Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 29 March 2006
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
At this distance in years, the enthusiasm at the time for Ingmar Bergman’s work of the late fifties — specifically, Smiles of a Summer’s Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries — seems something of a historical curiosity. This is not only because of the way the films compare unfavourably with the more probing, innovative work being produced elsewhere or soon to come (Antonioni, the Nouvelle Vague, etc, plus Bergman’s own work from Through A Glass Darkly on). It’s also because of serious failings in the films themselves.
True, Wild Strawberries, for all its neat, literary quality, is still a very satisfying film, even if its emotional effects never really run deep. But the strained, forced comic tone of Smiles of a Summer’s Night never really works. Bergman is “doing” comedy, something that’s never his strength and which can sometimes be an embarrassment. (I’ve always found the Gustav Adolf comedy in Fanny and Alexander simply awful. It’s thankful that the TV version — the true masterpiece — removes from Gustav Adolf the prominence he is given in the theatrical version.) And what is to be said of The Seventh Seal today? Its thematic concerns with the “silence of God” and its apocalyptic tone have little resonance, and the striving for symbolism (so often and so rightly subsequently mocked) makes for an unconvincing work.
Bergman enthusiast and Criterion Collection regular Peter Cowie (for once, not providing the commentary on this Criterion DVD) calls The Virgin Spring “one of the highest peaks in the Bergman range.” He couldn’t be more wrong. What the film does is return to the mediaeval setting of The Seventh Seal, where it shares the striking visual beauty of the earlier film but offers little more than that—any real thematic ambitions (which, as questionable as they were, at least The Seventh Seal had) are lacking here.
The Virgin Spring is the re-telling of a mediaeval Swedish ballad of a young girl raped and murdered by three herdsmen on her way to church and her father’s savage vengeance killing of them when their identities are by chance revealed to him. The ballad ends with the father, Töre, undertaking to build a church in atonement for his acts of murder, his infringement of the laws of God.
For the screenplay Bergman turned, unusually, to another writer: overtly Christian novelist Ulla Jakobson, who had written So Close To Life for him a couple of years before. Jakobson deepened the simplicities of the mediaeval tale with greater thematic complexity and introduced psychological motivations for the characters.
This is a film of parallels and contrasts. Above all, there’s the conflict between the roots of the pagan past and the relatively new, thinly-applied Christianity. So, in the very first scene Karin’s older foster-sister Ingeri prays to the Norse god Odin in a kitchen whose very darkness symbolises the dark forces at play. But Christianity’s hold on this world seems tenuous. Karin’s mother Märeta is a believer, with an indication through her clothing that there is something repressive about her belief: her body and hair completely covered, with her clothes tight at the wrists and around the face, this all seems like a rebuke to the vitality and drive to freedom of her daughter. But in contrast Karin’s father Töre shows no connection with this new religion, demonstrating indifference and nonchalance. He can barely stifle a yawn during their morning prayer; and after Karin’s death Märeta is bitter for the way he is “never troubled or worried, never praying to God.”
These conflicts between paganism and Christianity and between the married couple in terms of their religious commitment all have a psychological motivation. What drives Ingeri to her prayer to Odin in the opening scene is her jealousy of her foster-sister Karin (the nature of the fostering is rather unclear, as Ingeri effectively seems to have the status of a servant in the household). The tension on Ingeri’s part between the two is underlined by their physical contrasts. Ingeri is dark-haired and dark-skinned, dressed in poor clothes, pregnant, bitter and resentful, and associated with the lowly, the animal, and the earth; Karin is fair, sweet and virginal, innocent even, dressed in fine clothes, and associated with light, the sky, and the sun. Karin’s eventual rape is at this point willed by Ingeri, who even refers to this possibility on their ride together, and there’s a perverse, disturbing, and sexual connotation to her act of concealing a live toad in the bread that Karin will carry with her. This toad will be released at the very moment that the two adult goatherds (the third is a young boy) make their first sexual moves towards Karin, underlining the extent to which this rape is an outcome desired by Ingeri—who now stands to the side, a silent witness, even if she is now appalled and remorseful.
Karin’s mother Märeta is also jealous, in her case jealous of the close relationship between her husband and her daughter. There’s a tension between them in terms of their commitment to the Christian faith, between the intensity of her belief — which approaches the obsessive and even the perverse (watch how she drips candle wax on herself as an act of religious mortification) — and what really seems to be a lack of any true belief on Töre’s part. As parents they have very different approaches to Karin. Märeta is soft and indulgent, ready to give in to any whim of Karin’s while Töre is strict and authoritarian. Yet Märeta is jealous of their relationship, for Karin is demonstrative and loving towards her father, with an implication of incestuous, sexual flirtation on both their parts. Märeta’s jealousy is clear in the scene where she stands in the background and Karin gives Töre, and only Töre, a farewell kiss. At the end of the film Märeta explicitly blames herself for Karin’s death, placing the guilt on her excessive love for her daughter and her subsequent hatred of Töre when that love was returned by Karin not to herself but to her husband.
Visually, The Virgin Spring is an exquisite film, with the beautiful black-and-white imagery swinging between high-contrast expressionism and light, lyrical exteriors. The film marks the start of Bergman’s continual collaboration for the rest of his career with cinematographer Sven Nykvist (the next film, The Devil’s Eye, being the single exception). On the Criterion DVD commentary Birgitta Steene makes the interesting point that Nykvist’s cinematography here doesn’t make a break with Bergman’s earlier work (that was to come with Through A Glass Darkly) but in fact is completely in the style of Gunnar Fischer, who shot most of the work of the forties and fifties. I’ve seen The Virgin Spring several times over the years and I must admit I’ve always associated it with Fisher’s work and never with Nykvist’s. The effect is that The Virgin Spring’s parallels in theme and setting with The Seventh Seal are reinforced through the similarities in the style of cinematography.
In addition, Bergman very deliberately evokes the style of Kurosawa’s films, particularly Rashomon, especially in the scenes in the forest. He was later to regret this, going so far as to call it “a misadventure, a wretched imitation.” In fact, Bergman’s self-criticism here seems an over-reaction. The exterior scenes are of great beauty, and they are very carefully and effectively staged. Look at the way the horizontal lines of tree branches hem Karin in during the rape, an effect repeated in the shot when she is stripped of her clothes after her murder. And see how this tree motif is evoked after the rape when her face moves into close-up and is dissected by the shadows of branches, a shadowing that is repeated in the shot after she is clubbed to the ground.
If the visual look to The Virgin Spring is a strength of the film, it has to be said that there is something inadequate about the acting. The acting in Bergman’s early work can frequently have a theatrical, stagy, overemphatic quality to it. Here, there’s often a ponderous stodginess to Max Von Sydow’s performance—such a contrast with the ease, naturalness, and authenticity of his very small role in Wild Strawberries. Similarly with Gunnel Lindblom in the film’s most interesting (but, sadly, ultimately undeveloped) role of the jealous foster-sister Ingeri: in too many scenes the performance is overly forced and “actorly.”
Even if Isaksson and Bergman have added a modern layer of psychology-based characterisation, the core of the film is still the original mediaeval tale of one act of appalling violence answered by another. After Töre learns that his guests are the killers of his child, he prepares himself with a ritualistic cleansing; and his subsequent act of vengeance has ritualistic overtones too, a mingling of the pagan gods with an eye-for-an-eye Old Testament ethos. Märeta’s own New Testament Christian beliefs are temporarily set aside as she drives Töre on. It’s only when the violence is extended to the third herdsman, a young boy who took a minimal part in the rape, that she stands, back against the wall, appalled, protesting at what Töre has done. And Töre himself realises this, hence his undertaking to build a church on the site of Karin’s death, in penance for his acts of violence. The miracle in the final scene — the bubbling forth of a spring under the murdered girl’s body — is to be seen as a divine acknowledgement and a redemption of all that has gone before. So, The Virgin Spring offers a clear, modern re-telling of a mediaeval ballad, but one whose success is ultimately compromised by its limitations. It’s a beautifully worked-through adaptation, but in the end, suffers from a certain sterility. You’re left with the feeling that there’s really not so much point to this exercise.