Criterion Cuts: “The Virgin Spring”

Hello everybody, and welcome to the latest edition of Criterion Cuts, where I pull a movie from the offerings of everyone’s favorite foreign/prestige collection and offer up some thoughts on it. As always, this column thrives on having constant things to watch, so if you have any recommendations I’d love to hear them.

This week I wanted to go for something a little different. The format’s the same, but usually I use this time and space to evangelize an obscure movie that other people might not have seen. Today we’re going to talk about a relatively high profile movie I genuinely didn’t like. Hopefully that won’t change the tone of the article too much. I can be objective. Maybe.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Virgin Spring is Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of a medieval Swedish story called “Töres döttrar i Wänge.” To be brief, the story centers around Töre (Max von Sydow), a pious man who sends his young daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) out to journey to the church one day. The daughter, innocent to the point of danger, runs afoul of three men who rape and murder her.

The three men then unknowningly move on to Töre’s home, seeking shelter from an oncoming storm. There they try to sell the clothes they looted off of Karin, tipping of Töre who then exacts his revenge. It is at heart a pretty straight forward morality tale and revenge story, one that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1961 (cementing Bergman internationally as a noteworthy name) and was later the inspiration for Wes Craven’s exploitation ‘classic’ The Last House on the Left.

I’m going to have to admit here that I’m not a big fan of Bergman from the two films I’ve seen (this and The Seventh Seal). His portrayal of medieval life always touches on the nihilistic, which I find cold and hard to approach. The movie is very stand offish, with very precise black and white cinematography that paints these medieval scenes with a realism that seems devoid of warmth. There isn’t a lot of humanity to the human drama playing out on screen.

Which is in many ways the point, I feel. The movie concerns, in no small way, the struggle between morality and animal nature in a way that could be described as brutal. The rape and murder notwithstanding, the film opens with the virginal Karin contrasted to her foster sister Ingeri. Ingeri still believes in the old gods, praying to Odin, here representing death and violence and pagan chaos. Töre and Karin are picturesque Christian people out of a painting. Töre is stern, proud, and moralistic. Karin is dressed in a fine gown, meek and gracious, more a madonna than a flesh and blood girl. Ingeri, by contrast, is pregnant and coarse, portrayed as dirty and half-wild. But she is also portrayed as world-wise, in contrast to Karin’s childlike ignorance.

The two girls are sent to deliver candles to the Church, a relatively recent development in this part of the world apparently, so mythically is it described by the household servants who have never seen it. But Ingeri separates from Karin to seek out another paganist in the forest, during which time Karin is set upon. Ingeri reappears only to watch from the bushes as the central crime takes place.

Moments before tragedy, a hopelessly unaware victim.

The rape and murder are relatively understated by today’s standards (and even ten years later Last House on the Left would go miles further in its portrayal), but at the time it caused no small amount of controversy. It is a defilement at its basic nature, the sullying of a character that was more a religious figure into just another dead, used piece of meat rotting in a meadow. The seeming antipathy with which the men do it only underscores how awful it is. It is an inversion of the usually romantic pastoral portrayals of medieval life, introducing the kind of brutishness and animalistic destruction by humanity that so often is sanitized out of the art of antiquity.

Töre accepts his daughter’s attackers with open arms, hospitable as his faith and position dictates. At first we are meant to see this as danger, the possibility that these men will do harm to Töre, his wife, or the servants. But soon they decide against it and instead try to pawn Karin’s looted dress to her own mother who dressed her that very day. This, followed shortly by Ingeri returning in a panic to inform them of what she saw, puts Töre into a rage where he grabs his sword and stalks to the hall where the men are sleeping, locking the door and then murdering them all efficiently while they sleep.

Töre, channeling MacBeth, examining the traces of his crime.

The film concludes with Ingeri leading Töre and his wife to the place where Karin body still sits, Töre increasingly overcome with guilt over his vengeful actions. When they come to her, Töre prays for understanding and promises to build a church on the spot. When they move Karin’s body, a spring wells up from where her head was resting, and the two parents help Ingeri wash her face in the water.

It’s clear from the outset that from the beginning, The Virgin Spring is as obsessed with spiritual conflict as The Seventh Seal was. Though while the latter film was mainly preoccupied with death the former is most interested in the conflict between human nature and its conflict with spiritual morality.

Töre is an ‘enlightened’ man, and is thus the only character (outside of Karin, who is too innocent to seemingly have a concept of evil) who recognizes a sense of right and wrong greater than himself. Ingeri, the household help, and the murderers all operate under a baser drive of all things that help themselves are good, and all things that could harm them are bad. But at the same time, Töre falls just as quickly as the heathen characters into brutality when presented with a pressing emotional need. It doesn’t matter that he later regrets his actions, for all his piety he is in that moment of violence as morally bankrupt as the men he is killing. More so, perhaps, due to his hypocrisy.

The ending of the film is ambiguously devoid religious commitment meaning by both the characters and the narrative itself. The spring that rises up from Karin is in many ways paganistic, elemental in nature, renewal in its most primitive symbology. And Ingeri’s washing has both shades of baptism and reincarnation of the spirit of daughterhood. It is the last statement of ambiguity in a film that plays so clearly with stock black and white characterization as a means to explore a nebulous place.

In that instance, I suppose it isn’t that different than many of the Korean revenge epics that have become the norm this past decade. All noteworthy revenge movies contain within them a moralistic dark space, where there are no clear answers and characters often go too far before finding that out. The Virgin Spring just coaches that in the language of religion and faith, extending the debate to the very nature of morality as a worthwhile concept itself. In that, it’s a nuanced salvo into the struggles of humanity, and all its remoteness only bespeaks to the subtextual questions that would otherwise be more obscured by a more emotional narrative.

Or not. For all of this writing, and my objective appreciation of the movie, I still find it distancing and offputting. But hey, opinions are like that. Hopefully I can still write something of value about the movie, even if I don’t like it. Let me know how you think I did, or what you thought of the movie. I’ll admit I struggled quite a bit with this one, and I’m not sure how well it succeeds next to the other Criterion articles. As always, thanks for reading.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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