Max Von Sydow tears down a tree with his bare hands as a prelude to commit murder.
In Medieval Sweden, Per Töre (Max von Sydow) was a very prosperous Christian. His wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) is extremely pious, to the point of burning herself with candles as a form of mortification of the flesh. Their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is less dedicated to the faith, often staying out with boys at dances and sleeping through morning prayers (yes, this movie is set in the 1200s, not the 1950s). She loves her father very much, and he loves her, but she is colder with her mother, who is seen seeking her affection. Karin is sent on an errand to take candles to the local church, because only a virgin is supposed to deliver them. She is accompanied by Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), the family’s servant. Ingeri has recently become pregnant out of wedlock and is seen praying to Odin secretly.
As the two ride towards the church, they have a conversation about sexuality, in which Karin says she’ll be a virgin until marriage. Ingeri asks what she’ll do if a man tries to force her, and Karin says she’ll fight him off. They get to a river mill and Ingeri insists they turn back, panicking. She waits at the mill while Karin goes forward and the one-eyed mill keeper (Axel Slangus), who appears to be Odin, tells her he knows things others can’t. He offers her cures for her problems and powers in exchange for sexual favors, but she runs away. Eventually, Ingeri catches up with Karin, who has met two herdsmen (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal) and a boy (Ove Porath). Karin invites the three to share her lunch, but after a bit the two older herdsmen rape her, then kill her to stop her crying. They leave the boy with the body, and he tries to bury it, but stops and chases after the men.
The three then end up asking to spend the night at Per Töre’s house. He allows them in and feeds them, but one of them ends up trying to sell Märeta Karin’s clothing. She waits for them to fall asleep and locks them in the dining room before telling her husband what she suspects. Ingeri returns to the house and reveals what she had seen, confessing that she had done nothing to intervene because she secretly was jealous of Karin. Enraged, Per Töre goes outside to tear down a birch tree, breaking off branches to use to clean himself. After he has cleansed himself, he orders Ingeri to give him a butcher’s knife. He then stabs one of the men to death, burns the other one alive in the fire, and kills the boy by throwing him against the wall. Only afterwards does he regret killing the boy. Ingeri leads the household to where Karin’s body remains. Per Töre breaks down, asking God why this happened and vowing to build a church on the site in Karin’s memory. When he lifts her body up, a spring emerges from the ground.
This category was “Foreign Film You Meant to Watch but Never Did.” There weren’t a ton of these because, for the most part, all the foreign films I have wanted to see have made it to streaming somewhere at some point, so I’ve watched them. I’ve seen pretty much all of Kurosawa’s movies, Godard’s movies, Fritz Lang’s movies, and Fellini’s movies, so I’ve gotten through most of the critic’s choices. But, despite the fact that I’ve always been a fan of Ingmar Bergman, including putting The Seventh Seal as one of my favorite movies, I never watched this one before. I knew it was influential, and I’ve seen The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s film that was inspired by this one, but I’d never seen The Virgin Spring before. So, now was the time. Got to say, it’s a really good movie, albeit not what I was expecting.
For starters, I’d heard in a class once that this film was subject to censorship when the rape scene was brought to the US. Naturally, I expected it to be graphic. However, it wasn’t particularly graphic compared to, say, Game of Thrones, but it was disturbingly effective. It’s very brief and not overly explicit, but the performance by Birgitta Pettersson combined with the stark focus on her attempts to fight them off and the lack of ambient sound at the time make you really feel how horrible the experience is. Similarly, the murder is mostly offscreen and consists of one of the men hitting Karin with a branch, but the way the scene plays out makes it seem so much more real and therefore so much more impactful. It really stands out compared to The Last House on the Left, which went much more over-the-top with the violence in both acts. I think it’s a sign that Bergman wanted you to feel what happened through empathy, rather than shock value.
Similarly, when Per Töre goes on his revenge spree, despite the methods, the shots are relatively bloodless. He stabs a man, but we don’t see any kind of heavy blood spurting. Similarly, while we see Per Töre lay on top of the other man as the man is, presumably, being burned alive, we don’t see any kind of burns appear or anything that actually physically suggests that he is being harmed. I think this is because those things would distract the audience from the people involved. Instead, we are mostly facing Per Töre, seeing that, in addition to rage, he is experiencing some level of joy in killing these men. That kind of satisfaction and mindless anger continues until after he kills the boy, at which point, Per Töre is finally able to realize what he’s done. It’s more about us following the journey of this man’s anger and his guilt over what he has done than us enjoying his violence. I almost feel like this is surprising, because the “gearing up” scene includes Per Töre tearing down a tree with his best hand, smacking his naked body with branches, and sitting in a chair with a skull-inlaid butcher knife overlooking the three before he moves to kill them. It’s like Bergman wanted us to feel ready for what was coming, but instead we focus on the man rather than the acts, so that we understand when he regrets killing the boy right afterwards.
Guilt and regret are two of the biggest themes of the movie. Per Töre regrets killing the boy, his wife regrets not being closer with Karin, both of them regret sending her to the church, and Ingeri regrets not throwing a rock to try and stop the rape and being jealous of Karin. The boy also clearly regrets not stopping the two older men, as well as his inability to give the girl a proper burial. At the end of the film, the spring allows Ingeri to start to wash away her guilt, as it allows Karin’s parents to try and wash away her shame and their regret.
The film’s plot is apparently based on a 13th Century ballad. In it, Per Töre’s three (or seven, in some versions) daughters are riding to the church and are accosted and killed by highwaymen. That night, the highwaymen stay with Per Töre, who discovers what they did, then murders two of them. When he asks the third where they came from, only to find out they were his three sons that he had sent away when they were young, meaning he brought this fate upon his daughters when he forsook his sons. He vows to build a church where the three girls died, where three springs burst forth. So, even from the beginning, part of the story always included regret.
Bergman’s style often resembles recording a play more than making a movie, but his cinematographer Sven Nykvist typically managed to balance that out by giving shots an extra ethereal element or a stark, realistic look depending on what the scene calls for. The performances in the film are excellent, particularly Max von Sydow. Most of the people in the movie worked with Bergman on multiple occasions, so he clearly knew their ranges and adapted accordingly.
Overall, this is a great movie, but it is not a pleasant one. Glad I saw it, though.
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