In the countless tragedies that have littered the pages of history, innocence is lost, hope squandered and youth cut down in its prime. Retaliation, revenge, retribution and redemption often arise as a consequence, compounding the misfortune suffered. In the middle ages, a Swedish ballad told a tale encompassing such calamities and costs, known as “Töres döttrar i Wänge” or “Töre’s daughters in Vänge“. Exploring the death of the beloved offspring of a farmer intent of avenging their demise, it would prove an influential text, particularly as storytelling moved to the audio-visual realm.
Although several versions of the narrative have earned cinematic retellings, it is Ingmar Bergman’s initial offering that proves the most persuasive. Retaining the medieval setting of the source as well as the emphasis on spirituality, The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) recounts the saga of love and loss, in an instinctive, immersive combination of stark, searching sentiment and striking, shadowy style. Indeed, so palpable was the film’s impact that director Wes Craven utilised it as inspiration for his debut feature. 1972’s The Last House on the Left and the 2009 remake that followed may be better known to English-speaking audiences, however the horrors they show owe a vast debt to Bergman’s rendering of the same material.
Adored daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson, The Magician) provides the film with its chaste, Christian protagonist, with the beautiful blonde the apple of her parents’ eye. Appointed the task of transporting candles to the local church, she bids a fond farewell to her father Töre (Max von Sydow, star of Bergman’s previous The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) and mother Märeta (Birgitta Valberg, Smiles of a Summer Night), alighting upon a horseback ride. With her departure delayed by a late rising, she has few daylight hours to complete her travels. Her scorned, pregnant servant Ingeri (Winter Light’s Gunnel Lindblom, another of the director’s favoured performers) accompanies her on the trip, albeit distracted by her own emotional baggage.
As their forest surroundings turn to denser foliage, Ingeri abandons her mistress for the remainder of the voyage. A terrifying encounter with a strange one-eyed man (Allan Edwall, The Devil’s Eye) leaves her shaken and uncertain, however the altercation pales in comparison to the fate that awaits Karin. Intercepted by three herdsmen – one thin (Axel Düberg, Rabies), one mute (Tor Isedal, Lady in White), and one merely a boy (Ove Porath, in his only film credit) – she agrees to pause to share her lunch. The meal would prove to be Karin’s last, as the men rob her of her virtue and then her existence.
Searching for shelter in the aftermath of the attack, the brothers approach a local farm for lodgings for the night. The owners oblige, almost begrudgingly, providing food and a place to retire. Their reticence proves founded when identities on both sides are revealed. Fretting over Karin’s prolonged absence, the kindly landlords are her parents; their new charges, her cruel, remorseless killers. After Töre learns of his daughter’s untimely end, he is driven to repay their brutality with his own. His religious devotion torn by such traumatic circumstances, he enlists the only method he knows as a way to atone.
Whilst the relentless, ruthless pursuit of vengeance appears at the fore of the smartly written (by Brink of Life’s Ulla Isaksson) and stunningly directed The Virgin Spring, as well as the more exploitative efforts that followed, the interplay of faith and fate proves the film’s stronger thematic strand. The family’s unwavering dedication to their god is evident from the outset, placed in contrast with Ingeri’s clandestine worship of Norse deity Odin. That the latter’s primal, prophetic chants to her lord open the feature is telling, immediately questioning the place and propriety of piety in the world. Honest, harrowing revelations shared after Karin’s death – including Ingeri’s guilt about praying for her physical and spiritual deflowering, and Märeta’s admission of jealously over Karin’s ascension within the church and household – add further cause for contemplation of belief in the divine and mystical.
Like the rest of his oeuvre, Bergman’s feature makes an existential statement, one without a definitive answer. Upon release and in the years since, the substance of that declaration has reduced in reference to the film’s controversial content (banned in Fort Worth, Texas, due to the rape scenes), however the pondering of the pertinence of religion in the face of tragedy remains valid. At the time, the film industry certainly thought so, awarding the effort with the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best foreign film. Today, although overshadowed by genre appropriations as well as the other applauded efforts amongst the auteur’s considerable output (fellow Oscar winners Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander, and Globes recipients Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Autumn Sonata included), it belongs in the company of his many masterpieces.