"The Virgin Spring” - Ingmar Bergman (1960)

Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was made during a period in his career when he was portraying existential examinations of religious faith.  It was made after The Seventh Seal (1957) and prior to his famed “Trilogy of Faith” – Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963).  Perhaps riding the waves of Bergman’s previous international successes, The Virgin Spring was a hit with the public and won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1961 US Academy Awards.  However, Bergman rarely referred to the film in his later years, and its interpretation remains somewhat controversial [1].

There are two notable aspects to the production.  Bergman usually composed his own screenplays, but on this occasion the film was scripted by the novelist Ulla Isaksson, who based her story on the 13th century ballad, “Töres Döttrar I Wänge” ("Töre's Daughters in Vänge"), which tells the story of why the 12th-century church in Kärna, Sweden, was built [2].  Bergman and Isaksson made some adaptations to this story that I will discuss below.  A second notable aspect of this film is that it was the first time Bergman used Sven Nyqvist as his cinematographer.  They would later work together on most of Bergman’s subsequent films.

What makes The Virgin Spring controversial, and this is something inherent in the original ballad, is its focus on revenge.  In fact the main outline of the story is rather simple. 
  1. A young woman, the “virgin”, sets out on an afternoon’s journey through the forest to make a religious offering to the church. 
  2. On the way, she encounters some goatherds, who rape and murder her, and then steal her clothing. 
  3. The goatherds travel to the town and, seeking to sell the girl’s expensive clothing, unknowingly attempt to sell it to the girl’s family. The girl’s father, Töre, kills the goatherds in revenge. 
This is the kind of visceral revenge scenario frequently seen in low-grade films, and some critics complain that Bergman was merely making an art-house version of this type of exploitation film. The viewer is set up with the image of an innocent girl. They are then shown some loathsome individual(s) with no redeeming features who violate her.  So the hero must avenge the villainous act by returning brutality in kind.  I would say that Bergman’s film is more than just this kind of exploitation fare, but certainly revenge is a key theme to the narrative.

Bergman’s film of this tale passes through four stages, and the theme of God’s place in this tale is fundamental to it.

1.  Karin and Ingeri
The film’s beginning introduces life at Töre’s manor, and the first person seen is Ingeri (played by Gunnel Lindblom, one of my favorite of Bergman’s actresses), the adopted daughter of Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg).  Although the focalization is initially on Ingeri, and she is seen here praying to the Norse god, Odin, it is immediately clear that Ingeri is not the “virgin”, since she is clearly pregnant.  The virgin is in fact Töre’s and Märeta’s own natural daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). 

The Ingeri character was not part of the original ballad, but she plays an important role in this story, because she offers a striking contrast to Karin and serves to highlight her pristine characteristics
  • Karin is blonde, fair-skinned, and elegant.  She is innocent, cheerful, virginal, and so used to being served by everyone around her that she is hopelessly spoiled.  She is also a dutiful Christian and says her prayers to God every night.
  • Ingeri is dark-haired, darker-skinned, sullied, and full of guilt and jealousy.  She is also basically a servant in the household and treated with contempt by those around her, especially now that she is pregnant and therefore presumed to be of loose morals.  She prays to Odin, hoping that she can summon evil spirits on the people she hates.
The contrast between Christianity and paganism was not without significance in those times, which presumably take place in the 12th century.  Sweden had only become largely Christianised in the 11th century, and the lower classes were probably still mindful of pagan beliefs in those times [3].

To emphasize just how spoiled Karin is, there is a seven-minute scene showing Märeta trying to get her (innocently) self-centered daughter dressed.  Her parents want her to get dressed in order to take some candles to the church as an offering to the Virgin Mary, and tradition calls for the person making the offering to be a virgin.  So Karin is the one to go.  Karin asks for Ingeri to accompany her, and they both set out on horseback and head through the forest towards the church.

Up to this point Karin has shown to be so exaggeratedly spoiled that we know something will happen to give her a comeuppance.

2.  Encounter in the Woods
As they travel, they come upon one of Karin’s many “boyfriends”, and his flirtatious remarks to Karin only fan Ingeri’s intense jealousy of her pampered half-sister.  When they start heading deeper into the forest, Ingeri, who is mindful of magic and evil spirits, become afraid and asks Karin to turn back.  But Karin says she will go on alone, and Ingeri can return.

Traveling on alone, Karen encounters three goatherds who are brothers, two young men and a younger boy who is about 12 or 13.  Although they smile obsequiously, it is evident that the goatherds (at least the older two) have hideously malevolent intentions.  Karin is innocently oblivious of such potential perfidy, and she cheerfully offers to share her lunch with them. 

Meanwhile, Ingeri has not returned to the family manor and has instead followed Karin.  She is watching fearfully what is going on at a distance.  Over the course of the next seven minutes, the film shows how the two older goatherds close in on Karin and then rape her violently.  This scene does not show nudity, but it was so viscerally disturbing that it was censored out of prints of the film shown in the US at the time.  Afterwards, the goatherds club Karin to death and steal her garments.  The images of them wantonly stomping on Karin’s holy candle offerings might bring to the minds of today’s viewers the hate-filled mockery of ISIS.

The younger boy is horrified and sickened by what has happened and seems not to be so satanic as his two older brothers.

3.  The Payback
The scene shifts back to Töre’s manor, where the three goatherd have unknowingly come seeking a place to sleep for the night.  The Töre estate has a number of farmhands and helpmates who eat together in the manor hall, and one of them is Simon (Oscar Ljung), who has earlier been identified as more educated than the rest (there are suggestive comments that he may be a political refugee).  Although Simon has no material effect on the story, he seems at times like a Greek chorus or poetic muse who makes meaningful comments on what is going on.  Seeing the three goatherds, Simon says to them mysteriously (there’s no indication in the film that he knows what has happened in the forest):
“A day can start out beautifully yet end in misery. Rarely have I seen a morning so full of promise as this morning. The sun shown in all its fairness and made you forget winter’s rages.  My legs wanted to dance for joy. . . . but before nightfall she lay dead. . . “
Then they all eat together in the manor hall, with Töre first saying grace to bless their meal.  The boy goatherd is still sick, and has to be laid down in a bunk.  Leaning over him while the boy is lying down, Simon almost fiendishly conjures up the following disturbing images:
"You see how the smoke trembles up in the roof hole?
As if whimpering and afraid? 
Yet it’s only going out into the open air,
where it has the whole sky to tumble about in.
But it doesn’t know, so it cowers under the sooty ridge of the roof. 
People are the same way. 
They worry and tremble like leaves in a storm
because of what they know. . . . and what they don’t know.   . .

You shall cross a narrow plank, so narrow you can’t find your footing. 
Below you roars a great river. . . It’s black and wants to swallow you up. 
But you pass over it unharmed. 
Before you lies a chasm. . . so deep you can’t see the bottom. 
Hands grope for you. . . but they can’t reach you. 
At last you stand before a mountain of terror.
It spews fire like a furnace, and a vast abyss opens at your feet. 
A thousand colors blaze there. .
. . . . copper and iron, blue vitriol and yellow sulfur.
Flames dazzle and flash and lash at the rocks.
And all about, men leap and writhe, small as ants,
for this is the furnace . . . that swallows up murderers and evildoers.

But at the very moment you think you are doomed, a hand shall grasp you
and an arm circle around you, . . . and you’ll be taken far away. . . .
where evil no longer has power over you."
Eventually the older goatherds try to sell Karin’s blood-stained garments to Märeta, who is stricken by the sight but remains silent. She locks the sleeping goatherds in the manor hall and reports what she has seen to Töre, who immediately makes plans to “bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Töre gathers his sword and while making his preparations, runs into Ingeri, who tells him everything that she had witnessed.  Girding himself up to his warrior intentions, he gives himself a birching in the traditional Scandinavian manner.  Then he enters the manor hall where the goatherds are still sleeping.  The ensuing slaughter is deliberately slow and drawn out – Töre doesn’t even use his sword – and it takes seven minutes of screen time.  It is here that the film’s exploitation critics are likely to make their case.  Not knowing that the boy goatherd was basically innocent, Töre kills him, too.

4.  Repentance
At this point the conventional revenge film would come to a swift closure.  In fact many viewers seem satisfied that the two older brothers were exterminated and believe they got their just deserts -- these viewers’ only reservations are that the young boy should have been spared.  But this film looks at thing differently. 

The viewer, in fact, has been set up twice.  Karin was self-centered and spoiled and presumably deserving of a comeuppance.  But she didn’t deserve happened to her.  Similarly, the goatherds were cruel, but it was a Christian’s, place to slaughter them vengefully.

After finishing his murderous rampage, Töre looks at his own hands and ask God’s forgiveness.  But others feel guilt, too.  Ingeri feels that her jealous prayers to Odin to bring mayhem on Karin were the cause of her half-sister’s death.  Märeta says,
“I loved her too much, Tore, more than God, himself.  When I saw she favored you, I began to hate you.  It is me that God meant to punish by this.  I bear the guilt.”
With Ingeri as guide, they go out to find Karin’s body. When they come upon it, Töre goes off by himself and looks up to heaven, saying,
“God, You saw it.   The death of an innocent girl and my vengeance.  You allowed it to happen. . . . . I don’t understand you. . . . . Yet still I ask Your forgiveness. “
He then promises to God as an act of repentance to build a church on this spot. When they go to lift Karin’s body from the ground, a water spring gushes up from where she was lying.  They all see this as a miracle.  Ingeri washes her hands in the water, and Märeta washes Karin’s face with the water.

Now I think most people see that final appearance of the “virgin spring” as an act of God, signifying his forgiveness.  I don’t.  To me The Virgin Spring is another chapter in Bergman’s decrying the absence of God.

The people who are looking for a god in the film, whether pagans or Christians, are all looking for some magical power that will come to their aid and solve their problems – or at least thwart brutal malice when it appears.  Ingeri prays to Odin, Märeta and Karin pray to God. They are looking for signs [4].  But God never answers or intervenes in this tale. When they see the spring emerge, they interpret it as God’s benevolence, but it may just be another natural occurrence that they want to interpret in a way that is favorable to their wishes.

There are some differences between the story of this film and that of the original “Töres Döttrar i Wänge” ballad. 
  • In the ballad, Töre had three daughters, and they were all slain by the herdsmen. 
  • In the ballad, the “virgin spring” appears immediately upon the deaths of the daughters, not upon the Töre’s promise of penance.
  • In the original ballad, Töre only kills two of the brothers.  He then asks the remaining brother where he comes from, and is informed that they are all the lost sons of Töre and Märeta.  This means that Töre has just killed two of his own children.
  • And the original ballad did not have the Ingeri and Simon characters. 
I believe that all the alterations to the story that were made by Isaksson and Bergman were to the good.

Interestingly, Bergman’s mise-en-scene places the viewer, who of course cannot intervene or change the course of action, into a position of an all-knowing but inactive spectator (somewhat like the god about which Töre complains).  There is no center of focalization in the film.  The focalization starts with Ingeri and meanders to Märeta, then to Töre, then to the herdsmen, and then back to Töre and Märeta.  The viewer is watching all of them, but rarely placed into a sympathetic position for the person who is being watched in order to establish complete empathy – most of the time, the “silent witness” is a bit withdrawn from the characters and placed in a position of more remote judgement.

Ultimately, to me, Bergman’s most authentic answer to his predicament of an absent god comes when Töre engages in his monologue with God:
“I know no other way to make peace with myself than with my own hands.  I don’t know any other way to live. . . . .”
His promise to God, his act of penance, is to work within his own horizon and personal circumstances and do something good with his own hands. That is the only way he knows how to live. And I think that is how Bergman saw it, too.

  1. Peter Cowie,“The Virgin Spring: Bergman in Transition”,The Criterion Collection, Film Essays, (23 January 2006).
  2. “Töres döttrar i Wänge” ("Töre's daughters in Vänge"), Wikipedia, (19 September 2014). 
  3. “Religion in Sweden”, Wikipedia, (11 June 2015). 
  4. There is also rustic man living in the forest that Karin and Ingeri run into during their trip who believes in magical roots and herbs and makes blood offerings to Odin.

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