Friday, October 1, 2010

The Virgin Spring (1960)

I've had little success introducing friends to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. Among the great directors, he is one of the harder sells. For one thing, many of his films seem to embody a distinct sixties European art cinema aesthetic. They move slowly--ahem, I mean, deliberately. Audience-aiding exposition is minimal. Characters swing from frigidity to viciousness and back again. Warmth is rare. Humor is nearly nonexistent. Despair is all consuming. The director's most famous obsession is the silence of god.

So, okay, Bergman doesn't make for swinging Saturday night. His success in American art cinemas in the sixties, let's be honest, owed a lot to his willingness to show sex and nudity onscreen. Since the world has long since rendered most of his films tame in this respect (except for perhaps The Silence) even these minor titillations have been muted. What you are left with are the films themselves.

And, God, what films they are! The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Scenes from a Marriage, and
his only film with that other famous Swedish Bergman, Ingrid, Autumn Sonata.
I think my favorite among his works might be The Virgin Spring, Bergman's beautiful production of Ulla Isaksson's adaption of the medieval ballad "Tore's Daughter at Vange". Isaksson's script sticks close to the original folktale about a young girl who is raped and murdered on her way to church by two herdsman (accompanied by a young boy). The killers steal her garments and later down the road make the mistake of trying to sell them to her parents. The dead girl's father kills the men, but when he also murders the boy in a rage he recognizes his sin and repents. (The set-up may sound familiar to viewers of The Last House on The Left which ripped off the basic set-up and chucked all that fuddy-duddy stuff about guilt, sin and redemption--in other words, everything that matters)

The most distinctive aspect of Bergman's work is his tone, a fascinating (and potentially alienating) mixture of surface-cool and below-the -surface torment. In The Virgin Spring, like so much of his best work, we are shown rage and lust and terror through the director's cold, unblinking eyes. The girl's parents exist in a marriage of mutual animosity. Their foster child, the pregnant, pagan bad girl Ingeri prays for her virginal sister's death. The one ray of light in the film is the girl herself, Karin (played by the luminous Birgitta Valberg) and she's raped and murdered. The emotional landscape of the film is a tundra overlying a volcano.

Bergman's gaze renders it all so powerfully. This was his first movie shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and together they created one the best looking films I've ever seen. In night scenes, pale faces are etched out of sheer blackness--while during the day, sunlight sits cool and soft on skin. Nykvist was as much a master of light as film noir legend John Alton, and he was the prefect collaborator for Bergman. The story is a parable, a mix of the real and unreal, and the photography captures this quality perfectly. It has the hard beauty of sculpted light.

Acting in this kind of environment is tricky. At the the center of the Bergman oeuvre stands the tall, reedy figure of Max von Sydow, star of so many of the director's best films. With his ascetic face and cavernous voice, von Sydow was to Bergman as Wayne was to Ford and Mifune was to Kurosawa--the perfect walking representation of the director's worldview. Want to know what Bergman thought of life, look into von Sydow's sad blue eyes. In The Virgin Spring, he plays a man robbed of everything but his own sense of guilt. Like Job he questions God, implicates God in the murder of his child, but is forced to admit that he has nothing else to hold onto.

The last scene (changed from the ballad) contains the emergence of the magical spring of the title. After von Sydow has repented of his killings and pledged his devotion to God, a cleansing spring breaks forth under the body of his murdered daughter. It's a miracle. Very few filmmakers could pull off this kind of moment (and since so few filmmakers are seriously interested in matters of faith, it's difficult to believe that most would even try). Bergman, his cast and crew, and his screenwriter, earn the moment with an almost brutal lack of sentimentality. Ingmar Bergman is well aware of three things here: 1) girls really are raped and murdered in this harsh, cold world; 2) miracles such as the pure spring do not happen; and 3) humanity invented stories of the miracles as a way to hold on. It takes an artist as despairing as Bergman to sell us on the idea of a miracle.


Like many of Bergman's works, The Virgin Spring is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection. It's the one to get.


Paul D Brazill said...

That's the only Bergman film that I actually really like, although I The Seventh Seal is fine.

Walker Martin said...

I like "The Virgin Spring" also. I first discovered Bergman when I was a teenager around 1960 and I now have almost all his films on dvd. Hard to pick a favorite since I love his work but I certainly like "Wild Strawberries" and "The Magician" alot.