Jungfrukällan [The Virgin Spring]

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

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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