It is quite amazing to see how prolific a filmmaker Bergman was, and how varied his oeuvre was within a fairly short time. To make a somewhat arbitrary cut, between Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a romantic comedy with a melancholy streak and a wonderfully light touch, and Persona (1966), whose psychological drama veers into something not too dissimilar from Lynchian horror, lie ten films that include the strange, phantasmagoric The Magician (1958), the chilling, existentialist Winter Light (1963) and, of course, The Seventh Seal (1957), a film so iconic that its central image is surely familiar to many more than have actually seen the film. Even halfway into Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, I still tend to have a somewhat reductive image of Bergman as the writer-director of psychological drama set in upper-middle-class circles, films of midlife crises and marital strife – and along comes the primal, harrowing The Virgin Spring to remind me that Bergman’s films were much more than just this.
So many of Bergman’s characters are characterised by speech, even in the ironically titled The Silence, where people talk but fail to communicate through their words. The Virgin Spring is different in that respect: the film contains scenes that are starkly violent but play in startling silence: even when we expect the characters to scream in anger, fear or pain, what we mostly hear is agitated or stifled breathing.
The Virgin Spring is based on a medieval Swedish ballad and tells the story of a husband and wife, Töre (Max von Sydow) and Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), whose daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), on her way to the nearby church, is raped and murdered by two herdsmen while their young brother watches. The three men leave the scene of the murder and, unknowingly, seek shelter with Töre and Märeta. When the older of the brothers offers them the girl’s Sunday clothes to repay their kindness, Karin’s parents realise who they have given shelter to, and Töre kills all three in revenge.
For once, it is not dialogue that expresses the concerns and feelings of Bergman’s characters throughout most of the film. So much of what goes on inside them is communicated via their faces, while the dialogue is more noteworthy for avoiding what is actually going on. When Karin shares a meal with the herdsmen, leading up to the attack and rape, we see on the girl’s face how she slowly realises the danger she finds herself in. Later, when Märeta receives Karin’s clothes from what she realises to be her daughter’s murderer, we also see that realisation dawn in her expression. And when the boy, the youngest of the herdsmen and arguably the least guilty one, lies down to sleep at the home of the girl his brothers violated and killed earlier in the day, an intense drama of fear and damnation plays across his face. Words are inadequate for what these characters are thinking and feeling, yet they are eloquently expressed in their facial expressions.
Seeing how much of happens in the film is non-verbal, it is striking that the final scene plays out almost as the opposite of these earlier scenes: led by the servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who witnessed the crime, the parents find Karin’s body. Töre breaks down when he sees his dead daughter and calls out God: “You see it, God. You see it. The innocent child’s death, and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand You. I don’t understand You. Yet, I still ask your forgiveness. I know no other way to live.” After his killing of the three herdsmen, a startlingly violent scene for Bergman, and for the time in which the film was made and released, this is probably von Sydow’s most dramatic sequence in the film – yet differently from the scenes mentioned earlier, we hear Töre verbalising his anguish, but we don’t see his face: von Sydow’s back is turned on us practically throughout.
In discussions of The Virgin Spring, critics have talked about how the film depicts a world transitioning from paganism to Christianity – Märeta is the more zealous Christian of the pair, while Töre seems reluctant in practising his faith, and Ingeri still prays to Odin – and the final scene almost suggests this to be a transition from pre-verbal to verbal as well. This would fit with the previous three films in the collection, especially Winter Light, which is about a crisis of faith that finds its expression most clearly in words; in those films, characters express primarily in words their anguish that God does not hear them and may not even exist. Arguably, The Virgin Spring is also the film by Bergman in which God speaks to the characters in a language they understand. As Karin’s parents lift her body from the ground where she was killed, a miracle occurs: water springs forth where her head had been. Though it wouldn’t be Bergman if this miracle wasn’t ambivalent too – what kind of God is this who causes a spring to emerge from the spot where Karin died, yet He did nothing to prevent the rape and murder from happening? I wonder which is less comforting: the God of Winter Light who remains silent and who may as well not exist, or the God of The Virgin Spring who may speak through a miraculous spring – but only after He has let evil happen?