The Virgin Spring (1960)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Valberg

Sometimes, when I like to think modern literature or music or art is edgy, I remind myself of late medieval verse and gain some perspective. An example I’ve done some research on is the history of blood libels, expressed succinctly in “The Prioress’ Tale” from The Canterbury Tales; there is some gory literature on the presumed Jewish practice of murdering/crucifying Christian toddlers. Then, for example, there’s the ballad of “Tore’s Daughters in Vange,” an old Swedish song about three highwaymen who decapitate three maidens out for a ride, accidentally show up at the maidens’ parents’ house, and show off the booty from their murder. The father then kills two of the highwaymen and then, just for kicks, presumably, asks the third highwayman who his parents are. In what must have been a pretty sick twelfth-century twist, it turns out that the father of the maidens is also the father of the highwaymen, and out of his six children, five are now dead.

This is the source material for The Virgin Spring, and mercifully, the movie doesn’t strictly bind itself to it. Where the ballad is some sick freak’s reason for building a church (hopefully not a historical sick freak), the film opens with a different cast of characters. Tore (von Sydow) and Mareta (Valberg) are back, of course. They have just one daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who in temperament seems fourteen or fifteen. Her parents dote on her; even when she isn’t there, their conversation is rarely about anything else. Mareta, in the way of late medieval and late ’90s mothers, worries constantly about her daughter; we find out much later in the film that much of her concern – and the root of the reason she is inclined to spoil her daughter – is based on Karin’s preference for Tore. In the single scene they share together, Tore is obviously delighted with his child, picking her up and spinning her around as he might do with a child ten years younger. And so it is, having affectionately browbeaten her mother into letting her wear what must be some of the finest clothes in the house and having convinced her father to send Ingeri (Lindblom), a swarthy servant girl with bright eyes and flashing teeth who is supposed to be around Karin’s age, that the two very dissimilar young women go into the forest to deliver candles to church.

Thus is the story slimmed down. Karin is intercepted by three hungry-looking, leering herdsmen. The kids cavort around to the tune of one herdsman’s mouth harp. It turns out that he is the only one who speaks; one of them is mute – tongueless, more accurately – and the other is, surprisingly, a mere boy. Karin shares her lunch with the herdsmen, who ultimately rape her in turn; the mute herdsman first, who’s then tossed aside by the talking one with the mouth harp, who then yields, vaguely, to the youngest. After they’ve finished with her – she has cried out and plain cried and now is trying to crawl off the scene – the mute one grabs his crook and lands a sickening blow on the back of the head; she turns her head just enough to look at her assailants before she dies. Not long after, looking for shelter from a cold night, the three herdsmen wind up at Tore and Mareta’s estate. The talking herdsman offers to give Mareta his “sister’s dress,” which must have been sewn by at least nine maidens. The issue is, it was fifteen maidens – and it’s Karin’s dress. Mareta locks them in; after some buildup, Tore goes into the hall where the herdsmen sleep and kills them all. There’s a reason we keep borrowing the plot for The Last House on the Left: it’s because that’s a plot which makes your eyes bug out of your head.

I went into the film expecting, hoping for a Two Minutes Hate experience. The scene where Tore kills the herdsmen is not glorious, or even particularly taut. In the order in which they raped they are killed. The mute herdsman is stabbed, and the youngest presumably has his neck broken when Tore tosses him into the wall. The talking herdsman with the mouth harp gets the most interesting death; he either asphyxiates or dies of his burns because Tore holds him down in a fire. (I don’t often wish for updated special effects in my ’60s flicks, but here I found myself hoping for something rather ghastlier.) It’s a surprisingly quiet scene; most of the noise is of small grunts and the general kerfuffle of chairs moving and shelves falling from the walls. Only after the movie ended I recognized that Tore’s grief was most evinced when he uproots a small tree (seriously), not when he kills the herdsmen; that choice is a bold one, creating some dissonance as to why Tore, who really seems to hem and haw once it becomes clear the herdsmen will be easy targets, decides to kill them anyway.

More than once, one character or other will say something along the lines of, Deliver candles to church? Not for matins, I hope, or she’ll be late. What none of them seem to realize is that there is a race going on, a match between the Catholic God and the Norse Odin, and that Odin has the drop on God. Ingeri, having waited for the moment when the cock crowed, opens up the section in the roof functioning as a chimney and prays, “Odin, come! Odin, come!” She wraps herself around the tall pole and moans the pagan orison. The object of her prayer won’t be revealed for some time, although we get a guess at it when she’s ordered to make Karin’s lunch. In one wheatcake she places the cheese as asked; in another, she enterprisingly makes room for a frog she’s discovered and puts that in there instead. Ingeri, while separated in the forest from Karin, has an encounter with a creepy old pagan, describing his fetish objects and mentioning Odin by name for the first time since she’s done it. After the film’s saddest scene, the mute herdsman jumps up and down on the candles that Karin was going to take to the church. And, perhaps most importantly, whatever victory Tore wins in the end is not a victory that he can take back to his god in triumph. Whatever is given to Odin is based in savagery, but it does not promise the pagan lord’s loyalty. God at least gives his people a sign in the end, when, led by Ingeri, the household travels to the place where Karin was raped and killed. They find her there, laying on her back in only her white undergarments, her long hair still intact but her body obscured by a few handfuls of dirt the youngest herdsman threw on her.

This isn’t a stage play, and this isn’t America, and this isn’t the 20th Century; it makes sense that Tore and Mareta merely feel a deep and abiding guilt for the murders which should send them to Hell. Mareta in particular seems troubled by the killing of the boy (who is too remorseful to eat at Tore’s table), and Tore, upon seeing his daughter’s body, cries out to God that he will build a church of “mortar and stone” on the spot where his daughter lays as penance for his crime. By way of response, a stream of water begins flowing near the spot where Karin’s body lays. Most of the rest of the scene, especially near the end, takes place from above, as if we are viewing the sight of a group of reaffirmed Christians from the perspective of whichever god abides in the firmament.

The titular flow of water is reminiscent of the story from the Bible in which God tells Moses to speak to a rock so that it will provide water to the Israelites. Moses strikes the rock with his staff instead, and although the water gushes out, God tells him that he shall not enter Canaan because he disobeyed. If Odin is the largely unchanged god someone like Ingeri can pray to, someone who is dangerous and tempestuous, the god Tore and his family worship is almost certainly the Old Testament version of himself, the one whose lust for total obedience is his most striking feature. I cannot imagine that Tore’s church will earn him much credit with the I Am, who stood aside for Odin to strike down Tore’s daughter. What at first appears to be an ending of some solace or encouragement is on further review far more pessimistic; the God who can set a spring flowing and create such a stir among the family and their staff is the same God who is either unwilling to save Karin’s life or, worse, unable.

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