Movie Discussion: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring [Jungfrukällan] (1960)

  • Monthly Theme: Classic Thrillers130114
  • The Film: The Virgin Spring
  • Country of origin: Sweden
  • Swedish title: Jungfrukällan
  • Date of Swedish release: February 8, 1960
  • Date of U.S. release: November 14, 1960
  • Studio: Svensk Filmindustri
  • Distributer: Janus Films
  • Domestic Gross: $700,000
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Producer: Allan Ekelund & Ingmar Bergman
  • Screenwriter: Ulla Isaksson
  • Adaptation?  Yes, of the 13th c. Swedish ballad “Töres döttrar I Wänge.”    
  • Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
  • Make-Up/FX: P.A. Lundgren
  • Music: Erik Nordgren
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes, the film was remade by Wes Craven in 1972 as The Last House on the Left. Craven’s film got an unofficial Italian rip-off/remake in 1975 with Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders, as well as an official remake in 2009 with Dennis Iliadis’ The Last House on the Left.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Bergman regular and Hollywood character actor Ingmar Bergman.
  • Awards?: Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards and the 1961 Golden Globes. Special Mention at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Best Foreign Film and Best Foreign Director at the 1962 Kinema Junpo Awards.
  • Tagline: n/a
  • The Lowdown: Next up, Ingmar Bergman’s medieval rape/revenge film that was later adapted by Wes Craven into The Last House on the Left in 1972. The movie concerns a young woman who is sent by her family on an errand and encounters two strange men in the forest that alter her fate forever. When, later, those same men ask for refuge in the girl’s family home, her parents must face a terrible moral choice. The movie was quite controversial on release, though it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie in-depth.

If you haven’t seen The Virgin Spring our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: Hello, Sean. “Heat up the bath, I’ll get some birch branches.” That was my favorite line of the whole movie.

Sean: So I am Ingeri in this scenario? 

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Ingeri’s thinking, “This trick is COMPLICATED.”

Kristine: The basic question of this movie is: Team Ingeri or Team Karin? I am obvs Team Ingeri/Odin.

Sean: She is the best ever.  Just the way the actress embodies her in how she moved and all her sneering and chuckling and disobedient glaring.

Kristine: Love her. Also Karin? Ugly beyond all measure. Cabbage Patch face.

Sean: Hmmmm… I’m noticing a new trend with you.

Kristine: If you are trying to insinuate that I am hating on female characters entirely because of their looks and am being a female misogynist, you are incorrect. Both Karin and Pudding Face Helen from Peeping Tom have loathsome personalities. 

Sean: That’s funny you say that, because a lot of the online writing I skimmed about The Virgin Spring reference Karin being unlikeable and I thought she was pretty sympathetic. I think one of the strengths of the movie is that the characters are somewhat rounded. No one is purely good or purely evil.

Kristine: I skimmed nothing and found her horrible until… Well, I don’t know how to say this without sounding terrible, so I will just forge ahead. I really didn’t like this movie at all and I loathed Karin utterly and cared naught for her fate, until the moment right before her awful rape and murder. I thought the scene when she and the herdsmen are still picnicking and suddenly something shifts and all four of them, at the same time, realize what is about to happen. From that moment forward, I was utterly stricken by what happens to Karin. My feelings about the movie as a whole changed at that moment.

Sean: How did they change?

Kristine: They went from being mostly bored and annoyed to being gripped by dread and horror. Though I did LOL twice in this movie: 1) The scene when Ingeri puts the frog in Karin’s popover or whatever the fuck and 2) “Heat up the bath, I’ll get some birch branches.” What did you make of the amazing Max von Sydow’s mucho macho pre-slaughter sauna/cleansing routine? 

Sean: Um…. I mean von Sydow as Töre, the patriarch in this movie, is not my favorite.

Kristine: I don’t know if I liked this movie, but I do like Max von Sydow a lot.

Sean: I want to know why you didn’t like the movie. Why didn’t you like the movie?

Kristine: It starts off with a title card that reads, “Adapted from a 13th Century Ballad”. That did not inspire confidence in me. I am pretty sure I let out an audible groan and a very audible fart when I saw that. As a general rule, I do not enjoy media that is set in, like, feudal times. Just no. 

Sean: What about Onibaba? Oh, but I guess you were lukewarm on that one, too…

Kristine: Interesting you should bring that up. Onibaba had some good qualities, but also a lot of the qualities I hate about setting things in a medieval era – people in drab clothing drudging about, eking out their miserable existences, plus lots of fear and superstition about God. I actually thought of Onibaba within the first five minutes of The Virgin Spring, when we meet Ingeri and she is being all surly and is forced to slave away on the farm. She immediately reminded me of Young Woman from Onibaba, a comparison that continued to resonate with me as we learn that Ingeri possesses a real sexuality that has gotten her into trouble.

Sean: Yes, I think the two movies make pretty good companion pieces. But let me get this straight – once the rape/murder of Karin happened, you liked the movie from there on out? 

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Suddenly, the Easter egg hunt turned dark…

Kristine: I wouldn’t say that, but I became engaged. And I was stricken by Karin’s fate. She went from being an annoying twit that I didn’t care about one iota to, like, a super heart-wrenching figure I wanted so badly to save. After the rape/assault, when she is staggering around, wailing? She is so unable to process what has happened to her, it doesn’t even occur to her that her attackers are still right there and thus she is still in danger. And then when the young boy throws dirt all over her dead body? I was shaken to the core. And by the way, that sequence reminded me powerfully of another movie that I think would be fascinating to think about in relation to this one – River’s Edge, wherein a small group of teenagers discover that one of their own has murdered his girlfriend and they, knowingly, leave her naked body there by the edge of the water for days without telling anyone or doing anything about it. However, even though I felt moved and compelled by The Virgin Spring from that point on, I don’t know if that means I entered the arena of “liking” this movie. Why, what do you think of it?

Sean: I love it. It’s my favorite Bergman movie that I’ve seen (or at least tied with Cries and Whispers). Granted, I haven’t seen some of his movies that are considered classics – namely Persona and The Seventh Seal – but of all the stuff I’ve seen (about 8 or 9 movies total) I admire The Virgin Spring the most.

Kristine: Wow. Tell me why.

Sean: I also love Onibaba, so I could just have a taste for these bleak, mythic old movies that double as morality tales. But, first off – did you know that this was remade into an infamous 1972 grindhouse movie called The Last House on the Left

Kristine: I had heard of The Last House on the Left and knew that it followed a basic revenge plot, but I had no idea what the particulars were or that is was connected to The Virgin Spring in any way.

Sean: The Virgin Spring just has this weird place in cinema because it’s this 1960s art film by one of cinema’s “great masters,” but it also spawned a 1970s grindhouse “classic.” And The Last House on the Left is important to horror/shocksploitation cinema because (1) it was the first movie made by Wes Craven, so it launched his career and (2) it kicked off a whole cycle of ultraviolent rape/revenge movies in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s that were usually pretty exploitative and controversial. The apex of the genre is probably 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, though 1981’s Ms. 45 and 1974’s Thriller – A Cruel Picture (which is, weirdly enough, a Swedish exploitation movie) are also beloved and oft-cited examples of the subgenre.

Kristine: Right…

Sean: They also remade Last House on the Left in 2009 – so The Virgin Spring has had a long life and impact, if you think about it.

Kristine: Wasn’t the 2000s remake like, really awful? 

Sean: Oh, its pretty stupid and dumb. If they had reimagined it to the extent that Craven reimagined Bergman in 1972, maybe it could have been interesting. But as it is, it’s just a basic, unimaginative redoing of the Craven movie. The thing is that Craven’s movie actually spoke to something going on in the culture (the existence of a real counterculture that might have seemed very scary and threatening to mainstream America), and tapped into the paranoid “youth gone wild” subgenre that came about in the 1950s as a response to the creation of the modern American teenager. But the 2009 movie isn’t reacting to anything about what the world was like in 2009 – it’s just a cynical cash-grab. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I have nothing against remakes per se, but there are really only two reasons to do them – (1) the original has become so hopelessly dated that it no longer speaks to anything, so updating it revives the impact of the concept or (2) the historical/social context that gave power to the original has changed so much that a reimagining is in order. We’ve watched and discussed a set of films where the remake beautifully updates or revives the concept of the original movie: The 1958 version of The Fly is about the nuclear age, about our anxiety concerning scientific innovation and our paranoia about how rapid technological advancement might be affecting the foundation of our culture – the domestic sphere/nuclear family. Cronenberg’s 1986 version beautifully re-imagines the story as an AIDS-crisis-era polemic on sexual hysteria, women’s liberation, biological contagion and the disintegration of the body. Likewise, Craven’s 1972 movie is really about something, as is Bergman’s 1960 film.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 9.58.02 AM
Aryans make good kindling

Kristine: Can I ask some questions about those movies? 

Sean: Please. 

Kristine: Is the Karin/daughter character presented as an innocent virgin? Is she spoiled and naive like Karin?

Sean: Craven’s movie is about two suburban teenage girls who go to a rock ‘n roll concert in the city, but then meet this bunch of hippies/drifters and they go to smoke pot with the hippies at their apartment and it turns bad. Just like in The Virgin Spring, there is a savage, brutal gang rape scene and murder.

Kristine: Of only the one girl? The other one is a witness, like Ingeri? 

Sean: No, they both die.

Kristine: Is there an Ingeri character who hates the Karin character?

Sean: No, there’s no Ingeri, really. Both the girls play the “Karin” role, which itself was a distillation. In the original folk tale, which Bergman based The Virgin Spring on, there are three sisters who all die and three springs rise where their decapitated heads fall. So Karin was all ready an amalgamation of three women. Craven bumps it back up to two.

Kristine: Ah. Is the revenge chiefly paternal, as in The Virgin Spring? Is it all about Papa Power (copyright The Stepford Wives)?

Sean: No, the revenge exacted in The Last House on the Left is very…. equal and that’s all I’ll say. Mom and Dad are co-revengers (which leads to one of movie’s most infamous scenes). I hope we’ll get to it, eventually.

Kristine: Got it. 

Sean: It’s funny that you mentioned hating the outfits in The Virgin Spring, because this is one of the few medieval-set movies where, to me, the clothes the people are wearing don’t feel overly costumey. They feel authentic and I really feel like the world of the movie is a medieval world. That shot of Töre in his bizarre patriarch’s outfit, thumbs in his belt loops, when the three herdsmen arrive at his gate?

Kristine: Sure, compared to Witchfinder General or something. 

Sean: Yes. And just all the attention to the banal things people might have done in those times. The weird serving dishes they use and the way they don’t use utensils to eat their food… How they just dunk their crude bowls in the glop.

Kristine: Agreed, but I just can’t abide any of the aesthetics of medieval times. I hate it all. I realize that might seem very shallow, but it is not my cup of tea. And, as I said, it made me defensive against this movie from the get-go. You throw in Karin tra-la-la’ing about birdies and all the boys she danced with and… I was immediately on edge, grinding my teeth in frustration.

Sean: Well, I’m shocked to hear that from someone who was once obsessed with The Sword of Shannara.

Kristine: I thought we talked about how we were going to play nice. You are opening a door you don’t want to open, my friend.


Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 3.19.59 PM
JC Penney’s Catalog, c. 1250

Sean: You said you loved Terry Brooks once upon a time. And that you like gnomes.

Kristine: That was something I told you in confidence. Basically, you are Kirsty in Hellraiser and you have just opened The Lament Configuration.

Sean: It’s posted on the blog and has been for a year. That is not “confidence.” That is like, a public declaration. 

Kristine: Gnomes are not from the Middle Ages. They belong to all times and all lands and all people. So please shut up now. 

Sean: Well can I explain why I like the movie? And get your feedback? 

Kristine: Yes. 

Sean: Ok, first of all, I think you’d agree that this is Ingeri’s movie. Not anyone else’s. The movie opens with her. She is the character who “changes” and the movie ends with her also. I think she’s the person Bergman is most interested in, more so than Max von Sydow’s Töre. In fact, I feel like the women steal this movie and that it’s actually a real women’s movie. Ingeri, Märeta (Karin’s mother), Frida (the cook) and Karin are the four points around which everything is framed. And all four of the actresses, I think, are phenomenal, especially the woman who plays Märeta. The way she tries to meet the bandit’s eyes as she’s realizing that Karin is dead, but can’t manage it – heartbreaking and amazing. In fact, mothering and what it means to be a mother is one thing I think this movie has on its mind.

Kristine: Yes, and even though Töre carries out the killings, it is Märeta who discovers Karin’s fate, who identifies her murderers, who traps them inside the mess hall, who brings the evidence to her husband, etc. I agree that mothering is a big theme. Ingeri is pregnant, and remember that at the beginning of the movie Frida asks Ingeri what is wrong and she replies, “Nothing more than the usual – that bastards beget bastards.” To Ingeri, motherhood is a curse; even Frida says that it “serves [her] right.” While, for Märeta, motherhood was a gift and a privilege, the thing that gave her life meaning. I also read some class consciousness in that dichotomy, though – that for Ingeri the cycle of reproduction is a vicious cycle that perepetuates inequality. But then at the end, when Ingeri anoints herself with the waters of the virgin spring that bursts forth where Karin’s murdered body lay, the message seems to be that things will be different, for her future and for her child. The other significant action there is that Märeta washes Karin’s face with the same water – Ingeri and Karin are being twinned, as they are throughout the whole movie. Remember also that Märeta blames Karin’s death on herself. She tells Töre, “I loved her too much…more than God himself. When I saw how she favored you, I began to hate you. It is me God meant to punish by this. I bear the guilt.” I also thought Karin’s maternal feelings toward the youngest herdsman were interesting and significant. But if it is such a lady movie why so much emphasis on Töre cleaning himself with branches, becoming a killing machine, losing and then regaining his faith?

Sean: Well, Bergman is always interested in questions that I, personally, don’t find that compelling – What is the nature of God? What is the true cosmology of the universe? Where do we fit into it? I am not really moved by those questions. But I think the character of Töre is there to embody them. But the other thing that the movie is “about” (besides motherhood and the nature of God) is the banality of evil, and that I DO find interesting. 

Kristine: I agree with that 100%. 

Sean: The thing that makes me love both this movie and Onibaba is that they are stripped down to the bone. When most filmmakers think “medieval” or “fantasy,” they think that means layering on so much crap:  crazy costumes, fantastical creatures, ornate interiors, massive battle scenes, and all other kinds of insanity. But both The Virgin Spring and Onibaba are content to render their “mythic” qualities through minimalism. They feel mythic and timeless by paring everything down to the essence. A small bunch of characters, and the natural world – that’s it. Even the pared-down sound design makes the world feel more vivid and more gripping, rather than less so. I love how this movie is able to say so much, be about so much, and to take on the poetry of pure cinema by limiting its scope. For example, remember the speech that Simon, Töre’s farmhand, gives to the little boy in which he describes an almost Boschian vision of Hell and damnation – “You shall cross a narrow plank, so narrow you can’t find your footing, Below you roars a great river. It’s black and wants to swallow you up. But you pass over it unharmed. Before you lies a chasm, so deep you can’t see the bottom. Hands grope for you, but they can’t reach you. At last you stand before a mountain of terror. It spews fire like a furnace and a vast abyss opens at its feet. A thousand colors blaze there: copper and iron, blue vitriol and yellow sulfur. Flames dazzle and flash and lash at the rocks. And all about, men leap and writhe, small as ants, for this is the furnace that swallows up murderers and evildoers.” – that ends with salvation – “But at the very moment you think you’re doomed a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away… where evil no longer has power over you.” I found that incredibly moving and terrifying. I think that the little boy says so much without ever saying a word… I guess I just love the economy of this movie.

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Love the Bed, Bath & Beyond “Manger Straw” – so NOW

Kristine: I loved that child actor. He was terrifying when he is helping “bring down” Karin, and then heartbreaking when he is basically sitting vigil over her dead body. Yes, I found Töre’s Hell speech moving and terrifying… I think it also shows that he is a little nuts, right? I mean, who tucks in a young kid you don’t even know with that soothing bedtime story?

Sean: Töre doesn’t tell the Hell story to the boy. One of his farmhands does.

Kristine: Oh.

Sean: That’s important because Töre is the brooding patriarch. He doesn’t have a philosophical side, which the movie strains to point out. 

Kristine: Right, he is all about action – kill the bad guys, build a church with his own hands. He is not into ruminating. 

Sean: Yes, and I have a lot to say about that church…

Kristine: Can I first say that, though I respect your points, I am not all that convinced that this movie is about the ladies. I know you said you don’t find what Töre brings to the table that compelling (nor do I), but I think that Bergman finds him compelling and significant. You mentioned Frida, the cook, being one of the movie’s important characters. I didn’t pick up on her significance. Can you elaborate? 

Sean: Frida is important for the following reasons:  She is the one who is supposed to go to the church for matins, not Karin, but her leg in injured. She prepares all the food for those big dining scenes. She channels antipathy for Ingeri more than any other character. They are constructed as opposites, in tension with one another (Ingeri is, significantly, twinned with multiple characters, not just Karin, which again points to Ingeri’s significance as a character). Frida is the first one who greets the herdsmen when they enter the mess hall. At the end, she hobbles all the way to Karin’s corpse on her bum leg and the camera is very interested in showing Frida’s reaction as Karin’s parents discover, cradle and then later wash her corpse. Remember when Frida releases all the baby chicks at the beginning and gives that little speech?

Kristine: Yes, about their pathetic lives or whatever.

Sean: Frida says of the chicks, “So help me God, I nearly stepped on them out there in the dark” and then she picks up one random chick out of the dozens and addresses it: “You poor thing, live out your wretched little life, the way God allows all of us to live.” She’s almost like a Greek chorus right there, spelling out some of the major themes of the movie – cosmological hierarchy (Nature and the beasts, above them us, above us God) and the fragility and randomness of life.

Kristine: Yes, right.

Sean: But Frida is also the wise crone. I don’t think it’s an accident that Töre’s farm contains the big three mythic female archetypes of maiden, mother and crone. One of the things that marks Ingeri is that she doesn’t neatly fit into any of them. So, to me, Frida is thematically important.

Kristine: It’s a total fairy tale, for sure.

Sean: I personally think that Töre’s God stuff is secondary to the proceedings, but another viewer with different interests could easily disagree.

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Would you like to be fingered?

Kristine: I didn’t really get the scene between Ingeri and the Odin-worshipping hermit she meets in the woods. Maybe you can contextualize it for me. I mean, I understand that at the start of the film Ingeri is praying to Odin (in the Christian household she has been adopted into), and then when confronted with an Odin-like being, she flees… But other than that, it didn’t really work for me. What am I missing? 

Sean: I think that’s one of the scariest scenes in the movie. The raven that appears in that scene does, as you said, mark the hermit as an Odin-figure – in Norse mythology Odin was often flanked by ravens. The raven as a horror movie symbol could be really interesting to do a closer analysis of. Maybe when we get to Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, we’ll go there. But remember the raven symbolism in Mad Max? Just want to point out that it’s a thing. Yeah, I love the hermit scene.

Kristine: But what, really, does that scene accomplish?

Sean: I think there’s two ways to frame that scene. First and foremost, The Virgin Spring is about how religion and worship and theology and myth are all constructs that people need in order to be civilized. That really struck me when Frida (coming back to her significance) puts the boy herdsman to bed and says to him, “You say your prayers, don’t you, even if no one keeps after you? You poor thing. But God is merciful, more merciful than you think. Say your prayers properly tonight, and don’t forget them from now on.” Frida has no idea what the boy has just been part of, the horrific crime he’s just participated in, or the tremendous sense of guilt and terror that he’s struggling with at that moment. When I hear Frida say those words to him, I realize that for her and for most of the people in the movie, this ritual of prayer is just something that reminds them that they are members of civilization (a.k.a. “God’s kingdom”). It attempts to, through daily ritual, curb their baser instincts. But I think Bergman’s attitude towards their prayer is… I think he sees hypocrisy in it, or at least self-delusion. The movie opens with two significant acts of prayer – one of them is Töre himself leading Märeta in prayer. Töre audibly yawns as he says the words; Märeta uses prayer as an excuse for self-harm (she scalds herself with hot wax in honor of “the Lord’s agony”). Töre’s prayers –  “Heavenly Father, Son and Holy Ghost with all your hosts of angels,” he says, “guard us this day and always from the devil’s snares. Lord, let not temptation, shame, nor danger befall thy servants this day.” – are specifically not answered in the movie. In fact, the opposite of what Töre is “asking” for is what befalls the family. But the concept of God and of prayer is tangled up with and filtered through their own respective psyches and contains no shred of objective “truth” – Töre and Märeta are blinded by their own egos and their own obsessions. Märeta was all ready a masochistic woman who punished herself for her “failings” (like losing all her children but Karin), and so what happens in the movie merely confirms what she all ready thought about herself and about God – or she interprets the events in a way that maintains the narrative she’s invested in. But anyway, back to the simple conceit of prayer in the movie – the other act of prayer that opens the film is Ingeri imploring Odin, the Norse God-King, to “come to [her] aid.” So when she meets the hermit in the wood…

That is the scariest-ass Jesus I have ever seen IN MY LIFE

Kristine: Her prayer has been “answered,” so to speak.

Sean: Right. Unlike the prayers of Töre and Märeta, which are not answered.

Kristine: I see. And remember what the hermit does – he offers Ingeri his “seat of honor,” which she accepts but then cannot handle. She flees in terror from what she asked for.

Sean: I agree completely. And I think that Bergman, devilishly, offers us the hermit as the most mythic moment in the film, perhaps even more mythic than the appearance of the spring at the end. Having a God take human form and intrude into the world of mortals is an mythic trope as old as time, and the hermit is Bergman’s nod to that tradition. Remember that the hermit talks about himself in mysterious terms. He says that “nowadays [he] has no name” – a nod to the disappearance of the “pagan” and polytheistic belief systems, which are all dying out and being replaced by Christian beliefs. He also claims a kind of omnipotence for himself, by saying that he can “hear what men whisper in secret and see what they think no one sees.”

Kristine: And that is the power that he offers to Ingeri. Doesn’t he tell her, “You can have all this too, if you like”?

Sean: Yes. But the hermit also represents the threat of sexual violence or transgression for Ingeri. He contextualizes her in “wifely” terms, telling her that she “makes his chair narrower” for him, as a lover or wife would. And their encounter ends with an outright assault on her person. It appeared to me that he was forcing his hand into her crotch, and his promise of death power – human blood, the ability to strike the fish dead in the streams and the birds dead in the sky – seems linked to her willingness to give herself to him sexually. So, everywhere for young women in this world lies the promise of rape and defilement, and reminders that their only “power” is in their loins.

Kristine: Total Onibaba.

Sean: And I think ultimately that the movie asserts that all “divine power” is illusory. In the instance of the hermit, it’s a system of symbols and aesthetics whose natural end result is just one more man trying to ravage one more woman. To me, the point driven home by Töre at the end is that his system of faith is nothing but a story he tells himself in order to avoid true despair. He openly doubts and questions God when they find Karin’s body. How could you allow this? How could you see this and do nothing? And so he decides, Ok I will build a church. I will construct something here that represents an organizing principle and that confirms the story I have been telling myself, because if I do not I will spiral into despair and grief. Because the true chaos and brutality of the universe must be rejected and denied. I do think that Bergman sees some bravery, some nobility in Töre’s decision.

Kristine: Right, got that. 

Have you ever heard “Me Chinese, Me play joke?”

Sean: So I feel like the hermit is the anti-Töre, right? He is a figure of chaos and unchecked instinct. Again I think that Ingeri IS the protagonist of the movie and she makes an important decision when she rejects the hermit and swears her fealty back to Töre. At the beginning of the movie, Ingeri is living under Töre’s protection with a kind of sneering disobedience and resentment. But over the course of the movie, Ingeri realizes that in the structure of Christian civilization she at least has protection. Out there, in the woods, it’s anybody’s game. Remember she is the one who panics at seeing the dark wood? She recognizes that the illusion of “God’s law” ends there, and that the Law of Nature begins… 

Kristine: Yes. Karin is totally confident. 

Sean: Exactly. Karin’s only “crime” is believing that she will be safe. Well, crime’s the wrong word. It’s her tragic flaw. So if self-deception is the arguably “heroic” gesture Töre makes at the end of the movie, it is also self-deception that damns Karin. If she were able to see the world around her clearly (and not be so entrenched in her deluded sense of privilege and entitlement), she could have avoided danger and protected herself.

Kristine: Yeah.

Sean: If Bergman is making a critique of Christianity with The Virgin Spring, part of it must be how it transforms Karin into someone so naive and spoiled and silly. I think for Bergman, oppression and suffering dispel illusions, offer us clarity. Ingeri is the perfect embodiment of that.

Kristine: I want to address something you just said, namely that Christianity has made Karin naive and spoiled and silly. I am not skilled at analyzing religious text, subtext, whatever, but I actually came away thinking that Karin’s death was willed by the Christian God that Töre and his household worship because they exempted her from the Christian rules and judgments. Like, Töre and Märeta maybe loved Karin more than they loved God, so as punishment she was killed and essentially “replaced” by a temple to God. I think that is what Märeta meant about Karin’s death being her fault for loving her too much. For example, Karin dresses in finery, brags and boasts, flirts and dances with all the men – things that Ingeri is forbidden to do. I think there is a message that God struck Karin down to punish Töre and Märeta for placing Karin above Him, and exempting her from the grim Christian protocol that dictates their lives. 

Sean: Ok, I think that is what the characters believe, and that’s what they tell themselves in order to make some kind of narrative sense of what has happened. But I disagree that the movie asserts that to be true. I think the movie asserts the following: the universe is chaotic, the woods are dark, evil men roam the land. A young girl alone in the forest gets raped and murdered – Duh, what did you think would happen? That’s what I think the movie’s attitude is.

Kristine: Yes, I agree with that. 

Sean: The thing that most blatantly contradicts that reading, however, is the appearance of the “virgin spring” when they move Karin’s body. What do you make of that? 

Kristine: I… didn’t love it. It’s affirming everything we just decided was BS. 

Sean: But is it?  I don’t know – I feel like the spring is the mystery. Not necessarily God, but Töre and Märeta are going to call it God because of who they are. Hell, Bergman himself might have called it God.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 10.02.33 AM
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Kristine: I don’t know. But I didn’t find it compelling. Sorry, I know you don’t want to hear that. 

Sean: No, that’s not true. You gotta be honest, yo.

Kristine: What was Bergman’s relationship with God, anyway? 

Sean: I have no idea – let’s look it up. Okay, from his Wikipedia page: “Although raised in a devout Lutheran household, Bergman later stated that he lost his faith at age eight, and only came to terms with this fact while making Winter Light.”

Kristine: Huh.

Sean: Now we know. As far as the appearance of the spring itself and what it means for the movie, I think we have to look outside the text. We have to understand that this story’s origins ARE a 13th century folk ballad, and so when the spring appears in the Bergman movie, our awareness that this moment comes from myth, from folk legend and is not a moment that Bergman himself devised… I think that is significant. I’m not saying it undercuts the moment exactly, but it does contextualize and complicate it. It’s almost as if, up until that moment we were watching Bergman tell another story of God’s “silence” and the affect of that silence on the people who purport to believe in Him, but then Bergman stages this legendary moment, this mythic appearance of the water. It could become meta-textual there. It could be about our relationship to stories, myths and legends, rather than merely evoking the legend itself.

Kristine: So, you love this movie. How does it make you feel? 

Sean: How does it make me feel? 

Kristine: Yes. 

Sean: Spellbound. Captivated. Transported.

Kristine: I am jealous. I wish I shared that reaction. 

Sean: Again, it is self-consciously mythic and that might not fly for everyone. I was on board with this movie the minute Ingeri prayed to Odin. I was like, “Call down the Old Gods, girl!” 

Kristine: Of course you were. She had some epic bitch face. 

Sean: I mean, suffice it to say that, based on my upbringing, I “get” Ingeri. At one point in time, I was the despised outsider wishing rape and death on all the normals, only to then realize my humanity and capacity for compassion unwillingly, in spite of myself. I really love that Bergman frames the movie with her character and makes this her story. That makes it possible to read the film as a critique of patriarchy, which I feel it is.

Kristine: Ingeri being the despised outsider while hugely pregnant – this traditional visual of all that is good and right about ladyhood – was a nice and nasty twist, I thought. 

Sean: Also, the sneering derisive laugh Ingeri unleashes on Frida when Frida tells her she should be thankful to be allowed on the farm because she is such a “savage child,” and the way she swaggers insouciantly about being like “Fuck all of you.” I loved that shit.

Kristine: Yes. So, I can’t not say this… 

Sean: Oh, say it.

Kristine: The actual rape? The way one of the brothers was staging Karin’s body, like lifting her legs out and up, for his brother to rape her? It was so horrible. Incredibly upsetting. Do you agree? 

Sean: Yes. Everything you said about the rape, I concur with. The way the energy between them just shifts. It is terrifying.

Kristine: Yes. 

Sean: And that frog falling out of the bread at the onset of the attack… Ingeri’s petty little trick, which now means nothing in this new reality, has no affect except to seem pathetic and strange. What did you make of Ingeri watching? Ingeri as voyeur? She is us, right? We talked so much about the act of looking, of spying, last week with Peeping Tom and here it is again. Did you hate Ingeri for doing nothing?


Kristine: Sure. I found her role and her behavior utterly credible, but of course I wanted her to act. 

Sean: I felt a huge amount of pathos for her.

Kristine: Me, too. 

Sean: To be put in that position – No woman wants to have to make that call. Do I do something and possibly get raped and killed, also?

Kristine: I know. And I also think she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. Like, can this shitty thing really be happening? This thing that I wanted? I am not saying she was happy or titillated, just utterly shocked and compelled and paralyzed by what she was witnessing.

Sean: Agreed. So, is this the first rape/revenge movie you’ve ever watched?

Kristine: Hmmm… I think?  Maybe Monster qualifies.

Sean: What about Oscar-bait like The Accused

Kristine: Oh, well, yeah. I don’t know if I consider that “revenge” though.

Sean: But it is. It’s tasteful, middle-class, pro-establishment revenge. “Legal” revenge.

Kristine: Yeah, okay. But both Monster and The Accused are also about the victim taking revenge, which I think is a different animal then society or the victim’s family taking revenge, right? When it’s not the victim being like, “You hurt me, now I will hurt you,” it becomes so much less primal. Then the revenge is about punishing the rapist(s) for the crime of violating the laws of society. It is less about the victim.

Sean: Right. Karin herself is…  a lil’ lambikins. She is every spoiled, middle class daughter, being like, “I want this and that and give me the most expensive thing.” And then striding into the world thinking she’s invincible.

Kristine: Yes. Onto our ratings…

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete AND Stylistic triumph AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative.

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

Hurricane Max

5 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring [Jungfrukällan] (1960)

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