Revenge, violence but also a touch of hope abound in Bergman’s haunting Oscar winning classic
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow (Töre), Birgitta Valberg (Märeta), Gunnel Lindblom (Ingeri), Birgitta Pettersson (Karin), Axel Düberg (Thin Herdsman), Tor Isedal (Mute Herdsman), Axel Slangus (Bridge-keeper), Allan Edwall (Beggar), Ove Porath (Boy)
Spoilers: If you can spoil a Bergman classic, the full content of the film is discussed below
If a film cemented Bergman as the master of misery, it was his Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring. On the surface, a grim fable of rape revenge shot in wintery horror, it’s hard to imagine most people nerving themselves to watch it based on a synopsis. But they would be missing out. The Virgin Spring is, for all its hard-hitting violence and cruelty, a surprisingly hopeful film. Like the best of Bergman, it’s profoundly challenging, searching and operates on multiple levels – but rewards the viewer with splashes of strange optimism that feel a world away when it opens. It’s one of his truly great films.
Set in medieval Sweden, Töre (Max von Sydow, magnificently, chillingly grief-stricken) is a prosperous and devotional Christian farmer, in a cooling marriage to Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). The light of his life is his daughter, the beautiful Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). One day, Töre tasks Karin to travel to the Church (half a day’s ride) to deliver some candles. She travels with Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom – bitter, damaged and brilliant), a pagan servant girl, heavily pregnant and resentful. Along the way they two are separated and Karin meets with three peasant brothers in the forest, who share her meal with her before the two adult brothers (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal) rape and murder her. The brothers walk on and take shelter that night in Töre’s hall. When he discovers their deed, he murders them all (even the innocent youngest brother, a boy) then, horrified, pleads to God for forgiveness. At which point a spring, bursts forth where Karin was killed.
Not exactly a bundle of laughs. But this is powerful, compelling film-making from Bergman. His influence on horror has been overlooked, but The Virgin Spring show how much he inspired everything from shlock to The Exorcist. This is a tense, unbearably so, film which twice draws out the long build-up to shocking violence in a way that would make Sergio Leone proud. Played out in a beautifully moody, bleakly cold and wintery visual style from Sven Nykvist (his first collaboration with Bergman) and often in an atmospheric mix of silence and natural sound, you can feel your stomach knot as the inevitable transgressive act looms ever closer.
The film pulls no punches, while never being exploitative. The rape and murder of Karin (excellently played with just the right mix of innocence and spoilt certainty by Birgitta Pettersson) unfolds with a cold matter-of-factness, as she slowly realises these men are far more dangerous than she imagined. The event is hard-to-watch for its simplicity rather than its graphicness, and for the cold indifference of its perpetrators who act on a whim. It takes place almost in silence and the killing (mercifully off-camera) is more because they don’t know what to do next. Mix that in with the terrified stares of Ingeri from afar, and the shell-shock of the younger brother (who vainly tries to bury Karin with dirt before running away), makes a scene devoid of sensationalism but terrible to watch.
It’s reflected in the film’s later act of violence. The brothers having tried to pass off Karin’s blood-stained dress as their (imaginary) sister’s, sell it to Märeta (who instantly recognises a garment she stitched herself, even as she’s asked to admire the handiwork), are locked in the hall while they sleep. Töre’s slaying of them, however, never feels triumphant. Instead, the Christian Töre abandons his faith to embrace pagan revenge. Like a priest before a blood sacrifice he dresses himself in butchery gear, discards a sword for a smaller knife, carefully prepares the room for the brothers to wake and then sits, idol-like, in his chair waiting. This is a damning ritualistic insight into how our faith – the faith Töre was so proud of – can drop away to reveal our vengeful simplicity below.
The fight that ensues feels like something from the nether-regions of hell. One brother is skewered, arms wide, to Töre’s chair. Another is stabbed under Töre’s body weight – shot in a way reminiscent of Karin’s rape, with the flames of the fire dancing between them and the camera – his body left to burn in the fire. Their brother – a child – runs to Märeta for protection, yet Töre hurls him against the wall breaking his neck. There is no triumph. Töre speaks not a word – the brothers die having no idea who he is. Töre is left starring at his trembling hands in shock, as if waking from a dream not recognising the man he has become who turned his back on every article of faith he held dear.
It’s a film that shows the impact of grief and trauma. From the terrified face of the youngest brother – shovelling dirt on a dead body with tear-stained eyes – to Töre’s shell-shocked realisation his daughter is dead. Deep down, people blames themselves. Märeta believes she is being punished for envying Karin’s closeness to her father. Ingeri believes she has cursed Karin to suffer the same shame as her. Töre, perhaps, feels guilt at his own semi-incestuous closeness with his daughter. Why else does he struggle to bring down with his bare hands a new-planted birch tree (in beautifully haunting medium shot), cutting branches from it to flay himself in a sauna before he takes his revenge? It’s both punishment for past and future sins.
This is also a film that challenges us to decide whether brutal revenge is justified. The build-up to the murder of the brothers is very similar to the murder of Karin. A long meal, shared, even with similar food – so similar that the innocent younger brother vomits at the memories it brings back. This young boy is the death of innocence in this world. Betrayed into crime by his vile elders then forced to pay a terrible price for a deed he was powerless to stop and left him deeply distressed. How can we really triumph in Töre’s killing, when we see it performed so violently at such a price?
Bergman tests throughout how far faith goes, and questions what power God has. The film opens with two pleas, to two very different Gods. Ingeri pleads to Odin to punish the virtuous Karin, who in Ingeri’s eyes is a working rebuke for her wedlock-free pregnancy. Töre prays to a Dürer style carved cross for God to keep their household safe. Only one deity delivers: and rightly Töre will plead at the film’s end “You see it God, you see it…you allowed it. I don’t understand you.” Töre has even mirrored the rapists, in murdering an innocent. He repents later, but is a heathen in the moment.
Paganism is strong in The Virgin Spring. But it is not good. Ingeri separates from Karin when she meets a half-blind bridge-keeper, in a house full of ravens, in the wood. The man ticks every box for representing Odin and conveys dark promises of powers beyond mankind. But he is a vile, Devilish figure who takes an impish delight in cruelty and mischief. Ingeri’s departure from him coincides with Karin’s encounter with her killers – as if these demonic sprites had been conjured up by Odin to punish Ingeri by providing her with exactly what she asked for.
Why then is a film so grim, so cold, so difficult and challenging also feel strangely hopeful? Odin has won and Töre has turned his back on Christian faith to embrace cold, merciless, pagan violence. But as Töre pleads for forgiveness a spring bursts forth from below the point where Karin’s head lay. Suddenly, water pours out of the ground. Light bathes the clearing from above. Ingeri washes her face and hands, cleaning symbolically the parts of her that made those pagan pleas. Suddenly, from nowhere, the film presents an intense moment of spiritual hope that I found surprisingly moving. Rarely has something so grim, felt so cleansing at its close. Perhaps viewers need the simple, honest refreshing splash of water to help themselves after. That’s what helps makes The Virgin Spring difficult, uncomfortable but essential.