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From The Vaults: 'The Virgin Spring' (1960)

April 5, 2010 |  5:03 am

Virginspring This continues to be the only Ingmar Bergman movie I have seen... I have a slew of them in my Netflix queue, but this one got prioritized mainly because it was the basis for Wes Craven's 1972 classic, “Last House on the Left.”

Bergman's film, in turn, claims a 13th century ballad as its source, and it scans like a ballad itself or a medieval pageant. Everything is very ponderous and slow-moving, but as inexorable as a forest fire. The Middle Ages characters look like walking statues or paintings, but the human cost of every action is shown in relentless close-up. It's not just pretty pictures Bergman's making here (although of course the sharp blacks and whites are very beautiful). This is raw stuff.

The premise was adapted pretty faithfully for “Last House”: Killers take shelter, unwittingly, in the home of their victim's parents; when the parents find out, they roll up their sleeves and get vengeful. The victim here is Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), the pampered daughter of a farm family. She's beautiful and charming and has always been able to get what she wants out of doting parents Tore (Max von Sydow) and Mareta (Birgitta Valberg). Family tragedy is hinted at; Mareta sighs “She's the only child I have left”; but it's never fleshed out.

Also in the family is a foster daughter, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom): hugely pregnant and up at dawn doing chores while the virginal Karin sleeps in. Ingeri constantly hears how lucky she is that they haven't thrown her out in her disgraceful condition, and she watches resentfully as Karin is petted and fussed over. Dark-haired where Karin is blonde, praying for aid to Odin in a pious Christian household, she's Karin's opposite and nemesis.

It's Ingeri's wrath that sets the movie in motion: in the very first scene, she leans over a kindling fire and blows, igniting it into flame. Packing Karin's lunch for her fateful ride through the woods, she hollows out a piece of bread and hides a live toad inside. You don't know if it's just plain nastiness or some kind of spell. But then she encounters a creepy pagan bridge-keeper – a fellow worshiper? Odin himself? Something worse? -- who claims to recognize her and hisses “I'll help you.” Suddenly realizing she might have actually unleashed something, Ingeri races in terror after Karin, catching up only in time to witness Karin's rape and murder.

The rape scene is notorious -- it got the movie banned in Texas for a while, apparently -- and deservedly so. Just waiting for it is excruciating. Karin strikes up a conversation with three goatherds in the forest and the scene goes shade by shade from pastoral to vicious, as she slowly realizes there's something creepy about these guys, and that they're all alone in the woods. There's a wonderful moment when she offers a piece of bread to the youngest, who's just a kid, and Ingeri's toad hops out; all four of them just stand there staring at it, visibly thinking “What is THAT?”

It's the turning point: suddenly a novel situation has become completely alien and dangerous. Karin tries to leave, but then the two adult goatherds are just on her, and the camera never moves until they're finished. It's such a violation: you've watched her get dressed, and seen how lovingly her mother helped her get ready and how proud she was of her clothes and her white stockings. After killing her -- one of the herdsman deals her a lethal clubbing to the head, almost as an afterthought -- they strip off her bloody but still valuable clothes and pack them up. This is a mistake.

The goatherds have knocked on Tore and Mareta's door, not knowing it's Karin's farm, asking for shelter, and they've been given space to bed down in the kitchen.

Mareta seems to find something odd about these three, but she lingers over the little boy, her hand resting on his cheek as he curls up to sleep; again, you wonder about another child she might have lost. As she turns to say good night, one of the goatherds stops her and tells her they'd like her to have their dead sister's dress, and hand her Karin's embroidered shift. Mareta never looks up as she gathers the garment into her arms and gazes down at it while the goatherd talks, her expression never changing, but cradling the dress almost as if it were Karin herself; she looks like Mary in a Pieta.

At last she raises her head and you see her face, and it's like she's aged 10 years; in a hollow voice she calmly tells the goatherd that she needs to consult with her husband; and then she turns and slowly  leaves the room, shoulders hunched, head down. She keeps it together until she's outside with the door closed, and then she collapses in grief.

Whatever your feelings on revenge, you have to admit the parents react to this situation with remarkable Virginspring2 practicality and swiftness of thought. Mareta cuts her agony short to get up and lock the goatherds in, and then explains the situation to Tore with brisk economy, tossing him the dress: “It's Karin's. There's blood on it.”

Tore immediately gets up and starts putting on his shoes; he interviews an eyewitness (penitent Ingeri), fetches a large knife and goes to work. If Ingeri powers the first half of the film, Tore runs the second half. From now on it's Von Sydow's show, and his revenge scene is as unsparing as the rape scene.

The movie's come under a lot of criticism for its pat Christian ending, and Bergman apparently later dismissed the film, calling it an “aberration.” Tore and Mareta find Karin's body, Tore angrily asks God how this could have been allowed to happen, and a miraculous spring appears from under Karin's head, in which Ingeri reverently washes herself.

That's how it ends: it's straight off a stained-glass window. It doesn't come across to me though as particularly Christian. Tore's anguished questions remain unanswered, and the elemental spring of water seems more pagan than anything (why else would Ingeri be so happy?). I think the message is just that violence is an elemental force, as challenging to control as water or fire, and vengeance doesn't accomplish anything -- as the “Last House” theme song goes, “The road leads to nowhere.” In this movie, the monsters are us, and we are scary.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images courtesy Svensk Filmindustri: Top, Karin makes some not-so-nice friends; below, Tore contemplates the blood on his hands as Mareta looks on.