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