Year of Release: 1960 Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson.
Ingmar Bergman has a well deserved reputation as not only one of Sweden’s greatest directors, but one of the greatest directors period. He also has a reputation of being a “difficult” director whose films, especially the later ones, are artsy and bleak, characterized by dreamlike narratives and themes of existential doubt. While faith and mortality play an important role in The Virgin Spring, the film is unique among Bergman’s output, not only because it is one of his few films for which he did not write the screenplay.
The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman’s most straightforward films with a completely linear narrative taken from a 13th Century poem, no hallucinations or dream sequences, no playing with the viewer’s perception of reality, and no crisis of faith or characters plagued by doubt. The reason for the first three is that Bergman clearly wanted the film to unfold like a fable, or a minstrel’s tale, which it does hauntingly and brilliantly. The reason for the last choice is simple, Bergman set the film in 13th Century Sweden, where a strong faith was taken for granted, and using that lack of doubt as a backdrop, Bergman explores naïveté, vengeance, sorrow, and contrition.
The religious nature of all the characters also makes the tragedy and horror of the story felt much more profoundly. Bergman frames the film with the same character kneeling down and leaning forward in prayer. The first time she is invoking Odin to punish another woman with whom she is angry. The second time is out of a feeling of guilt and horror, witnessing the results of the terrible tragedy that has occurred. The villains are also slightly more complex than simple menacing thugs. They are relieved when they realize their crime will not jeopardize the celebration of the Mass; the youngest of them becomes unable to eat because he is so disturbed by what he witnessed. While the film never suggests sympathizing with the criminals (nor does it need to), when it reverses their position from antagonists to victims, it is taken for granted that the next crime will be equally brutal. To reinforce the comparison, both crimes end with a senseless death. Under Bergman’s meticulous pacing, the reversal occurs just after the halfway mark, which was when the first crime occurred and set the stage for the second.
Birgitta Pettersson perfectly captures the correct balance of mischievous, naive, and compassionate as the titular virgin Karin. As her father and lord of a large castle, Max von Sydow is fittingly stoic and authoritative. The scenes where he breaks down are shot with him facing away from the camera, as if he does not want anyone to see him broken and unsure. Even with his back to the camera, von Sydow powerfully conveys the sorrow he is suffering.
This was only second film Bergman shot with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the first being Sawdust and Tinsel seven years earlier. The Swedish countryside looks absolutely stunning, and the stark black and white camera work is as haunting, chilling, and poetic as the tale it tells.
Content Advisory: Depiction of rape, several murders, and shadowy nudity – nothing particularly graphic Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A+