Perhaps the most controversial of Ingmar Bergman’s films, The Virgin Spring was banned in Fort Worth, Texas because of its infamous rape scene, a decision that was later upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. The film was hotly debated among academics in Sweden as well, some of them questioning its artistic merits. At the time, Bergman was pleased, considering the film to be his grand salute to Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950) in particular. Over the years, The Virgin Spring has become a classic – and its violence is tame compared to what we see now.
In medieval Sweden, a family has become Christians except for an adopted girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom). She secretly worships Odin and has brought shame on the family after getting pregnant without being married. Even though Ingeri harbors great resentment toward her family, one day she joins her stepsister Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) on a trip to the local church. They go through the forest, but are soon separated and Karin continues on her own. She meets three men who claim to be herdsmen and ask her to stay with them for lunch; she’ll be too late for church anyway. Karin agrees, but the lunch soon turns into horror – Karin is raped and murdered.
Ingeri happens to see everything, hidden in the woods, but does not interfere. The three men leave and travel to Karin’s home, asking her unknowing parents (Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg) for food and shelter.
Famous medieval ballad
Bergman had previously turned one of author Ulla Isaksson’s novels into a movie and asked her to write the script for The Virgin Spring. She based the story on a famous medieval ballad called ”Töre’s daughters in Vänge” and made a few changes – but the simplicity here is telling. This is one of Bergman’s most straightforward and naked films, with a relentless drive in its narrative, focusing on the harsh realities of a violent act and its gruesome consequences. Some of its ideas obviously share traits with another medieval Bergman classic, The Seventh Seal (1957).
The director creates a hypnotic atmosphere, with beautifully photographed, evocative forest locations. Bergman’s vision of God and faith is far from positive, at least initially. Modern audiences are likely to disapprove of how Ingeri is treated by the family; no wonder that she turns to Odin and magic. What happens to Karin is like a sign to her parents, indicating that God has left them, or perhaps that he never existed. The anguish hits even harder because of Valberg’s desperate fear in the beginning of the film that Karin might be taken from her. Still, in the final 15 minutes, there is nevertheless hope in this nightmare. Bergman indicates that through the blood of a young woman, a family that was torn apart is reunited. A spring begins to flow from the site where Karin lay dead and von Sydow decides to build a church right there. In spite of Bergman’s feelings toward religion, he doesn’t shy away from redemption as a classic, Christian theme.
Superior acting is another valuable asset here, where standout performances are delivered by von Sydow as the man of the household who knows what must be done once he finds out what his guests have done, and Lindblom as Ingeri, Karin’s opposite in every way.
Much as Bergman was clearly inspired by Kurosawa, The Virgin Spring also had an effect on Wes Craven, the director who based his first movie, The Last House on the Left (1972), on this medieval drama. He built a career in horror on it, pushing limits in a society that wasn’t quite prepared for it. Bergman must have sympathized.
The Virgin Spring 1960-Sweden. 89 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Screenplay: Ulla Isaksson. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Music: Erik Nordgren. Cast: Max von Sydow (Töre), Birgitta Valberg (Märeta), Gunnel Lindblom (Ingeri), Birgitta Pettersson (Karin), Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal… Allan Edwall, Gudrun Brost.
Trivia: Original title: Jungfrukällan.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film.
Last word: “All were active in order to keep warm. The temperature was about the freezing point, and now and then snowflakes appeared from the ice-grey mist […] It would be quite an event just for once to make a motion picture with a budget of over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, just for the experience. However, despite all that I am turning down the American offer down flat. I felt a sudden happiness and relief. I felt secure and at home.” (Bergman pondering more favorable conditions while making this movie, IngmarBergman.com)