Criterion Commentaries: “The Virgin Spring”
The Virgin Spring is Ingmar Bergman’s undervalued, visually arresting masterpiece from 1960. To what extent is it under appreciated? Despite winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman himself always downplayed the film’s greatness. What’s more, on Flickchart the film currently ranks around 1200 globally; merely 93rd amongst all releases from The Criterion Collection.
It’s debatable why Bergman himself didn’t consider The Virgin Spring one of the high-water marks of his career, although the cornerstones of that canon – The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Fanny and Alexander – tend to overshadow most films. It’s been argued that Bergman felt he imitated Kurosawa’s visual style too heavily, and that the film was deceitful in the sense that it’s depiction of God wasn’t flushed out – “spiritual jiggery-pokery,” as he later reflected (Bergman on Bergman). Another issue he may have had with the film was the reaction it garnered. Bergman’s films were typically better received outside of his native country, and yet despite the eventual Academy Award, with The Virgin Spring Bergman was put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend this film from censorship.
The film is an interpretation of a medieval ballad, and takes place in a world where faith is oscillating between Christianity and paganism. The film tells the story of the savage violation and murder of a young woman, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), while on her way to church; followed by the ruthless revenge her father, Töre (Max von Sydow), exacts on the herdsmen responsible.
While today the depiction of the rape scene would no longer be considered shocking, in 1960 it caused a fervor throughout the United States and led to multiple shots being cut. In a letter Bergman wrote in defense of his directorial decisions, he points out the importance of contrasting the actions of the herdsmen with those of the father (included in The Criterion Collection booklet):
“I should like to point out that the rape sequence, in its mercilessness and detailed objectivity, corresponds to Master Töre’s administering of justice to the two malefactors, as well as – and this is of primary importance – to his bestial murder of the little boy. We must, in our very bowels and apart from the aesthetic judgment, take part in the two herdsmen’s crime, but we must also, in despair, witness the father’s evil deed.
“We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.”
The beauty of The Virgin Spring – aside from Sven Nykvist’s cinematography – is the manner in which the film addresses such taboos. Instead of preaching answers, the film presents questions and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. At the heart of the conflict is Töre exacting revenge upon the young boy, whom likewise lost his innocence when Karin lost hers; by killing him Töre’s sins are as grave as the herdsmen. Töre questions what type of God would idly watch as these atrocities are committed? How is man supposed to reconcile his natural impulses with the conflicting demands of spirituality?
Indeed, as Ang Lee muses in his DVD introduction to The Virgin Spring, the film offers a “microscope into humanity.” Perhaps that’s also the answer as to why the film remains relatively unappreciated: is it human nature to want answers – or more questions – when contemplating life’s great mysteries?