Friday, September 05, 2008
Ingmar Bergman's The Virigin Spring
Jungfrukällan (The Virigin Spring)
original story by Ulla Isaksson
Max von Sydow ... Töre
Birgitta Valberg ... Märeta
Gunnel Lindblom ... Ingeri
Birgitta Pettersson ... Karin
Axel Düberg ... Thin Herdsman
Tor Isedal ... Mute Herdsman
Allan Edwall ... Beggar
Ove Porath ... Boy
Axel Slangus ... Bridge Keeper
Gudrun Brost ... Frida
The Virgin Spring won the Oscar for Best Foreign film in 1961. Bergman had just established himself as a film maker of international standing a couple of years before with his break out feature "Smiles of Summer Night," (1956) and followed it the next year with one of the finest films ever made (my true favorite) "The Seventh Seal" (1957). "The Virgin Spring" reinforced Bergman's greatness and established him for the 1960s as one of the major film makers of the time.
The film deals with theme of murder, revenge, theodicy. It's a fine commentary on the problem of pain and evil, having belief in God in a world where evil is allowed. The film is set in Medieval Sweden. It's in black and white, as were all of his early films, and thus the big sky effect of black and white is present as we see the glorious countryside of Sweden. The look of the film is totally authentic. The family lives in a rustric compound reminiscent of a fort in the old West. The Father,Töre, played by Max von Sydow ("the Exorcist," the knight in "Seventh Seal") and the mother,Märeta, played by Birgitta Valberg have one daughter, Karin, played by Birgitta Pettersson. She is blond, young, beautiful, playful, spoiled, arrogant. There's another girl involved:Ingeri. She's a foster child. Fostering was an old tradition in Sweden; the child of a friend who died, or even just kid seen on the street who was homeless, would be adopted by the family as a playmate for the natural child. Of course Karin is manipulative, spoiled, twists her parents around her little finger. The mother is indulgent the father tries to be strict but melts like butter. They fawn over the Blond Karin and give little attention to the dark haired Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).
The film opens with Ingeri calling upon Oden to help her. She is pregnant and is treat with disdain because the child is out of wedlock. She resents the spoiled girl and even smuggles a frog into her lunch to torment her. In calling upon Oden Ingeri is doing something forbidden. Christianity has already taken root, (about thirteenth or fourteenth century). The family are Catholics and they are honored to supply candles to the church for the mass. The daughter is sent to take them. She must go by horse and it takes a whole day's journey. The dark haired girl is sent with her to keep her company. The two are angry with one another and Ingeri is feeling sick so she is left behind at a bridgekeeper's hut. Karin goes on my herself. The bridgekeeper (Axel Slangus) Worships Oden, and the Ingeri recognizes the signs of human sacrifice in his hut. She escapes his grasp just as he puts the moves on her for sexual favors. But she has to leave her horse. She escapes from him into the woods on foot, and walks to try and catch up to the other girl.
Meanwhile, Karin has ridden on a ways as is spied by three young beaggers. Two are probably early twenties and one is a small boy. They stalk her for a bit and finally come down from their vantage point in the hills and meet up with her. She is playful and likes to lure danger so she has no care about going with them off the road intot he hills to eat lunch. By this time the other gril catches up and spies them out from the same vantage point the beggars occupied earlier. As they eat the frog pops out, the one Ingeri hid in Karin's lunch. The beggars are angered and think she is making fun of them, but they were up to no good anyway. They rape Karin as Ingeri watchs from the hill top. They finally kill her with a crushing blow. The boy has no real role in the rape or the murder, but he has no choice but to go along anyway.
We then cut to the parents house. It is dark, they are sitting down to dinner. They are worried, but Karin has does before apparently, stayed out all night and found people to stay with until morning. There is also a chance she could have stayed in the church. The father isn't worried, the mother is beside her shelf, but the father calms her. Three beaggers show up at the gate. They seek shelter for the night, giving a story about how the drifted down the north, times are hard, they lost their farm, the night will be brutally cold. Tore gives them permission to sleep in the hall. Its' a viking house so they have a central "great hall" where they all eat, and individual bedrooms in little huts around the great hall united by causeways. They take the two men and their young boy in and show great compassion and understanding. They are allowed to eat with the family and the father says they can talk about work the next day. As the mother retires for the night, one of the beaggers, who more or less acts as spokesman, (Allan Edwall) tries to sell her a garment claming it had belonged to their sister. It is a blouse of exceptionally fine craftsmanship, gold in color trimed in blue.
The mother recognizes at once this the very garment she dressed her daughter in that morning, but of course the three have no idea they are in the girls very home!Birgitta Valberg accomplishes one of the most skillful acting jobs I've ever seen. At the same time she is filled with anguish and rage, but she know she dare not give away a single trace of recognition. So she just stares saying nothing as though she is considering the offer. The man prattles on with lies about his sister's life and what a fine dress it is. After a long moment, we can see the skill of the actress, both rage and cover up at once; she forces out the words "i must show it to my husband...I will give you an answer in the morning." She takes the blouse, locks them in for the night with an outside bolt, and goes into her own suit. She thrusts the dress under her husband's nose. He stares sleepily not comprehending for a moment the significance. The woman explains and bursts into tears. There is even a drop of blood on it.
In the exquisite Bergmanesqe Fashion, Tore builds he Angst as he wirely climbs from the bed, fills himself with resolve and then proceeds to prepare to act. He takes his sword, goes to outside to the great hall to make sure they are bolted in. Then he finds Ingeri sobbing under the stairs. She explains how she witnessed the murder. So Tore tells her to prepare a bath. A Bath? Of course, what else would a good Viking do before avenging his daughter's murder but take a sauna? He wrestles a tree out of the ground, a birch, and cuts off its limbs. Takes his Sauna and whips himself with the birch branches. Then he dresses and calls for the butcher knife. The girl brings him a huge knife. He goes to the great hall, and observes the three sleeping. He looks at their things and finds the rest of Karin's clothes and even a candlestick. He goes back over to them, wakes them up and begins the slaughter. The one closes to him falls almost at once. The other, the one who tried to sell the dress, fights better. He disarms the father and they fight hand to hand, but Tore chokes him to death with his bare hands. He then picks up the boy and throes him against the wall has hard as he can, in a gesture that would make any professional wrestler proud. The boy is killed immediately. The father sits staring at his hands, the mother cradles the dead boy sobbing.
The whole family and several servants lead a mournful procession back to the spot where the murder happened, led by Ingeri. There they find Karin's naked body lying in the dirt. The mother cradles her as she had the boy, the father sits of to the side staring at his hands and shouts at God, "you saw! you saw this! why didn't you stop it!??" He looks at his hands and says "what have I done!" He remorseful that he too became a murderer. Then in a totally surprising move, the jumps and declares that "I shall build a church on this site, a shrine to the Virgin!" They pick up the body to bury her and spring of water rushes up form the ground, like some miracle right out of a medieval tale. The fathers blind leap of faith in the face of adversity and doubt has brought forth a metaphor right there on the screen; the Spring is a metaphor of hope, also a personification of nature (as though weeping for the girl) and confirmation of faith.
The Virgin Spring Is a powerful film, loaded with existential angst, Bergman's trademark. It illustrates for us the power of narrative. Even tough this is not a bible story it illustrates perfectly why the Bible depends so much on narrative. It is only through narrative that we can have carthorses. By entering into the story through the story telling device we experince the anxiety the dilemma of faith and doubt and the sense of bewilderment, and we move through the emotional crisis and feel that we have gained something from taking this journey with the characters. It's one of the oldest literary devices there is. No one uses it in film more expertly than Bergman. The issues of theodicy can only make sense when seen through the drama of in context of real human lives. This is why I call my theory of the free will defense "Soeteriological drama." It's not a stage production for God's pleasure, but reflects the true drama of life as people struggle with their problems and try to comprehend good and evil pain and suffering. Berman's father was a minister, and even though he was an atheist, he had a fine sense of modern theology in the Keirkeggardian form. This film is an excellent gateway to undertake a journey of Carthorses through the problem of theodicy.
see my tribute to Bergman on the occasion of his death Greatness has left the planet, Ingmar Bermgan dies.