“You see how the smoke trembles up in the roof hole? As if whimpering and afraid. Yet it’s only going out into the open air where it has the whole sky to tumble about in. But it doesn’t know that. So it cowers and trembles under the sooty ridge of the roof. People are the same way. They worry and tumble like leaves in the storm because of what they know and what they don’t know. You… shall cross a narrow plank, so narrow you can’t find your footing. Below you roars a great river. It’s black and wants to swallow you up. But you pass over it unharmed. Before you lies a chasm so deep you can’t see the bottom. Hands grope for you, but they can’t reach you. At last you stand before a mountain of terror. It spews fire like a furnace and a vast abyss opens at its feet. A thousand colors blaze there, copper and iron, blue vitriol and yellow sulfur. Flames dazzle and flash and lash at the rocks. And all about, men leap and writhe, small as ants, for this is the furnace that swallows up murderers an evildoers. But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you and you’ll be taken far away where evil no longer has power over you.”
Bob and I watch and review “The Virgin Spring”. A movie released to critical success in the US, but was panned by critics in Europe at the time. The film was banned in some parts of the US for the depiction of a young virgin, Karin, being raped and murdered. But that is only one aspect of the film. In some respects, the story is a very simple tale of innocence and revenge. On another level, or maybe several other levels, the film is a critique of religion and the clash between the old gods and the new Christian god, it’s also a tale of the tensions that exist between family members, and the price that one must pay for carrying out acts of violence whether they be meaningless or whether they are seemingly to avenge the senseless death of another innocent person.
The quote above is from a scene in the movie where one character is foreshadowing the death and after-life of another character. It demonstrates the powerful writing in the film. The story is derived from a 13th century ballad. Ulla Isaksson adapted the ballad for film. She also gives an amazing commentary to the film on the Criterion Collection DVD. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson, “The Virgin Spring” won the Oscar in 1961 for Best Foreign Language Film. It continues to have a powerful impact to this day.
Here’s a link to the IMDB page for “The Virgin Spring”
Next week we head out West for “The Professionals”
Below is my write-up of the film, which just came spilling out after my 2nd viewing.
Virgin Spring - Director, Ingmar Bergman
Released in 1960 by Janus Films
Virgin Spring marks a turning point in Bergman’s career as a director. It’s the last of his “historical” dramas. Sweden at this time was a very secular country. It continues to be secular today. The viewers of the movie in Sweden, France and other countries on the Continent saw this as a failure of “auteur” film making by Bergman. The critics viewed the film as being a commentary on a subject, the tension between new Christian ideas and older Nordic religious ideas, which no one really cared about anymore. These critics also found the rape and subsequent revenge scenes to be overly sensationalized. In America, on the other hand, the movie was heralded as a work of a true genius. At the 1961 Academy Awards it won for Best Foreign Language Film. The difference may be that America in the early ’60’s was predominately Christian and so appreciated the parable-like nature of the film.
I suppose we could say that it still rings true to this day for that reason, but I think it’s more than that. Many subsequent films have followed a similar plot line. The most recent being the “Taken” film starring Liam Neeson. Although in that film, the father’s revenge is emphasized and the daughter’s loss of innocence is de-emphasized. The main theme of the film is the loss of innocence coupled with the struggle for redemption. Another recent example may be "John Wick". However, in that movie the invasion of his home and the killing of a puppy that his recently deceased wife gave to him as a gift precipitate John’s revenge. Another difference being that John never seems to question the validity of his vengeful acts. He's perfectly at ease with his acts of violence.
In Virgin Spring there are two, possibly three “innocents”, the young brother, the daughter Karin, and the foster daughter Ingeri. At the beginning of the film we know that Karin is “pure”, she is a virgin and is presented in the best possible light in terms of dress, lighting, make-up, hair and framing of the shots. Her mother longs for her daughter’s attention but the father and daughter seem to have a special bond and the mother is jealous of that bond. This sets up a tension between the father and mother that is also shown in the mother’s devote Christian behavior and the father’s half-hearted prayers and seeming inclination towards older traditions (check out the fancy outfit he’s wearing as he greets the villains at the gate or the carving on the handle of the butcher knife, not to mention the preparation he goes through before murdering the villains).
Ingeri on the other hand is dark haired, wild eyed, barely under control and basically just above a wild animal. She’s as close to a “troll hag” of Nordic myth as the format of the film allows. The movie is based in reality with just hints of mythical or magical elements, especially with the Old Man in the hut over the water.
Ingeri is pregnant. We don’t know if it was through consensual sex or if perhaps she too is a victim of rape. I tend to think that she was raped and that she is further shamed as a result of it. This helps explain her confession to Töre (pronounced Tour) at the end of the film. She in some way wanted Karin to suffer like she had, she’s jealous of Karin’s high standing in the family. Apparently a “foster” bond was a strong blood bond between siblings so although they weren’t sisters from the same mother, they were sisters none-the-less.
As the two girls set out on their journey to deliver the sacred candles to the church, we see that Karin is riding sidesaddle and Ingeri is riding straddling the horse like a man. Karin bounces along nice and easy and Ingeri is riding hard. It’s another contrast between the two.
The shots in the first half of the film are more traditional “Bergman” or more broadly “Swedish auteur”. The camera is mostly stationary as the subject moves through the frame. There are beautiful scenes of rolling country and sparkling lakes. But this will change once they enter the forest after crossing the creek with the Old Man that stands almost like a guardian between worlds. Bergman openly admired the film “Rashômon” and Akira Kurosawa's style of filmmaking is evident in the second half of the film.
The two girls meet up with a farm hand and we learn that Karin has been flirting with this man at the dance the night before and this makes Ingeri upset. Perhaps this is the father of her baby? Or perhaps this is a man that she longs for romantically. Either way, it’s another point of tension between the girls.
They continue on until they reach the edge of the forest. The forest is presented as a “dark and forbidding” place. It’s not just another stand of trees that they must pass through, it’s much more mythic than that. This is the dark forest that Little Red Riding Hood had to pass through metaphorically speaking. There are monsters we are led to believe when Ingeri has a premonition of bad things happening. Ingeri is so upset that she breaks down and refuses to go any further. She implores Karin to turn back. Despite Ingeri’s obvious dislike for Karin, she still has some level of concern for Karin’s wellbeing. Karin insists that all is fine. She is so insistent in fact that we are left feeling that she is naive and child-like in her beliefs. She should be concerned! In fact, given the care and concern that is shown toward Karin at the beginning of the film, why is she headed through this dangerous forest without an armed guard, or at least a group of three or four other people? There is just Karin, the wide-eyed innocent and Ingeri the wild native girl.
Ingeri represents the older traditional Norse religious beliefs. At the beginning of the film she invokes Odin in her prayer for something bad to happen to Karin. At the crossing of the stream she visits that Old Man, either himself a worshipper of Odin as evidenced by the carvings on his tall wooden chair and his obvious pride in his collection of sacrifices OR he actually is Odin, reduced to the life of a hermit living over a threshold between two worlds. Either way, he hasn’t had a visitor in a long time and while at first he seems kindly enough, he soon makes inappropriate advances on Ingeri. This frightens her and she runs away. This was her close encounter with death in a sense. She could have been raped and killed by the old Hermit if she had not run. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so old and weak she may have met a different end.
Meanwhile Karin is progressing through the forest alone. She seems to be enjoying herself, still completely oblivious to the impending dangers. She meets up with three goat herders. One is tall and thin and talks a lot. One is mute because his tongue has been cut out and one is just barely a teenager, perhaps between 11 and 13 years old. We can tell immediately that the two older men are villainous, but they are not completely evil.
Bergman and the screenwriter Ulla Isaksson wanted to make sure that every character had some pathos. We need to understand that though these men are bad, they are not pure evil. They seem to have ideas of robbing Karin at first but something about her innocence and the way she describes her life at home as being one of a fairytale princess pushes them toward further acts of violence. The thought “lamb to the slaughter” comes to mind. The young boy is a witness to the goings on and does not partake in any of the violence. Ingeri, by this point, has caught up to Karin after fleeing the Old Man. She too is a witness. The Boy, Ingeri and Karin are powerless to stop events from unfolding. The scene is made all the more powerful for the lack of any screaming or other loud sound effects. In fact, we don’t really hear anything from Karin until after she is raped when she stands up and seems totally confused and shocked by what happened. A small gasp, like that of a “yelping dog” leaves her mouth before she is brutally clubbed like a “baby seal”. Before dying she looks back one last time at her attackers and our hearts break as we too are helpless witnesses to the rape and murder.
The two older brothers defile her corpse by stripping her of her clothes and then riffle through all of her possessions breaking the sacred candles in the process. The young Boy is left to stand guard while the two older brothers go off to do something in the forest, we don’t really know what, but in any event the young boy is left alone with the dead girl. He’s hungry and tries eating some of Karin’s food but vomits as he too is in shock by what he witnessed. He then halfheartedly throws dirt over Karin’s body either to hide her face or to bury her in some way as a show of respect.
In a way, the Boy is still innocent. In the original screenplay, he was supposed to take part in the rape by sitting on Karin’s chest. Bergman decided against this and kept the Boy as a passive observer. I think this decision helps to intensify the act of brutality committed by Töre at the end of the film.
We cut back to Ingeri running through the forest and by the stream they crossed earlier. The large raven, seen when they first arrived at the stream, stands watch as she passes. We don’t see the Old Man this time. This lends some magical quality to the Old Man. He’s not there on the way back.
Next we see Töre standing in all his viking glory at the entrance to the farm’s compound. The three villains are at the gate. Töre lets them into the compound. He does not suspect that they’ve killed his daughter just that day.
The three villains enter the main room of the house. They are invited to eat dinner with the rest of the people on the farm. Märeta says grace. The two older brothers play along, but the Boy looks very guilty as he recognizes this prayer as the same one that Karin said before they ate. The Boy can’t stomach the guilt and vomits and spills his dinner all over the table. Bergman makes a point of having the adults around the table give the Boy penetrating stares using his signature close up on just the faces.
They quickly finish their meal and Frida pulls the Boy away from his older brothers and puts him to bed. She says that he needs a good night's rest. The two older brothers meanwhile continue to eat at the table. Seemingly out of know where, the Beggar appears in extreme close up and tells the Boy a story about traveling through purgatory toward a flaming pyre but being rescued at the last minute by a strong arm and hand pulling him out and a way from the flames. The Boy seems frightened at first and then comforted. The Beggar represents the larger world. He’s seen actual stone churches with stained glass windows as he described to Frida at the beginning of the film. In the after dinner scene, he seems to be foreshadowing the Boy's death, his travels through the afterlife and his eventual salvation due to his innocence in the affairs that led to his death.
We cut to Töre and Märeta in bed. Märeta is distraught. She feels certain that some terrible fate has befallen Karin. Töre comforts her saying that she worries too much. He insists that she not worry so much and forces her to unclench her hands as she’s digging her nails into her palms causing herself pain. He falls asleep but she hears a cry from the main hall. She goes to investigate and sees that the Boy has a bloody lip. The older brothers have obviously hit him. She doesn’t know it, but they are trying to subdue him to keep him from saying anything to Töre and Märeta. The tall thin brother offers up a fine dress, sewed by a dozen maidens, to Märeta. Märeta immediately recognizes both the dress and the fact that Karin is dead and these men killed her. She knows that she must stay calm or she will likely be killed so she says that she has to talk to her husband about a “just reward” for such a gift.
She leaves, locking the brothers in the hall from the outside. They are trapped. She breaks down, telling Töre that Karin is dead and the men in the hall killed her. Töre seems to be in shock though he quickly recovers and immediately begins to take action.
He says that the first thing they need to do is lock the door. Märeta says that’s already done. Then he goes outside and sees Ingeri. Ingeri confesses what she’s seen and that she wanted to stop the men but she couldn’t. She feels terrible and says that it’s her fault. She prayed to Odin for something bad to happen to Karin. Töre just says that she needs to get the bath running and heated and that he’s going to get birch branches. He also says he needs the butcher's knife.
Next we see Töre up on a hill with a lone birch tree (planted there just for the movie). He fells the tree with his bare hands. A show of strength as his pure anger and hatred comes out. Next we see him naked in the bath hitting himself with the birch branches. This is neither a Christian specific nor pagan ritual. It’s just his way of preparing for what he’s about to do. He looks almost like a Renaissance statue in this scene.
He dresses and comes out in what looks like a butcher's pants and apron. He’s ready.
He carefully unbolts the door and goes into the main hall. The brothers are asleep. Märeta follows him lending her tacit approval to what he’s about to do. Rather than wake them he sits at the head of the table in his big carved chair and waits for the rooster to call. The light coming in from the roof air vent frames him and the butcher knife is very prominent in the shot.
When the rooster calls he wakes the men and the Boy up. The older brothers are terrified because they know they are about to die. We can only guess at what horrific thoughts are passing through the younger brother's mind. Töre wrestles with the mute brother and ends up stabbing him in the heart on the tall chair framed by the two saints on either post.
Next he tackles the talkative brother. The brother makes a vain attempt at self- defense but Töre pushes him into the fire and holds them there until he’s dead, perhaps strangling him at the same time.
Rather than stop with the two guilty older brothers, he makes his way toward the Boy. At this point he's on a murderous rampage. The Boy runs to Märeta for protection which she offers but Töre yanks him away and lifts him over his head and dashes him against the wall, killing him. It's this act that violates whatever code he thought he was under and he knows that he is now as guilty as the brothers. He storms out of the hall while Märeta weeps over the dead Boy’s body.
Töre announces that they must find Karin’s body. All of the people on the farm are seemingly pulled along in Töre’s wake as he marches out into the forest. Märeta announces that it’s all her fault and she was jealous of Töre’s relationship with Karin. Töre says that no one is guiltier than any other and God will decide guilt.
They find Karin’s body. This sends Töre into a fit of despair and rage. He curses God for being mysterious and how could God stand by and watch as the innocent Karin and young Boy were killed, but in the next breath he announces that he will build a stone church with his bare hands on the very spot where Karin died. This is his way of absolving his guilt though he likely knows that he is doomed no matter what.
As they lift Karin’s body up, a spring appears where her head lay. It’s a miracle and a sign from God. Ingeri cleans herself in the spring water, almost like a baptism. This either means that Töre will never be able to build a church here or that his church will be blessed by this miracle spring.
Then we fade to black with the characters in our story arranged almost like in a painting around the spring.
Matt Johnson, Classic Movie Reviews, May 2015