers to her prayers and eventually driving her away in terror.
Karin’s shattering death effectively splits The Virgin Spring in half, leaving its second part to open with the herdsmen unsuspectingly taking refuge at her family’s home. It isn’t long before they figure out their hosts’ connection to their victim, and with this realisation comes a fresh guilt bearing down on their minds. When one of them foolishly hands over Karin’s ruined dress, their identities become apparent to Märeta and Töre as well, and at this moment the brooding concern that has quietly sunk into Max von Sydow’s performance mutates into a furious conviction of what must be done.
As he goes about preparing the vindictive murder of his guests by way of pagan rituals, he finds an unlikely ally in Ingeri. Bergman’s imagery is striking as Töre wrestles a thin birch tree to the ground, setting him against a vast, desolate landscape that swallows him up in its grey austerity. Inside, she offers him a hot bath, where he uses the snapped branches to flagellate his nude body in a violent cleansing of the soul, before approaching the sleeping men. Even the idolatrous knife he carries bears the visage of a skull and bones, thrusted menacingly into the table as he waits for them to wake up.
As The Virgin Spring builds its two acts to a pair of climactic struggles, the intimacy that comes with Bergman’s piercing close-ups uncomfortably turns on us. There are certainly moments shared between Karin and Töre early on which bask in their gentle affection, but even more impassioned are those tight frames of faces furiously pressed against each other in conflict. Whether it is the helplessness felt during Karin’s rape or Töre’s fierce killings, Bergman makes violence feel truly claustrophobic, even burning up a pair of combatants in one composition which stages them behind a hellish fire.
If Karin’s death represents the crucifixion of Christ though, then there is salvation to be found in the death of an innocent. Perhaps it is a holy miracle, or maybe just a quirk of nature, but the moment her grieving family lift her head from the place she was left to die, a spring of fresh water bursts forth from the earth. As Ingeri kneels to wash her dirty face and drink from the small fountain, a path to redemption for each of these sinners is uncovered in his profoundly spiritual imagery, expressing communal prayer through a beautifully blocked tableau. His screenplay is just as eloquent too, with Töre pouring out the sorrow, frustration, and devotion of a grieving father.
“You see it, God. You see it. The innocent child’s death, and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand You. I don’t understand You. Yet, I still ask your forgiveness. I know no other way to live. I promise You, God, here on the dead body of my only child, I promise you that, to cleanse my sins, here I shall build a church. On this spot. Of mortar and stone – and with these, my hands.”
The Virgin Spring may be a fable of Christ’s death and gift of salvation, but in Töre’s journey we also partially recognise the Book of Job. The test of faith which rips away that which he holds dearest, plunges him into deep despair, and raises him up again higher than before lays out a rich theological arc that Bergman meditates on with stirring grace. Questions of faith, virtue, and atonement may be nothing new for him, but their manifestation here through such visceral violence is punishing even by his standards, considering with uncomfortable introspection how these lofty ideals might survive our most corrupt, godless instincts.
The Virgin Spring is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.