As a parent, I’ve learned to fear chance more than ever. Life is arbitrary, and that knowledge is an ever-present terror. Your child can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this can make an otherwise beautiful day turn into a horror from which we doubt we can ever recover. No matter what we try, recovery could never be complete. For these reasons, of the Ingmar Bergman films I’ve covered so far (the ones that come in the Criterion Collection box set, Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks: Smiles of a Summer Night (my post here), The Seventh Seal (my post here), Wild Strawberries (my post here), and The Virgin Spring), The Virgin Spring, if not my favorite, is the most horrific. I’d seen it before being a parent, but The Virgin Spring has only grown in power since I had children of my own.
Based on a 13th-century Swedish folk ballad centered around rape, murder, and revenge, The Virgin Spring takes us from the modern world of Wild Strawberries back to the brutal medieval world of The Seventh Seal. Unfortunately, Gunnar Björnstrand does not have a role in this film (he’ll be back in the next Bergman film I cover here), but we again get Max von Sydow, this time playing Tore, the proud father of the beautiful, young, tragic Karin (Birgitta Pettersson).
The story is simple. Karin, as a maiden, has the honor of delivering candles to the church, and her faithful Christian family sends her on her way, accompanied by the silent and paganistic (and scandalously pregnant) Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom, who has been with us in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries but here finally comes a bit more to the foreground that she will provocatively take over in The Silence). Ingeri is jealous of her naïve foster-sister, and in fact has prayed to Odin that something wicked would happen to Karin. As they make their way to the church, the growing certainty that something bad will happen puts Ingeri on edge (us too). They have an argument. They split up. Oh, hopelessly naïve and now on her own, Karin shows kindness to a group of thieves (that is, two older thieves and one young thief presumably in the making).
You know what happens. It’s fairly early in the film, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to share. Still, as early as it happens, we have already grown to care about Karin, despite her naivety and prancing. Most likely, we care so much about her because we can see her through the eyes of her parents: her mother, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), loves her dearly and is jealous of the fact that Karin’s favorite parent is her father; her father wants to be more stern but is always disarmed by his daughter. But I do think we care for her on her own merits. Karin is charming, caring, and genuinely good — and I don’t think she comes off as an unlikely saint, again, particularly if we see her through the eyes of her parents. They begin to sense tragedy as night falls and their daughter has not returned.
It’s a powerful film about grief and the desire for revenge, and it only increases in intensity when Karin’s parents allow Karin’s murderers to stay with them for the night. They learn of her fate and plot their own imperfect and unsatisfying revenge, contrary to their own Christian faith.
The Virgin Spring also marks the beginning of a long-lasting film collaboration between Bergman and legendary cinematography Sven Nykvist. They had worked together before, but it was limited. From here on out we’ll see Nikvist’s powerful influence as Bergman moves away from the more theatrical look of his earlier films to the more rugged and natural look. They couldn’t have picked a better entry point into this new style. From here we move onto ever heightened struggles with Christianity and religious faith that Bergamn will continue to explore in a trio of films often called The Trilogy of Faith, which I plan to revisit for the n-th time and write up thoughts here. Therein lies one of my top three films of all time.
Those themes come front and center here, though. An innocent child is murdered, and her father cannot understand how it could have happened because, as he says, “God, you saw it.”
Besides the quotation, though, the shot above is thematically significant. Tore is looking up into the light, speaking to God. Often directors shooting similar scenes will position the camera above Tore and angle it down toward his face, as if God is camera, watching and listening. Even when the subject is angry with God, that would be the conventional camera position. Here, though, Bergman puts the camera behind Tore, and Tore is so far in the background, it’s not clear he’s even the frame’s subject. This suggests a couple of things to me: Bergman is saying that Tore is looking at nothing, and nothing is looking down on him. Or, if we are looking down on Tore from God’s perspective, then yes, God saw what happened, but only in the periphery. In either interpretation, Tore’s anguished prayer is pushed out of the foreground, as if it’s really rather meaningless.
It isn’t meaningless for Bergman, though, nor for us. This is torment, that moment when one’s faith is shaken, when one witnesses chance, arbitrariness. The film does end with a kind of miracle, slightly subverting this doubting camera angle, but this struggle with faith will not go away. I cannot wait to get to Winter Light, but next up is Through a Glass Darkly, if you’d like to follow along.