Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) is a graphic telling of a 14th-century Swedish ballad. As do many Bergman films, this one revolves around the issue of faith. This film has long periods of silence and long-held shots. To say that the acting is powerful would be an understatement. Töre is played by Max von Sydow, who often appears to stand-in for Bergman himself.
(Warning: this post gives every spoiler away. Do not read it if you want to be 'surprised' by the plot of the movie. I do not find the story as interesting as Bergman's telling of it, so I give away the whole story here.)
The story is set in medieval
Karin and Ingeri set off, and a few encounters and a brief conversation finally reveal the source of Ingeri’s anger: Karin is a beloved blond maiden who talked and danced the previous night with the man who impregnated (and abandoned) Ingeri. When Ingeri taunts Karin, “You won’t be able to say no when a man wants you…What would you do if a man decided to take you in the fields?” Karin lifts her chin high and says, “That will not happen. I would rather be killed.” Spying a cawing raven, looking over the darkness of the approaching forest, and noticing the pagan talismans of the man who helps Karin across the river, Ingeri does not continue on their journey, eventually running away into the forest separately.
Now alone, Karin meets two herdsmen and a young boy. As she is late to the Church and has already missed matins, she offers to share her food with them, and the four enjoy a repast in a clearing. When she recognizes their sheep as stolen, Karin begins to flee, only to be captured and brutally raped by both men as both the boy and Ingeri - from a distance with rock in hand - watch. (Warning: this is one of the most graphic portrayals of rape in film – the story inspired Wes Craven’s horror movie The Last House on the Left.) Karin gets up, stumbling, only to be hit on the head by a staff and killed by one of the men. Quickly they undress her, take her clothes, rummage through the rest of her stuff, throwing the candles for the Virgin upon the ground, and run off, telling the young boy to stay there. Looking at her lifeless, mostly naked body, he throws some dirt on her as Ingeri continues to watch.
Eventually, the three make their way to a house: Töre stands in the door like a totem, looking for his daughter as the sun is falling. Not knowing who they are, he feeds his guests, offers them a place to spend the night, and suggests that he may have work for them on his farm. Later that night, Märeta is awoken by the boy’s screams and goes to check on them. One of the men offers her Karin’s bloodstained finery – he hopes to sell it to her. She presents it to her husband. He walks outside where he meets Ingeri, who tells him all about his guests’ actions, and confesses that, motivated by jealousy, she did nothing while Karin was raped and killed. He tells her to prepare a hot bath, and in one of the most striking visual scenes of the movie, wrestles against a lone, young birch tree on a hill, trying to bring it down. He beats himself with its branches, dons a leather cloak and pants, and with the butcher’s knife, stabs the two men to death. His wife tries to protect the boy, but he picks the boy up and flings him against the wall, killing him too.
Led by Ingeri, Töre and Märeta and their farmworkers find Karin’s body. Töre turns away, falls to his knees, opens his hands and says, “You saw it. God, You saw it. The innocent child’s death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand you. I don’t understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live.” His head and hands fall, and recognizing his own need for repentance for his blood-stained acts, he says, “I will build a Church for You here.” He and his wife go to move their daughter’s body, and from where her head was suddenly flows a spring of water. Ingeri gathers this water in her hands and pours it over her face, a symbolic baptism.
Early in the film, one of the servants chides baby chicks for nearly being trampled underfoot, telling them, “God could trample them to death. So you poor thing, live your wretched life the way God allows all of us to live.” Indeed, all life belonging to God is one of the central tenets of this film. How could God allow a middle-aged couple to be robbed of their only remaining biological child? How could God allow this brutality to be visited upon a woman, much less a maiden bringing candles for His own Mother? How can these human beings – the herdsmen and Töre – engage in such evil acts, and how could others – the boy and Ingeri – just crouch and watch? How does one keep faith in the face of such acts? Bergman’s answer, through Töre, is simple yet complex: “I know no other way to live.” The cynic can say, "well, he just needs to find atheism" (and Bergman did find agnosticism). But the son of a Lutheran pastor would have well known Psalm 139:
O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?