[WARNING: THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES SEVERAL MAJOR PLOT POINTS]
"The Virgin Spring" (1960) is one of Ingmar Bergman's more tolerable Christian allegories, in large part because it is also one of his most economical.
Clocking in at a crisp 89 minutes, "The Virgin Spring," based on a medieval ballad, is a simple tale set in 14th century Sweden, a country beginning the transition from paganism to Christianity. Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) is the beloved youngest daughter of faithful Christians Töre (Max von Sydow) and Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). In fact she's downright spoiled, but she's so sweet and innocent (Karin is the virgin of the title) that it's easy to understand why her parents dote on her so much.
Karin is charged with carrying the candles to the local church, a task only a virgin can be entrusted with. Bergman works hard to remind us of how innocent Karin is: she rides side-saddle like a proper lady, wears a delicately embroidered white dress, and is often filmed against the sky with the sun highlighting her delicate features. Unfortunately, Karin's innocence is the sort that borders on simple-mindedness. She meets three herdsmen (two older men and one young boy) along the way: they are classic medieval villains, troll-like with their missing teeth, tattered clothes, and dirty faces: one has even had his tongue cut out. None of this alarms Karen who stops to have lunch with them, and doesn't realize she is in danger until it is too late. The two older men brutally rape and murder her. Though the scene is not explicit, it sparked significant controversy at the time and was even censored in some American venues.
Thus ends the first half of the film. The second half begins sometime shortly afterwards as the three herdsmen, by coincidence (or perhaps by God's plan), seek shelter at Töre's farm. He and his wife are in mourning because Karin has not returned home for some time now, but he is also a good Christian so he gives them shelter. The boy has been so traumatized by his brothers' hideous crime that he can't even keep down his food when he dines with Töre's family. His older brothers later try to hush him up, but the noise attracts the family's attention. Soon the nature of their crime comes to light and Töre reverts to his pagan roots, enacting a terrible revenge that claims both the innocent and the guilty.
"The Virgin Spring" is hardly subtle with its caricatured villains and heavy-handed religious message (it was even heavy-handed enough to win an Oscar). The most muddled part of the story is the false dichotomy between cruel paganism and forgiving Christianity. After Töre goes old-school on everyone, he feels he needs to atone for his sins as a good Christian, but it is difficult to see how the Christian God of the Bible is any less vengeful than Odin or Thor. Bad Töre = pagan: Good Töre = Christian. I don't buy it. The Vikings did plenty of raping and pillaging, but the Crusaders were nobody's idea of a Boy Scout troop either.
The title refers to a miracle which marks the film's climactic ending and, like most miracles, it is a total rip-off. When Töre finally locates Karin's body, he picks her up and a spring wells forth from where her head rested. This is supposed to symbolize God's forgiveness of Töre's vengeance but considering that there's a stream flowing just a few feet away, this isn't exactly fishes and loaves we're talking about. Besides, if all my new God can do is swap me a geyser of muddy water for my dead daughter, I'd be thinking seriously about going back to my old deities who at least knew how to get things done.
"The Virgin Spring" is most notable as the first full-fledged collaboration between Bergman and legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Nykvist brings a rich, luminous and more naturalistic look to Bergman's work, a look that would soon come to be considered the Swedish master's trademark. Over the next thirty years, Bergman and Nykvist formed perhaps the most fruitful partnership between director and cinematographer in film history. As difficult as it is to imagine Bergman without Nykvist, it is still worth noting that several of Bergman's film with Gunnar Fischer are among his most famous, especially "Wild Strawberries" (1957) and "The Seventh Seal" (1957).
"The Virgin Spring" still offers many of the features that make Bergman's films so enduring. It is a beautiful film filled with memorable images, particularly a series of shots as a grim-faced Töre prepares his ritualistic revenge. Von Sydow is as magnetic a presence as he was in "The Seventh Seal" with that elongated face and multi-tiered skull unlike any other I have seen on screen. "The Virgin Spring" is a pleasure simply to look at. Viewers who are less skeptical of the story's content than I am will doubtless enjoy the film much more than I did.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. According to other reviews as well as the information in the booklet, thin black bars may appear to the left and right of the image. However, some DVD players adjust for this by zooming in and mine is one of them so I can't judge how distracting the bars might be. The image quality is up to Criterion's usual standards: crisp with just the right light/dark contrast to preserve the beauty of Nykvist's black and white photography.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The film can be watched in the original Swedish with English subtitles or in an English dub. Needless to say, the Swedish-language version is vastly preferable. Some might argue that giving consumers a choice is always best, but not in a case like this when the English dub is simply a bastardized version of the original film.
An Introduction by Ang Lee (7 min.) allows the "Brokeback Mountain" director to explain why this film has been a major influence on him: this introduction reveals major plot points.
Interviews with actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson (20 min.) were recorded in Stockholm in August 2005 specifically for the Criterion release.
Rounding out the extras is an audio interview with Ingmar Bergman (40 min.) recorded on Oct 31, 1975 at the AFI in Los Angeles.
As usual, Criterion includes a substantial insert booklet, but this one is better than most. An excellent essay by Peter Cowie kicks things off and is augmented by an essay by screenwriter Ulla Isaksson as well as the original ballad ("Töre's Daughter at Vänge") on which the film was based.
Also I would like to add my appreciation for the fact that Criterion DVDs go directly to the menu when you insert them in your player: no trailers, no warnings, no nonsense. Just right to the menu. It's quite a relief from some of the garbage we're forced to endure on other releases. Those forced trailers on some DVDs are irritating enough the first time around, positively infuriating on repeat viewings.
I have to admit that I have never been the biggest Bergman fan. I enjoy "The Seventh Seal" and "Persona" (1966) greatly, but too often I find his films to be ponderous and overloaded with self-conscious symbolism. This is heresy in some circles, of course, but I've got to be honest. Bergman is one of the canonized masters for a very good reason, but we should never consider the canon inviolable. After all, cinema is barely a century old. In a hundred years, maybe people look back at the crazy film critics today and wonder how they could have ever admired filmmakers like Bergman or Fellini when great masters like Joel Schumacher and Michael Bay were in their most fertile creative periods. Hey, you never know!