Written by: John White on April 16th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: Sweden, 1960
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson
DVD released: January 24th, 2006
Approximate running time: 89 mins
Aspect Ratio: 4:3 Full Frame
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono Swedish
DVD Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95
Synopsis: Karin is the spoilt only daughter of the very Christian Tore and Mereta. She is prepared to go to Church carrying candles as the May virgin. She goes with servant girl, Ingeri, who is heavily pregnant and shunned by all because of her lack of a husband. Ingeri resents Karin and prays to Odin that Karin is taught a lesson that makes her less pious. Karin is waylaid and tricked by three thieves and is raped then murdered. Ingeri sees it all but by the time she returns to Tore’s home the three thieves have been given shelter and tried to sell the clothes they stole from Karin. Tore hears Ingeri’s account and takes vengeance for his daughter including killing the defenseless child thief. The household recovers Karin’s body and Tore pledges to build a Church on the spot.
Set in medieval times when Christianity was challenging Paganism as the dominant belief, the Virgin Spring is a tale of beliefs tested by humanity. The external piety of Tore’s household is ostentatious but when his child is killed this does not stop him from bloody revenge including the murder of a child. The Virgin Spring marked the first pairing of Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman and the beginning of Bergman’s films seeking a more naturalistic look rather than the more theatrical work of Gunnar Fisher.
The Virgin Spring consciously contrasts the blond spoilt Christian Karin with the dark misbegotten Pagan Ingeri. Whilst Karin gets to lie in and ride in beautiful robes, Ingeri wears sackcloth and is forced to work for her living despite being heavily pregnant. Ingeri is shunned and Karin is adored. Karin shows off and is naively trusting whilst Ingeri is vindictive and ignored. Ingeri’s hatred of Karin leads to her death when the urges of the thieves bring the natural world’s dangers chillingly home to Karin as Ingeri hoped.
This central contrast is also emphasized by the use of crude religious images of Christ and the use of sunlight. And indeed in the anger felt by the devoutly religious Tore. This beloved Patriarch who takes his daughter’s murderers under his own roof as an act of charity becomes their executioner in a bloody and chilling rampage ending with the young boy being picked up and thrown at a wall. Tore’s anguish at the end is expressed first at disbelief to a God who let these events happen and then to a redemption based on building a Church on the site of his daughter’s murder. Bergman even allows this final act to be greeted by a baptism of sorts in the sudden springing of a stream for Ingeri to wash in. But this Baptism is superstition rather than validated belief as both the Pagan Ingeri and the Christian Mereta see the same meaning in this moment.
Von Sydow has never been better than in this film. His benevolent Patriarch becomes an angel of death simply because of this one act of barbarism and his regret for his revenge is real. The rest of the cast are fine, especially Lindblom as Ingeri. Virgin Spring carries the cross of inspiring many films on the subject of revenge but all that followed can not hold a candle to this masterpiece. This is a must watch.
Criterion present Virgin Spring in 1.33:1 which looks about right given the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The print here has been restored and is a high definition transfer. It is quite excellent and universally sharp throughout. The sound is brilliant in interior or exterior scenes and the English Subtitles are perfect. The sound also comes with an English dub.
The extras here are plentiful with the film getting an introduction from Ang Lee, interviews with the actresses playing Karin and Ingeri, and an audio commentary from a Bergman scholar. Best of all is a talk by Bergman at the AFI which is in English and deals with what he thinks films are for and the differences with Theatre. The disc also comes with an excellent booklet featuring the thoughts of Ulla Issakson who wrote the film, the original ballad that the film is based on and Bergman’s letter to censors about the rape scene.
Criterion so rarely fail with their DVD releases that it almost goes without noticing when they etch up another success like this excellent presentation. This is a must buy for Bergman films.