Evergreen Themes and Visual Provocations in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”

David S. Heineman

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In many respects, writing about an Ingmar Bergman film is a daunting task. Few directors’ oeuvres have been more picked over by amateur and professional critics alike, a phenomenon that has only been exacerbated with the rapid growth of online film culture in the years after Bergman’s death. The director’s current cultural weightiness is no doubt enhanced by the Criterion Collection’s recent, massive collection of his work, cobbling together almost forty of his films into a sprawling thirty disc set with 250 pages of accompanying essays. As I write this, Bergman Island, a film grounded in the director’s influence and set on his beloved Fårö Island, is screening at festivals around the world. HBO has just premiered a remake of Bergman’s four-and-a-half-hour 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage. While the director’s legacy has never been in doubt, it nonetheless seems that he is having a kind of resurgence some 75 years after his directorial debut.

The Virgin Spring (1960) is Bergman’s treatment of a medieval tale of rape and revenge; it is a film cut through with the kinds of iconography, symbolism, and layered social commentary that one finds in many of the director’s best-loved works. Much has been written about the film. Cowie’s Criterion essay does an excellent job at highlighting the film’s major themes and the place of the film in Bergman’s trajectory. Good historical work tracking the film’s censorship and various public reactions has been written by scholars like Tino Balio, who documents audiences gasping at the brutality of the onscreen violence, crying during the film’s ending scenes, or walking out. There’s also good writing about the film’s place in the history of onscreen sexual assault, especially in Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ essay “Silence and Fury,” where she argues successfully that “its position not as a ‘Bergman film’ but as a ‘film about rape’ should be considered deserving of equal critical interest.” Certainly, the film’s influence on Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and, subsequently, an entire rape-revenge subgenre of horror film, has been well documented. The film’s aesthetic choices have also been exhaustively assessed, with early reviewers such as Stephen Jencks writing for The Harvard Crimson in 1961 that the camerawork obscures the film’s weaknesses:

“Obsession and tension make compelling viewing; they do not make persuasive or perceptive art. Bergman wanders instead into a morass of behavioristic description which robs his stories of meaning and depth. Brilliant symbolic photography confuses an audience so that it does not notice these defects. The virtue is that the viewer can read what he likes into the screenplay, and tends to blame obscurity on his own imperception; but the price is that technique becomes more important than either structure or meaning. At its best in the Virgin Spring, the technique is dazzling, and the already quiet audience becomes deathly silent when the householder drives his knife into a table and waits for the murderers to wake. But this fascination holds the viewer rather than drawing his mind and sympathies into the film’s message.”

Jencks’ writing here is in line with many American reviews at the time; most of his contemporaries similarly took issue with the film’s perceived heavy-handedness (a fact which, in hindsight, makes it especially curious that Bergman would earn prestigious awards from the Academy of Motion Pictures, the Golden Globes, and Cannes for the film). For most early reviewers, the film’s strengths were to be found in the performances of its cast and the directness of Nyquist’s cinematography, while Bergman’s allegories about contemporary Swedish identity and his not-so-subtle commentary on religious devotion were deemed considerably less affecting.

What, then, does one make of The Virgin Spring in an era of Bergman’s resurgence? More pointedly, what does one make of a film constructed around juxtapositions of compassion and violation, Christianity and paganism, the beautiful and the grotesque, and faith and reason, more than sixty years after the film debuted?

The Virgin Spring is certainly still as alternately tender and brutal, picturesque and grimy as it ever was. Despite the lack of graphic detail compared to the films it inspired (and especially The Last House on the Left), it seems reasonable to suggest that the film’s most infamous scenes are as affecting today as they were to audiences in the early 1960s, in large part because contemporary audiences are still coming to the film with the same set of expectations: they come to view an art-house film from an Important Director, hoping for something outside of standard Hollywood fare, but expecting introspection, not provocation.

If anything, the framing of the film in the Criterion box set — where it is positioned between the informal “faith” trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963) and the central “centerpiece” of the box set, The Seventh Seal (1957) — only adds to this film’s contemporary perception as a capital “S” Serious Film (despite the fact that Bergman himself said little more about it after its release than to declare it an “aberration”). Thus, most audiences today come to this film, as they do with other works by renowned auteurs, critically and studiously: it is hard to randomly stumble upon The Virgin Spring and divorce it from the heavy weight of its historical framing.

There is still plenty to study for modern audiences, of course, as the themes of the film are evergreen. One need not look much further than recent headlines to recognize that the concerns of 13th-century Sweden are some of the same concerns experienced by the mid-20th-century audiences that saw the film upon release, or the 21st-century audiences who encounter the film today. We still encounter ongoing cultural and generational tensions between religion and reason (which has shaped life during a pandemic), we still are grappling with how to handle sexual assault in cinema and the question of foreign censorship, and we are still moved by powerful imagery in Serious Films by Important Directors. Bergman’s film still speaks to these themes with a seemingly effortless aplomb, and the standout performances by Von Sydow and Valberg, whose impressive facial contortions and ability to communicate physicality are remarkable, continue to enthrall modern viewers in this medieval tale.

But, to this modern viewer, it is still the visuals that are the thing. While I think time has been kind to the blunt allegory and the slow pacing (as evidenced by the focus on both in much modern criticism about the film), it is still Nyquist and Bergman’s camerawork during the most violent scenes in the film that unnerve viewers. For some early reviewers, this violence prompted cautionary warnings to readers. For example, Bosley Crowther, writing for the New York Times, offered that

“Mr. Bergman has stocked it with scenes of brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned. As much as they may contribute to the forcefulness of the theme, they tend to disturb the senses out of proportion to the dramatic good they do.”

These scenes are still sickening and stunning, but not for the same reasons that similar scenes in Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) or Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) are; those films invert the tension/gore ratio seen here to produce a different type of brutality — more visceral than psychological. By contrast, in the scene of Karin’s assault, the camera for the first time in the film truly becomes untethered — the cuts are quick, the shots are obscured and out of focus, and the clumsy fumblings of the attackers are matched by the comparatively random jumpiness of the camera. This sudden visual displacement of the film’s prior motifs — replacing its slow-moving images of pastoral tranquility and lengthy shots of rustic heartiness with quickly-cut and erratic glances of bodily horror — serves to unmoor the film from its own established conventions. The film’s pacing, narrative, and visual grammar are all violently interrupted in an instant. Likewise, in the scenes of Töre’s revenge killings, the camera lingers and moves slowly, juxtaposing the suddenness of the action with the protracted focus on every detail of a murderous von Sydow’s rampage. In both instances, Bergman and Nyquist emphasize a kind of visual parallel between the underlying tensions and emotions coursing through the characters and the framing and pacing of the plot as it unfolds. This same technique would go on to mark many of Bergman’s best films in the decades to come, including the aforementioned Scenes from a Marriage, where parallel pacing of pathos and camera movements accomplishes much the same effect as it does in Spring.

Arguably, Bergman’s close attention to capturing the fraught relationships between the written story, the actors’ performances, and the technical possibilities of film is the most significant legacy of The Virgin Spring. Moreso than the film’s status as a progenitor of a subgenre or the continued relevance of its themes, the way the film’s visuals have landed with subsequent generations of filmgoers helps us understand why it is worth revisiting.

Whereas reviewers in the 1960s saw Bergman’s realism as a potentially exploitative visual technique for the subject matter of the film, the horror genre’s ongoing reliance on similar visual techniques renders the camerawork in The Virgin Spring not as “confusing” or “unrestrained” but, rather, as groundbreaking and iconic. The Virgin Spring is worth considering in large part for its creation of powerful imagery that functions with a degree of ambiguity: critic Barry Brummett refers to how such an image “allows appeals to social solidarity, seems to create collective memories, and resolves social conflicts with rhetorical effects.” That the film’s imagery can function in these same ways more than sixty years on is a testament to not only the power of this film (or to Bergman’s skill as a director), but of cinema itself.

This essay originally appeared on The Solute as part of their “Year of the Month” series. Thanks to Sam Scott for editorial assistance.

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David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net