Tuesday, November 17, 2015

film: THE VIRGIN SPRING (Jungfrukällan) (1960, Sweden) A Criterion Blogathon entry

My 1972 book, Ingmar Bergman Directs, begins with a long interview. After that, the first sentence runs: "Ingmar Bergman is, in my most carefully considered opinion, the greatest filmmaker the world has seen so far." Thirty-five years later, upon news of Bergman's death last month, that is still my opinion. 
--John Simon, in "Cinema's Shakespeare" in The Weekly Standard (2007)

Jungfrukällan, released in English as The Virgin Spring, is, like nearly all the films Ingmar Bergman directed, beautifully shot and set in a very solid, fleshed-out world...one gets a sense of how life probably was lived in medieval Sweden better than that provided by nearly any other historical drama of its time, even as the film, based on a famous Swedish tragic ballad from the 1300s, dramatically is a parable, even more than the ballad itself a fable devoted to dealing with extremes of behavior, faith and guilt, the search for some sort of redemption in the face all sorts of loss. The film is a mystery or miracle play in cinematic terms, a distant (but not too distant) cousin of such English classics as "Everyman."

Ingeri, the young woman of the household whose status is somewhere between servant girl and foster daughter, goes about her chores to start the day; we see she is gravid. We soon learn that she is pregnant out of wedlock (she notes that a bastard will produce a bastard) and that the other women of the household hold her in some contempt for her wild ways and rebelliousness; she also had paused in her chores early on to pray to Odin, in what is otherwise apparently a Christian household. The patriarch and matriarch of the family, Tore and Mareta, discuss who should deliver the family's offering of candles to the not quite nearby church, though tradition apparently demands that the offering be presented by a virginal young woman, so daughter Karin, who's sleeping in after complaining of illness (and having danced the night away), is eventually settled upon to perform the delivery. This after much cosseting and playful interchange between Karin and her parents, who dote on her enormously, and she, in turn, displays no little Elektraesque interest in her father, and takes her mother slightly more for granted. She is also excessively childishly vain and becoming aware of her sexuality but in a very coy and girlish way. Karin asks that Ingeri be allowed to come along, and Karin, in expensive finery and riding proudly sidesaddle, and Ingeri, slumped astride a smaller horse in her disheveled work clothes, begin their small pilgrimage. 

Ingeri's resentment of Karin is in no way lessened by mostly unintentionally smug and proper chat from the golden girl as they make their way; it might be that Ingeri was raped, but it definitely seems that the young farmhand Ingeri is drawn to and seeks as a mate is taken with Karin, who had danced with him among others the previous night. Ingeri responds in a slightly more self-aware if cynical manner, suggesting that Karin might well lose herself if nuzzled, or if she finds herself in a situation where a little fellatio or a tumble in the hay might not get her something she desires beyond sex and attention. Karin, having boasted of her virtue and determination to fight off any sexual advance before marriage, slaps Ingeri, then immediately apologizes. The two young women come across the run-down cottage of a fellow pagan, an old and  chewed-up man, just as they are about to enter the dark forest part of their journey...Ingeri is suddenly seized with a premonition of danger, and dares not go on. Karin is quite certain God is her co-pilot, and so goes on her way alone, while Ingeri gets a little too much presumptuous hospitality from the old man and, when he makes a blatant pass after showing her some human-sacrifice relics, flees his hut to catch up with Karin. 

Karin meanwhile has met up with two young men and a boy with some goats; the goatherds are ragged and hungry, and she offers to share her provisions with them...she obliviously brags of her wealth and status as a princess as the two young men make ever more sinister noises, which she barely registers till she notes that the goats have brand-style markings that suggest the trio have rustled them; this immediately sparks the rape the young men had been obviously hoping to engage in, while their younger brother looks on, aghast. After both young men assault her, one goes on to club her head with a branch, delivering a killing blow. Ingeri, who had witnessed from a small distance the beginning of the assault and had grasped a rock to attack the men with, instead finds herself stymied by a mix of fear, guilt over wishing Karin harm or at least comeuppance, and perhaps even a bit of PTSD from her own experience or a certain amount of guilty lust given the open, if brutal, display before her.  She doesn't intercede at all, eventually dropping the stone and fleeing unseen by the thugs, who strip the valuables from Karin and leave their kid brother to watch the stolen goats and incidentally the corpse briefly while they go about other business. The child, after trying to eat some of Karin's picnic leftovers, vomits, and makes an impulsive effort at burial of her body, but only manages to throw a thin layer of dirt on her face and chest, the result more unintentional insult than proper ceremony. 

The trio of rustlers make their way to what they don't know to be the small estate of Karin's parents and Ingeri's masters and ask Tore, as travelers who've hit bad luck, to be put up for the night.  He agrees to do so, and the trio join in supper with the family, their servants, and an impoverished guest/mendicant also staying at the compound. The boy still can't stomach the food on offer, as he guiltily looks from one slightly sinister-seeming benefactor to another. They put him to bed in the dining hall, with the mendicant telling him a grim (or proto-Grimm) bedtime story that somewhat parallels the child's recent experiences, only with a reasonably happy ending, while the people of the compound ready themselves for a night's sleep (and Ingeri, still recovering, slips back home and continues to hide at first). One of the thugs offers Karin's dress to her mother, as perhaps something she'd like to buy and fix up, claiming it had been his sister's; Mareta surreptitiously bars the dining room door behind her, trapping them. Tore decides he will take vengeance on them, and preps himself with a sauna and self-flagellation with birch branches, with Ingeri serving him as he does this nude ritual. He then stabs one of the men, seems to choke another while forcing him to lie in the fire with Tore atop him (in a manner that resembles the sexual assault) and then, despite the child running to Mareta and being lightly embraced by her, Tore grabs the boy and throws him against the shelves on the wall, killing him. 

The household then goes raggedly in search of Karin's body; when they find her, they lament her state, and Tore steps away to pray, to ask why his God might have allowed the murder of a child (whether Karin or the goat boy), and promises to build an elaborate, permanent church on the spot of Karin's murder. As they move Karin's corpse after this promise, a small spring begins jetting clear water from beneath where her head lay, and Ingeri purifyingly washes her own face in it, while Mareta begins to wash the dirt from the corpse. 
End of synopsis.

from the Criterion page for this film:



DirectorIngmar Bergman
ScreenplayUlla Isaksson
CinematographySven Nykvist
EditingOscar Rosander
ProducerIngmar Bergman
MusicErik Nordgren
Production designP.A. Lundgren
Costume designMarik Vos

Part of what makes the film so good is, again, the groundedness of what is a philosophical fable in the gritty details of daily life; the stylization is mostly one of making the story play out with slightly high-flown dialog, as if it were a pageant as well as the unfolding of the tragedy; everything happens in strict chronological order. And, rather as in life, not everything is explained in any sort of detail; Mareta bemoans the fact that Karin is "all she has now"; whether that means that she's feeling alienation from Tore and (probably) mourning Ingeri's "fallen" state, or had lost another child in something like stillbirth or the potential of having another due to menopause, or even lost a child to the war that had forced their mendicant houseguest to flee Sweden briefly before returning, is never made explicit.  The ambiguous but clearly barely tolerated presence of Ingeri in the house, particularly given her unwed pregnancy, is apparently part of a long Swedish tradition of taking in foundlings (she's been a second-class member of the extended family or at least among the retainers for a while), and her fate is only slightly less dire than that of the other younger characters, all of whom suffer from the depredation and/or duplicity of their elders. And while there is a certain fantasticated feel to the film, the only point at which it becomes arguably fantasy is at the very climax...Bergman would save his overt fantastic work for such earlier films as the delightful comedy The Devil's Eye, and The Seventh Seal, and such later projects as Hour of the Wolf and (with a clever framing device) The Magic Flute.

Another part of what makes the film excellent is that it's the first film in which cinematographer Sven Nyqvist would work with Bergman and his crew, and what had already become something of a regular company of actors. Max von Sydow had already scored international attention in The Seventh Seal, for obvious example...while this was one of the relative few of his films where Bergman was not the primary scriptwriter, instead turning to novelist (Ms.) Ulla Isaakson to adapt the ballad "Tore's Daughter at Vange" into cinematic form, while collaborating with her to some extent and making some changes in the final shooting script (apparently the company were also up for a little improvisation at the time of filming). Some of the film demonstrates very clearly the influence of Akira Kurosawa, and such films of his as Rashomon, had on Bergman, an influence Bergman would consciously attempt to not display in future work. (The kinship with such other successors to Kurosawa as Onibaba [1964] can be felt, as well.)

But that the film was good at all is not and certainly was not in 1960 a universal opinion. Certainly, Bergman himself apparently didn't consider it anything like his best work, and only rarely referred to it later in discussing his career, beyond the fact that it winning an Oscar in 1961 for Best Foreign Language Film didn't hurt his ability to secure his often shoestring budgets from Svensk Filmindustri. The Cahiers du Cinema jokers decided this film was indicative of Bergman's sudden irrelevance, in their hipster way, and as the French upstart film establishment of the time snarled, so too, not long after, did their Swedish colleagues (who were apparently also put off by the heavy indulgence in Christian vs. pagan themes and the general sense of the Dour Swede on parade). Meanwhile, the bluenoses in Sweden, and certainly in the U.S. among other places, were Very put off by the explicit viciousness and relatively realistic staging of the rape of Karin; not much more than her thighs (and her face as she suffers) are ever exposed, and not quite that much of her two rapists' bodies, but that and the display of her still-clothed corpse afterward (and, probably, Ingeri's reference to oral sex earlier in the film) were enough to get the film banned in Ft. Worth, Texas, at very least, and some seconds cut in New York and elsewhere, while at least some were simply disappointed that Bergman might seemingly parallel one of his least favorite film technicians, Alfred Hitchcock, with the latter's staging of an attack on Janet Leigh's character in the adaptation of Robert Bloch's Psycho, also released that year to some similar hostility (if in neither case the kind of foolish insult and censure that Peeping Tom faced; much later films such as River's Edge might also be paying homage).  I'm not sure of this, but would also not be too surprised if some of the more blatant Freudian aspects of the film were targets for criticism, as well; aside from the Elektra complex suggestions (and perhaps something a bit darker involving the other "daughter"), not only do swords and long knives serve as obvious (not overstressed, but clear) phallic symbols, but so also do the pole that holds open the smoke-releasing trap door in the dining hall ceiling, and a birch sapling that Karin's father attacks in his despair while readying himself to take revenge. Rather more explicitly Swedish symbolism that ties toads in with not only Satanic forces but also women's genitalia also plays out. All told, the fallout from the film was a bit of a mixed bag, by any measure. And it was the last of Bergman's films to have an explicitly, distantly other-times historical setting (with the arguable exception of the Mozart opera film). 

The Criterion package of the film is typically good, with an excellent DVD reproduction and upgraded subtitles from previous releases, and a nice set of booklet and on-disc extras (if not up to the best I've seen from them, from the two-disc set of The Killers and its several adaptations); Birgitta Steene's on-disc annotation might be a bit too negatively critical, and while her commentary misses a few things I've touched on above, she also supplies very useful background information on Swedish folkloric and cinematic traditions that the film both takes advantage of and breaks away from. Bergman's own brief explanation for why the rape scene was shot as it is makes for very good reading, and is sadly too true (essentially, that it doesn't help to pretend that things aren't as ugly as they can be, particularly if one is in no way celebrating them). The 2006 interviews with the actors playing the young women, Gunnell Lindblom and Birgitta Petterson, are more than fine and useful, and Ang Lee's "introduction" also if slightly less so, though it most certainly shouldn't be viewed before watching the film.  Which on the Criterion disc one can do with an English dubbed soundtrack if one chooses (which I've not explored yet), and in the original Swedish without any subtitles. 

Please check out the other entries in the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by the folks at Silver Screenings (Ruth Kerr), Speakeasy (Kristina Dijan) and Criterion Blues (Aaron West). 

Criterion not only has been doing remarkably good packages of mostly extremely deserving films and related projects in DVD and BluRay (and back in the day, 12" laserdisc) format for the years of several dogs (somehow they never jumped on that soon-disabled RCA stylus videodisc bandwagon), but they are the heirs as a company to the Janus Film Collection, which has been popping up as the mark of quality for decades more since being birthed in Cambridge/Boston-area art cinema spaces, and, most tellingly for my early enjoyment, feeding films to what in the latter 1970s WGBH-TV Boston (and perhaps they alone, despite being then as now the biggest contributing station of programming to its network) called PBS Theater, a weekend staple where I got to enjoy the likes of Forbidden Games and The 400 Blows and even some films not about children when I, too, was a youth...and I was always happy to see the Janus logo pop up elsewhere, for example on another, rather short-lived Boston-based project, The Monitor Channel, the cable news and cultural programming arm of The Christian Science Monitor for a brief period in 1991; aside from a decent attempt at tv news coverage, they offered a Mort Sahl commentary series and the likes of Black Orpheus in a film package from then already Criterion folks. The first day's roundup of film essays is at Kristina's blog here.  The film:


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Bit of a titanic post there Todd - but most Bergman films fromt he 50s and 60 deserve it! Haven;t seen this one in a long time actually - but sooner or later I will want to get back into his work, long overdue.

Todd Mason said...

Yes...in my desire to do a SIGHT & SOUND-style synopsis, I found I was having such fun that it went on longer than I intended, and still had to leave out a few salient details, such as the mother's attempt, mostly thwarted, to replicate the pains suffered by JC with a bit of candle wax...and her husband's eventual own sort of ritual masochism.

Or even in how many folks were so blatantly influenced by Bergman, beyond the obvious such as Woody Allen and Joe Sarno and onto Joss Whedon with the best single episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, "The Body"...

But, yes...I've been rather foolishly only slowly watching a new-to-me Bergman once every few years of late, and I still have plenty to go...particularly, I might just revisit MONIKA, as it was released in the US, to see if I still find it (perhaps in a less restrictive cut) as minor a work as I did on first viewing, given how popular it is with Bergmaniacs.

pattinase (abbott) said...

One of the films that made me a film lover.

Todd Mason said...

I'm not sure if I saw it on the WENH Channel 11 package...possibly. If so, for me, too.

kinneret said...

Such a great film. I saw it in college and watched it again recently. Unfortunately, the tragic irony is that Sweden, once the safest country in the world, has a very high rape statistic now.

Jack Seabrook said...

A very nice post on a wonderful film. I saw it not long ago on TCM, which explains why I don't remember the commentaries. Bergman is my 2d favorite European director, after Fellini.

Silver Screenings said...

So Bergman didn't consider this one of his best, despite the Oscar nod? It always amazes me to learn which films directors disliked, or which ones were their faves. I can never guess.

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful analysis and all your research with us. Great post, and fab contribution to the blogathon. :)

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

In the early 1990s, when I first caught up with his early works, like SUMMER WITH MONIKA, from the 40s and early 1950s, it was a true revelation

Kristina said...

Must see this, but even so I very much enjoyed your essay and insights, thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

Sam Juliano said...

Stupendous essay of this great Bergman film, Todd! I agree that Nykvist's luminous black and white is one of the reasons the film is great - it is certainly most of the most magnificently shot films in the entire Bergman canon. You touch upon so much here in your magisterial study of the film. The film is not absolutely top tier Bergman, but solid second tier, methinks. In any case well worthy of such a comprehensive salute.

Kelly Robinson said...

Oh, wow. I've been making my way through the Criterion Blogathon entries, and if I thought it was cool to find new film blogs, it's even cooler to encounter a familiar name on the list! Great, comprehensive review of a film I knew nothing about.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I'm afraid I haven't seen any of Bergman's films except maybe for "Fanny and Alexander." You have reminded me of a fine film-maker and his work.

Todd Mason said...

Kinneret--Thanks. I wonder to what extent the greater measures to prosecute sex crimes and to report them in Sweden is simply gathering up more information than was available previously...I know Japan has traditionally had low reported rates of assault, but part of the key there, I've gathered from Japanese and visitors' accounts, is Reported.

Jack--he might well be my favorite, as with Simon. Thanks.

Ruth, thanks, and thanks for all the work on the blogathon. Well, often the Oscar doesn't mean too much, though as one gets further away from the money-making awards, things often do get to be a little more just. I suspect that Bergman's various troubles with this film, including the CAHIERS folks and Swedish critics turning on him, did more than a little to sour his memory of it, and while its resonances are strong, it is a simpler film than most of his.

Sergio--the version of MONIKA/SUMMER With MONIKA I saw was basically the only disappointing Bergman film I can recall, so I do need to see it again. Certainly the films around it and definitely those that followed have been one excellent to brilliant work after another.

Kristina, thank you, and for your work on the blogathon as well.

Sam, thanks! I think I like the film more than you do, but it's not my favorite of his films...HOUR OF THE WOLF and PERSONA are still strong contenders there, along with WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE MAGIC FLUTE.

Well, Kelly, it's both a large and small world of film blogging...thanks! I'm surprised that as a horror film person, you hadn't run across it as the inspiration for the poor and much too generously overrated LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT...or its remake...

Prashant--well, the link at the end of the review is to the whole movie, if it's visible in India...I can certainly recommend it...and use the CC menu to put on English subtitles...


What a great post! I could see a bit of Kurosawa's influence in Bergman during this film, and indeed The Virgin Spring is a fantastic portrait of Medieval life (and, well, it convinced me I could never have lived back then...). I loved how you analyzed the themes and influences!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Le...I'll check yours out.