Film

In Ingmar Bergman's 'The Virgin Spring' God Might See but God Does Not Act

Birgitta Valberg as Mareta, Max von Sydow as Tore (Source: Criterion)

This tautly plotted story about rape, murder, and revenge is tightly tangled into another of the director's stark investigations of faith and morality.

The Virgin Spring
Ingmar Bergman

Criterion

26 Jun 2018

Other

You can easily imagine the characters in Ingmar Bergman's devastating The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1961) calling where they live "God's country". Their farm is situated in a kind of pristine wonderland of thick pine forests and gurgling streams. Religion plays a central role in most of their lives as well, with the mother, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), seeming to spend her every waking moment in contemplation of God, and her husband, Tore (Max von Sydow), only slightly less fervent in his faith. They are certain of their place in the world, and God's gifts to them.

The screenplay, by Ulla Isaksson, shatters that certainty with the force of a thunderclap. One of the few screenplays Bergman filmed but didn't write himself, The Virgin Spring is based on a 13th century ballad about a raped maiden and the revenge enacted by her father. The first of Bergman's many collaborations with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the filming—the crisp black-and-white print rendered gorgeously in the Criterion edition's Blu-ray release—has an angular sharpness that also allows the beauty of the surrounding wilderness to shine through as an ironic counterpoint to the ugly story being acted out. His compositions carry a particular charge during the movie's scenes of violence, one of which is carried out nearly on top of the camera lens, one man gasping his last while another quietly presses a knife into him.

The dewy maiden at the center of this bloody gyre, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is presented as both the apple of her mother's eye and something of a brat. While the family is up early, praying and working, Karin lies abed like any sluggish teenager. Still, Mareta is indulgent and filled with praise. No such generosity is shown to Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), their foster daughter and the put-upon Cinderella of the household. Dark-haired and rag-clothed compared to Karin's expensive gowns and blond tresses, Ingeri seethes with resentment. In a devout Christian household, she is given the first words, "Odin, come!" Bergman purposefully positions Ingeri as almost some feral creature. "You are, and always will be, a savage child," the servant Frida (Gudrun Brost) says. Ingeri is like the mythological artwork still adorning the household, as some throwback reminder of Sweden's pagan traditions, which were just then being swept away by the beliefs of the converts, which are raging yet still new and shallow.

Gunnel Lindblom as Ingeri and Birgitta Pettersson as Karin (Source: IMDB)

That faith gets its test after Karin is sent out on an errand, carrying candles to a nearby church. Along the way, she meets three goatherds. Happily soaking up the attention beamed at her from the two men and young boy in ragged clothing, Karin spins a teenager's fantasy about her family, claiming she was a princess, not noticing the leering looks. After a gag planted in her things by Ingeri goes sour, the goatherds rape Karin. She dies after falling and hitting her head while trying to run away.

Not long after, the three appear at the family farm, asking for shelter from Tore, whom they assume is laden with wealth, and has no idea yet what they've done. Filled with Christian charity, and clearly puffing out his chest with pride at his own generosity, Tore lets them in. When he discovers what has happened, and sees what he is capable of in response, he is spiritually shattered and left shouting at the sky, "God! … You allowed it to happen. I don't understand."

This wasn't Bergman's first investigations of faith. Four years earlier, his breakthrough, The Seventh Seal, had set a new kind of standard in cinema for discussions of faith and fate. With its stark compositions and bleak reckonings with the cosmos, that movie also served as a kind of existentialist comment on the futility of faith. In The Virgin Spring, Bergman brings a narrower and more personal focus, not to mention a greater appreciation for humanity's darkness. The movie contemplates larger issues, of course, positioning as it does the story at a dramatic hinge moment in religious history and seeing how new-found faith is tested by circumstance. A simpler tale than The Seventh Seal's symbolism-heavy fable but far more emotionally resonant, The Virgin Spring is Bergman's murder ballad: Bloody, remorseless, and tragic.

In one of the Criterion extras, an audio recording of an appearance by Bergman at the American Film Institute in 1975, the director seemed mystified himself. Chatty and occasionally joking about his filmmaking process—"There is always some fool who wants to raise the money"—Bergman doesn't pretend to have fully thought out his work. He compares it more to filming his dreams, coming close to saying that his art is just plugging in straight to his unconscious. Bergman refreshingly admits to confusion about what it all means.

But in many ways, The Virgin Spring is not difficult to comprehend. The story is reduced to elemental simplicity: Innocence, violence, more violence, sadness. The spiritual crisis that the previously pious Tore undergoes at the end is hardly confusing. What would make more sense than for a person of faith like him to question his beliefs, given the gulf between what he had been taught about the all-powerful and kindly God and his reality in which God might see but certainly does not act. The movie's economy of storytelling and high-contrast visuals give it a noir-ish tint that might leave less room for the imagination to roam than the more questing The Seventh Seal. But the less-remembered The Virgin Spring is the better movie.

8
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.