The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) was Ingmar Bergman’s first film to win an Academy Award. In the decades since its release in 1960, the film has been overshadowed by The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cries & Whispers, Wild Strawberries and many other classics the Swedish master made before and after it. But The Virgin Spring is a masterpiece, a frank exploration of how far a person’s faith can be tested.
The film is based on a Swedish medieval ballad called Tore’s Daughter at Vange, centering on the rape and murder of the young Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) and how her father Tore (Max Von Sydow) seeks out his revenge.
Notably though, most of this does not happen until later in the film. Bergman and screenwriter Ulla Isaksson take their time developing the story and its characters, beginning with Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a pregnant servant working for Tore who still worships Odin behind Tore’s back. Considering we see how vain Karin is, it’s not hard to understand why Ingeri does not fully embrace the religion of her overseers. In a way, Ingeri is the film’s audience surrogate, an outsider who sits on the sideline and feels immense guilt when she does not stop the horror unfolding in front of her.
The film’s central theme – even more than paganism versus Christianity – is how man reacts to immense disappointment. Tore and his wife, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), have devoted their life to Christ and raised their daughter to avoid sex before marriage. But how do you react when she is compromised by outside forces? To make matters worse, how do you reconcile it happening while she was on her way to church? And then when you take the most extreme action, you are left trying to justify it, doing moral hoop-jumps to line your actions up with your beliefs.
While The Seventh Seal or Persona might be seen as the defining Bergman movies, The Virgin Spring packs in everything that made him a genius into 90 minutes. It is stylistically beautiful, bringing medieval society back to life with the stark photography by Sven Nykvist. Max Von Sydow gives an arresting performance as Tore, balancing brutality with tenderness in one character. Birgitta Pettersson is a gentile and warm presence early on, making Karin’s death all the more tragic.
Criterion finally released The Virgin Spring on Blu-ray in June 2018. Using a new 2K restoration, the image is breathtaking. There’s no discernible damage, but it retains a film-like quality.
As for the audio, Criterion includes the original mono Swedish track, as well as an English dub. Personally, I never watch English dubs, but if they help introduce more moviegoers to Bergman’s films, then I guess they are necessary. After all, without them, these movies might not have received any attention in the U.S. during their original releases.
While The Virgin Spring is important in Bergman’s career, the film sadly only got a single-disc, lower-tier DVD in 2006. All of the on-disc features were carried over.
- Commentary – Swedish film historian Birgitta Steene’s 2005 commentary is included. She goes over the film’s production history, where it fits into Bergman’s career and the historical context behind the story. It is jam-packed with information, but Steene can be a little dry. This is worth listening to though, especially since there aren’t that many other features here.
- Introduction by Ang Lee – I’m not sure why this is referred to as an introduction, especially since Criterion points out that there are spoilers. Instead, what Lee provided is more of a 7-minute appreciation of The Virgin Spring and Bergman.
- Gunnel Lindblom and Brigitta Pettersson – This is a 20-minute compilation of interviews Criterion recorded with the two actresses in 2005. The two discuss working with Bergman, meeting him and their experiences on The Virgin Spring.
- Ingmar Bergman at the AFI – This is a 40-minute edited audio recording of a 1975 seminar Bergman delivered at the American Film Institute. In it, he takes questions from journalists and discusses his thoughts on filmmaking, actors and his films. Criterion split it into six chapters.
- Booklet – Criterion carried over most of the original DVD booklet. It includes an essay by Peter Cowie, notes by Isaksson on making the film and the original ballad it is based on. (According to CriterionForum.org, the original DVD booklet included notes about a scene censored in the U.S. and Bergman’s letter about the scene. There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for this, other than possibly keeping the booklet only 20 pages.)
The Virgin Spring is a perfect film, and among Bergman’s best movies. It might even be my favorite. It is a gripping exploration into human relationships, both among ourselves and with religion. Although set hundreds of years ago, its subject makes it timeless.
Thanks to Criterion for providing this disc to review!