Jungfrukällan [The Virgin Spring]

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #321: Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan [The Virgin Spring].


The Virgin Spring is based on a Swedish bal­lad called “Töre’s Daughter in Vänge” that, for the life of me, I can­not find on­line [al­though it is avail­able as part of the liner notes for the Criterion edi­tion of the film]. This bal­lad re­counts the rape and mur­der of a vir­gin on her way to church and the father’s ret­rib­ution. The bal­lad is short and was fleshed out sig­nif­i­cantly in Bergman’s fi­nal treat­ment, with added lay­ers of con­flict, pathos and ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle to sup­port the weight of a fea­ture length film. I re­mem­ber a cou­ple of film ma­jors who hated Bergman when I was in col­lege. I’ve never re­ally had that an­i­mos­ity, I like the state­li­ness of his style and the re­spect with which he treats his char­ac­ters. The Virgin Spring is no slouch when it comes to this, and Ang Lee’s in­tro­duc­tion [ap­par­ently The Virgin Spring was the first art film he ever saw] seems to back up my own feel­ings on Bergman.

The story is a mir­a­cle play, a moral­ity play and a folk tale. There is great ten­sion be­tween newly con­verted Christian Swedes [many of whom have no idea what a church looks like] and those who still wor­ship Odin & Co. There is gen­der and class ten­sion as well, and an un­der­cur­rent of the su­per­nat­u­ral that the char­ac­ters rec­og­nize as pow­er­ful and use­ful, al­though they are too hu­man to use it them­selves.

Blonde-haired Karin is the spoiled only daugh­ter of Töre and Ingeri is a dark and wild fos­ter­ling who does most of the work. They are nec­es­sar­ily an­tag­o­nists and Karin’s to­ken Christianity is bal­anced by the fer­vor of Ingeri’s pa­gan­ism. Similarly, the Christian fer­vor of Töre’s wife Märeta is bal­anced by her hus­bands spir­i­tu­ally shrugged shoul­ders.

Karin gets all spiffed out in her best to go de­liver some can­dles to church. Ingeri sets off with her but gets freaked out by some creep­tas­tic guy who mans the ford at the river. Once she es­capes, it is too late for Karin. She’s al­ready deep in the clutches of three herders who spout things like the wolf says to Red Riding Hood. She is raped [a scene which was heav­ily cen­sored at the time of re­lease in the US, but seems rather tame now, es­pe­cially in com­par­ion with Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs] and af­ter the act, her hys­ter­ics cause one of the herders to club her to death. They strip her of her fin­ery and run off, leav­ing their lit­tle brother who is wracked with guilt, to guard the body. [If ever there was a time for a joke in poor taste about “If she didn’t want to be raped she shouldn’t have dressed that way” this is it. Bergman’s treat­ment keeps the vic­tim­hood with Karin though. She is not at fault.]

As Fate or the Allfather or God would have it, the herders show up at Töre’s farm and beg guestright for the evening. Töre of­fers it to them and they break bread. The lit­tlest herder gets sick be­cause of his guilt, and the fact that he knows they are in the house of the daugh­ter they killed adds ex­tra suf­fer­ing. Later that evening one of the herders of­fers to sell Karin’s clothes back to the mother. This part strikes me as slightly con­fus­ing, un­less he knows that he is pro­tected by guestright and just wants to rub in his act, why would he give those clothes back?

Once Töre dis­cov­ers that he has fed and shel­tered the mur­der­ers of his only daugh­ter he de­cides to take vengeance. First he takes a pu­ri­fy­ing bath, and while he goes out to get some birch branches, de­cides to rip the whole tree out of the ground in his agony and anger.

He pre­pares him­self, with the help of Ingeri, and then mur­ders all three herders, in­clud­ing the boy, most vi­ciously. Wracked with guilt that he so eas­ily acted unChris­tian­like and stuff, he searches out Karin’s body and has a heart to heart with God. Tore says that he doesn’t un­der­stand God, but asks for for­give­ness any­way, and promises to build a stone and mor­tar church [the stone and mor­tar is a big deal in 14th Century Sweden] on the site of her mur­der. In covenant, a spring ap­pears where Karin lay and the film ends.

Down to fun­da­men­tals, the film wrestles with emo­tions and de­sires that are re­stricted by moral and spir­i­tual codes. It is no less im­por­tant that Töre broke guestright than he mur­dered a child and dis­carded his new faith. The vi­cious­ness of the rape is nec­es­sary to bal­ance the depth of Töre’s rage and later re­pen­tence. In the fi­nal wash, Bergman seems to be say­ing that life is of­ten self­ish and ter­ri­ble, but those same ter­ri­ble acts can act as spurs to acts of self­less cre­ation. I guess.

Criterion Essay by Peter Cowie
• Max Von Sydow Gallery from The Virgin Spring

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