Ingmar Bergman was enjoying one of the happiest spells of his life while making The Virgin Spring (1960). On a personal level, he was felicitously ensconced in his fourth marriage, to the concert pianist Käbi Laretei. And, professionally, he was delighted with his new cameraman, Sven Nykvist (his regular collaborator, Gunnar Fischer, had been shooting a Disney feature during the winter and was unavailable for preproduction work). It was Nykvist’s first opportunity to work at length with the maestro (he had done some exterior shooting for Sawdust and Tinsel ), and the two men found an instant affinity for each other. Nykvist would bring to Bergman’s cinema an altogether fresh look: more natural, three-dimensional location photography, less expressionistic studio work.
Bergman has never acknowledged The Virgin Spring as a major achievement. It rates barely a mention in either of his autobiographical books, The Magic Lantern and Images. Yet he recognizes that the Academy Award it won, in 1961, helped his career from a financial and prestige point of view. And, despite the director’s reticence, four decades later, the sheer sculpted purity of the film, and its powerful narrative thrust, confirm The Virgin Spring as one of the highest peaks in the Bergman range.
This is one of the few films that Bergman directed from a screenplay by someone other than himself. Ulla Isaksson, who had scripted Brink of Life for him two years earlier and was a much respected novelist, gives considerable inner tension—and moral ambiguity—to what began as a simple thirteenth-century Swedish ballad. That source tells of a young maiden who is raped and murdered on her way to church, and of how her father wreaks ruthless vengeance on her aggressors.
The film maintains the setting and period, when Sweden was shifting reluctantly from paganism to Christianity. Ingeri, the family’s foster child, worships Odin—the prime divinity in the Norse pantheon, standing for war and death—in secret, for Töre (Max von Sydow) and, especially, his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), are committed to the fledgling Christian faith. Some of the retainers have never seen a church, while others describe such buildings with awe and reverence.
The collision between the kindly spirit of the New Testament and the pent-up savagery of paganism runs as a leitmotif through the entire film. The heathen world and its superstitions are symbolized by the sinister old man at the ford, who cherishes his box of relics and terrifies Ingeri, and by the rapist’s furious trampling on the gleaming white candles that tumble from Karin’s bag. The pagan significance of fire, earth, and water emerges in several scenes: from the opening shots of Ingeri blowing alight the morning fire at the farm to the close-ups of a sparkling stream in the forest and, finally, of the water that flows from beneath Karin’s corpse as Töre lifts her head in sorrow.
The Christian idiom marks such scenes as the beggar’s gesture of fealty to Töre’s wife when she serves him food, and the grace recited by a gullible Karin as she shares her bread and water with the men who are about to violate her. Marik Vos’s costumes emphasize the distinction between the ancient and modern approaches to life and religion. Ingeri is clad in a coarse, unbuttoned dress, while Karin wears a magnificent silken shift (“sewn by fifteen maidens,” says her mother proudly), in honor of her Christian mission—bearing the candles to church this fateful medieval Sunday. Töre, a heathen who has converted (reluctantly, one senses) to Christianity, dons first formal, then outlandish, apparel, an indication of his equivocal attitude to faith.
Von Sydow, already stunning in The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Magician (1958), creates an imperious Töre from the start. He’s a patriarch whose obduracy will eventually bring him to his knees. As Ingeri, Gunnel Lindblom embodies a dark, sensual threat to the emergence of Christian morality, while Valberg’s mother suffers excruciatingly in her ascetic restraint and adoration of her daughter as the bright new hope of both the family and her faith. Birgitta Pettersson gives Karin a dangerous hint of vanity and sanctimoniousness. Spoiled by her parents, she nonetheless conveys an appalling pathos during the rape sequence.
That scene is weighted carefully to justify the savagery of Töre’s vengeance. Trapped in a forest glade by three goatherd brothers, Karin is pinned down and raped by the two older siblings, then clumsily handled by the youngest. By today’s screen standards, the sequence looks tame, but it created quite a furor when the film first appeared (in February 1960 in Scandinavia, and then in November in the U.S.). And, despite the scene’s relative inexplicitness, the palpable sense of loss of beauty and innocence that it evokes still appalls us. A relentless Bergman obliges the audience to share Karin’s suffering almost subjectively, as when she turns her head to stare at her ravishers, before slumping into death. Thus disgusted, one may accept the father’s right to massacre the men who have raped and killed his beloved daughter, but be surprised when this Old Testament ethic gives way, after the murder of the boy, to a sudden awareness of the Christian need to atone for one’s sins and seek forgiveness from the Almighty. Töre’s perplexed stance at the end of the film reflects modern man’s confusion also, when faced with a choice between his natural instincts and his spiritual aspirations. Christianity may prevail—and when Ingeri bathes her face in the “virgin spring,” it may seem like a conversion as much as a cleansing—but Bergman still acknowledges the shadow of a darker faith.
As he proved with The Seventh Seal, Bergman shares with the Japanese masters Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi a flair for evoking the medieval world with neither fuss nor extravagance. When Karin prepares her face for her journey, her youthful vanity as well as historical custom are suggested by shots of her gazing into the mirror-still water of a cask. And when Töre sits down at table, he finds his cutlery in a pouch at his belt. Even the way a door is fastened seems authentic, while many compositions recall quattrocento religious paintings, with Märeta’s head inclined to one side like the Madonna’s.
Bergman’s films never did well in his native country, and he shot each new production on a rigorous budget. The crew for The Virgin Spring was modest by Hollywood standards: just twenty-two actors and technicians, waiting for a break in the weather to set up the elaborate, Kurosawa-like tracking shots through the tightly packed trees. And the filmmaking style, as on all his projects, was intimate and informal. Cast and crew were obliged to improvise from day to day. The leaves on the trees looked too abundant for a script that demanded buds about to burst, so new locations had to be scouted farther north. The birch tree uprooted by Töre, as he prepares for the slaughter of the herdsmen, had to be planted artificially in an open field, because no stretch of ground containing just a single sapling or tree could be found. There were difficulties with the sound recording, and with the evening light in certain sequences. On one day of shooting, Bergman would later recall, two majestic cranes soared overhead. The crew dropped their equipment and scrambled up a slope to get a better view. The birds disappeared over the western horizon, and Bergman and his colleagues returned to work, invigorated by the sight. “I felt a sudden happiness and relief,” he said. “I felt secure and at home.”
The Virgin Spring marked a crucial watershed in Bergman’s attitudes toward life and the cinema. Early in the ensuing decade, he would turn to psychological issues at the expense of ethical ones. He would renounce the historical environment of The Seventh Seal, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring, and he would film his work in a harder, less mannered idiom. So this ruthless parable represents for him both a farewell to the past and a harbinger of the future, just as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s in manifold ways.
Peter Cowie is the author of more than two dozen books on the cinema, including studies of Welles, Bergman, and Coppola.