Many younger people have only heard of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) through Wes Craven's 1972 cult horror classic Last House on the Left, in which a murdered girl's parents wreak unbelievable havoc on the killers. Craven basically plundered Bergman's plot line (leaving out the religious overtones) and modernized the story in Technicolor, adding much more blood, chainsaws, and large doses of humor. Face it—there're not many laughs in an Ingmar Bergman film, which often somberly ponder Life's biggest questions. Faith issues abound in The Virgin Spring, yet this film can serve as an excellent introduction to the great Swedish director. I used it often in high school classes as such and was amazed how well they maintained attention through Bergman's long expressive close-ups. Granted, some of this was due to anticipation of the eventual rape scene and watching Max Von Sydow go berserk, but a number of students actually sought out additional Bergman films. So this is one I highly recommend for starters.
Bathed in symbolic shadows and light, The Virgin Spring lyrically translates religious ideas about sin and redemption into a visual tone poem. Based on a 14th century legend, the film opens inside a darkened farmhouse where a very pregnant and unwed Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) ritualistically performs her morning duties of preparing the fire and opening a small roof door. When the stream of light comes in, the pagan girl invokes, "God...Odin...come!" in a tone of obvious jealousy. The camera then switches to the Christian landowners Töre (Max von Sydow) and Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), who are earnestly praying before a crucifix to deliver them from temptation and from the "chokehold" of the Devil.
Household servant Frida (Gudrun Brost) then darkly foreshadows doom (also a traditional Norse attitude) as she releases some new baby chicks:
"God could trample them to death. So you poor thing, live your wretched little life the way God allows all of us to live."
Frida chides pagan Ingeri for her ingratitude and orders her to prepare the morning milk and lunch for the landowner's teen daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is to deliver the Virgin Mary candles to church on this Good Friday. Ingeri envies Karin and prepares a special sandwich that can be interpreted as either a practical joke or an evil omen.
Notably absent from breakfast, Karin remains asleep after a late night village dance, giving her mother and father opportunity to criticize each other. Märeta claims Töre is too concerned about "duty and honor," while he says she is "too soft and weak" when it comes to their one surviving daughter. Eventually the indulgent mother allows Karin to wear the fancy yellow silk chemise and skirt fashioned by fifteen virgins, so her procrastinating daughter will ride through the forest, accompanied by Ingeri. Naturally, the forest is dark and includes a squawking raven (an ominous Norse omen of Death) before Karin's encounter with a trio of lascivious goatherders leads to the crux of the simple plot.
Although the story plays straightforwardly, greater enjoyment comes through pondering the meanings behind Bergman's symbolic tapestry. Light and shadow are two that leap readily to mind—obvious contrasts are made between pagan Ingeri and Christian Karin. Dark-haired Ingeri continually lingers in the dark, while blonde Karin's scenes are bathed in sunlight. Even when together on the sunlit path, Ingeri fades more into the background as Karin leads the way. Poor Ingiri is doomed to perpetual darkness until confessing her guilt—her sincere remorse for her envy contributes to the collective enlightenment of the household, which is blessed with a symbolic baptism and spiritual rebirth.
Ingiri is only the most obviously changed soul. Both Märeta and Töre suffer well beyond the loss of their daughter; their guilt derives from basic envy and revenge, and their faith is severely tested. How can God allow such senseless evil acts to occur? It's a question that continues to be asked in the wake of every tragedy, and all Töre can do is look at his own guilt-ridden hands and seek his own redemption. Just gazing at Max von Sydow's expressive body language and face can put the viewer a little closer to the Almighty (if you think this preposterous, consider how many regard Charlton Heston as Moses)! Although the spiritual questions also come across fairly simply, enough ambiguity is left for further discussion and multiple viewing.
Another reason to re-watch The Virgin Spring is for the exquisite camerawork. Besides those opening shots that beautifully contrast light and shadow, two other indelible images remain firmly in memory—and both involve von Sydow: when he manually wrestles the small birch tree to the ground, and the following sequence in the sauna as he whips himself to prepare for administering "justice." No other director risks leaving the camera in close-up for so long on his actor's faces, but that also takes supreme acting and confidence in his concept. This is one of Bergman's best, and Wes Craven fans who haven't seen the original source material for his 1972 film should check this out; they may even discover that they don't mind black and white movies with subtitles.