TW: Discussions of rape and violence.
It was not my intention to review yet another Ingmar Bergman film directly after covering Smiles of a Summer Night in my previous column. I wanted to move into new territory, new director, new actors etc. But I was sucked back into Bergman for a very sad reason (oddly fitting considering the director). Max von Sydow, the legendary Swedish actor and overall icon, passed away this Sunday, on March 8, 2020 at the age of 90. von Sydow made well over 100 films, both here in Sweden and abroad, and became a quite famous character actor internationally thanks to his commanding screen presence, voice and overall acting abilities. The man who famously played chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal had finally lost, and has now left us to join Bergman in the afterlife. I felt great pressure personally to discuss one of von Sydow’s films for the column since I am supposed to cover Swedish cinema, and to honour von Sydow’s memory. Then me selecting a Bergman film became accidental, and I just picked The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) at random, one of Bergman’s most controversial yet acclaimed films.
The Virgin Spring, Bergman’s 21st film and fifth collaboration with von Sydow, is adapted from a Swedish ballad from medieval times called Per Tyrssons döttrar (Per Tyrsson’s Daughters). The same ballad would serve as the template for Wes Craven’s feature debut The Last House on the Left. Curiously, this is one of very few films Bergman directed that he didn’t also write. The credit instead goes to Ulla Isaksson. Isaksson had written a novel set in medieval times which was acclaimed for its realism, and Bergman felt it would suit the subject better with a realistic touch, unlike his earlier medieval-set film The Seventh Seal. This was also Bergman’s second collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist (the first being Sawdust and Tinsel in 1953), and they would go on to work on the majority of Bergman’s later films.
The film revolves around a young virgin who rides to church with her family’s pregnant servant, only to be raped and murdered along the way. The rapists then head to her family’s farm (whether they do this knowingly or not is never made clear) to seek shelter from the winter cold. At the house we see the young girls father, played by Max von Sydow. The film then becomes about the eventual revenge the father exacts on the perpetrators, and the toll it takes on everyone involved.
Through the lense of this story, Bergman crafts yet another film that deals in part with morality, faith and guilt and the complex relationship these emotions have with violence and vengeance. The film is set in a transitional period when Sweden was going from worshipping the Pagan gods of Norse mythology to the Christian teachings. Whilst worshipping God in the Christian mythology, there is the sense of a more pagan and lawless land in this period of history (there is even an attempted rapist who is supposed to be a nod to Odin, and as a Scandinavian I’m ashamed to inform the reference flew completely over my head), and now, perhaps thanks to Christianity, a bigger focus is put on the guilt characters feel over their actions, whether it’s the servant who did not prevent with the rape or von Sydow’s characters feelings of remorse and conflict after performing said revenge. He in fact delivers a monologue in a very Bergmanesque scene, “you see it, God, you see it. The innocent child’s death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live.”
Another crucial yet also controversial aspect of the film is the violence. We don’t, or at least I don’t, typically associate Bergman with physical violence, so I was pleasantly surprised by how tasteful the violence, especially the rape scene, was handled. It’s all very brutal, swift and matter-of-fact. And then Bergman lingers on the consequences and the aftermath of the violence even more, further exploring each character’s sense of guilt over their violent actions.
I’d be lying if I said this was my favourite Bergman film. I’m starting to fear nothing will come close to beating Persona as my favourite of his. But nevertheless, The Virgin Spring is an impressive film in Bergman’s long and impressive filmography, with intriguing themes, strong performances and superb filmmaking.
Dedicated to Max von Sydow