Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Virgin Spring

The Virgin Spring
Original Title: Jungfrukällan
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Sweden, 1960
Drama, 89min
Distributed by: Criterion.

I’ve stated several times that Ingmar Bergman was one of the best screenwriters ever - which he was, making it kind of ironic that the movie to pop the Cinezilla Bergman cherry wasn’t written by Bergman at all, but by Ulla Isaksson.

Ulla Isaksson was a Swedish author who wrote just over a dozen screenplays for TV and film between 1953 and 2001. The first being Hampe Faustman’s Kvinnohuset 1953 known outside Sweden as Caged Women and the last movie - A Song for Martin directed by Billie August made after her passing in 2000 which was based on her experiences of her husbands demise due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Bergman was an admirer of Isaksson, and she was one of the few writers apart from himself that wrote scripts for his films. The three of them being Nära Livet 1958 (Brink of Life), Jungfrukällan 1960 (The Virgin Spring), and De två saliga 1986 (The Blessed Ones).

Yes it was Ulla Isaksson who wrote the original story behind Bergman’s haunting The Virgin Spring, which twelve years later inspired Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left 1972, which inspired Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders 1975, (marketed in the US as Last House Part II) which encouraged Ruggero Deodato’s Last House by the Edge of the Park 1980, and finally saw itself being remade in 2009 by Dennis Iliadis again as Last House on the Left, which by this time the movie has nothing to do with Isaksson’s story anymore as it this time around credits Wes Craven for that earlier film. Craven credits Isaksson in the opening titles of his version.

Still, it’s an entertaining thought that Ulla Isaksson’s original script inspired someone to make a cheap horror flick take on her story, opening the floodgates for some of the most renown exploitation movies of all time.

Isaksson herself was no stranger to controversy as her first movie, Faustman’s Kvinnohuset 1953, about a house for single working women starring Annalisa Ericson and Eva Dahlbeck,from those great Arne Mattson detective capers “The Hillman” movies, and Inga Tillblad also got in trouble with that first ever board of review institution. The movie contained suicides, murder and even insinuated homosexuality. This lesbianism caused the censors to protest and demanded that the scene be drastically shortened.

Isaksson frequently wrote of women, strong and weak, in threatened situations, and almost always with a very feminist edge to them, mature women ensnaring themselves in unfaithfulness creating strained triangular dramas, and younger women coming of age, finding themselves in their womanhood. Themes of suicide and rape and death also permeate her works.

Which brings me up to The Virgin Spring

The Virgin Spring is the tale of a family devastated by the death of their daughter, and the drastic measures they take to avenge her when they by chance stand face to face with the perpetrators. It’s a dark, vile and disturbing movie, leaving nothing to your imagination as Bergman cunningly allows murder to be justified... or does he?

Set in a 14th century Sweden, young Karin, [Birgitta Pettersson] who in a typical teenage manner drones her days away being flirtatious, lazy and devious (that’s exactly how I interpret it), trying to ease her way out of her chore, and manipulating her mother into letting her get her way and wearing her finest blue dress. Her mother, Märeta [Birgitta Valberg] tells her to take a Virgin Mary candles to the monastery on the other side of the woods. What is it with churches and virgins? It has to be a virgin who takes the candles. Together with the family maid Ingeri [Gunnel Linblom] the two women set about their journey. Obviously she tries to worm her way out of the task, but is told to go anyway. On her route the two women come upon a shaman’s [Axel Slangus] cabin where Ingeri has disturbing visions of three men riding - three dead men claims the shaman before trying to take advantage of her. Ingeri terrified flees from the shaman and Karin takes to riding towards the church on her own and soon she bumps into three herdsmen strolling in the woods. The three men (well two men and a kid – Ove Porath, Axel Dürberg and Tor Isedal) tell Karin a tale of despair, playing off he pity so that they can receive some of her food. Going about her usual manner, she falls for the flattery and as the situation grows more and more threatening she tries to flirt and charm her way out of the situation, but fate has other plans for you my pretty…

The herdsmen rape and kill Karin as Ingeri, still lost in the woods, observes from a distance without interfering. The men hide the body in a shallow grave and take to the road again. As the cold night sets in they come to the farm of Töre, [Max Von Sydow] Karin's father, who offers them a place to spend the night. Töre does this good deed, even though he and Märeta are worried sick for their daughter who has yet to return from her trip to the monastery. After a terrifying guilt inducing bedtime story that the old farmhand [Allan Enwall in his first role for Bergman] tells the boy, his older companions knock him out after he off camera freaks out and screams. Märeta goes to him only to meet the two herders, who is a sinister twist of fate try to repay the family kindness by giving them a bloodied blue dress that they claim belonged to their deceased sister…

Märeta keeps her calm, and breaks down in tears as she realises the fate of Karin. Töre demands that Ingeri tells him what she knows, Ingeri filled with guilt for wishing Karin dead when she met the shaman and not intervening, confesses and tells of the terrible crime she witnessed. Töre prepares his vengeance, cleanses his soul and slays the three herdsmen one by one as they scream for mercy. Töre looks upon the blood on his hands and begs for god’s forgiveness. The family walk to the murder location and as they lift Karin’s body from the ground a spring of freshwater burst forth – The Virgin Spring.

There’s a lost of brilliant little details going on in this film, especially the way that Bergman set’s up Karin. It’s this eye for detail that make Bergman the genius that he was, and the way he moves his characters in and out of light and dark places, shifting between positive and negative values. You never really know what a characters true traits are.

Karin sleeps late, keeping the others waiting for her, and obviously is leading a fantasy life where she dreams of wealth and handsome men courting her. Karin’s mother Märeta tells Ingeri the maid, to prepare a packed lunch for her daughter, and Bergman has Ingeri prepare the lunch by squeezing a toad in between two pieces of bread. This even before we have been introduced to Karin. Then her mother tries to awaken her, and Karin manipulates her mother into letting her wear the exact dress that she wants – her finest monist precious dress sown by fifteen maidens at once – even though her mother objects that it’s not an everyday gown. Karin comes off as quite a spoiled brat to be honest. Father Töre enters and continues to pamper his little princess, who she manipulates into letting her take Ingeri with her to the church… Ingrid the servant dirty, tattered clothed, pregnant and obviously not with a mate, the complete opposite of Karin.
These scenes work in two ways, first they set up a rift between Ingeri and Karin. We quickly understand that Ingrid doesn’t like Karin too much, hence the toad sandwich, there’s an animosity between the two probably same age girls. Then the parents tender care and inability to resist Karin’s demands. These scenes indicate just how valuable Karin is to her parents, and that they will do, give and budge to her every demand. She’s their everything in other words. Finally Karin asks that Ingeri comes along, and it’s easy to read the subtext that Karin is Ingeri’s tormentor, as is made glass clear when she talks down to and taunts the pregnant Ingeri a while later.

The bloke that the two girls meet on their way to the monetary and his frisky talk with Karin saying “Thanks for last night Karin!” lets us in on the dark secret that Karin isn’t the innocent little girl that her parents take her to be, perhaps too much mead and late night romping are why she was still in bed that morning.

The rape and murder of Karin is disturbing, as we don not wish this fate for her even though she’s been established as an unsympathetic character. Death is too harsh a punishment for her. The vengeance that her parents take is also unsettling, because they have been presented in such a positive light. Their love for their spoiled daughter, their kindness to strangers as they take in the three herdsmen, giving them shelter, food at their table and offering them work on the farm. These are god-fearing people who mean no harm to anyone. That’s what makes the transition and terrifying revenge killings so complex for us to take in.

Finally my favourite scene in the movie; after Töre has been told of Karin’s death, there is a very symbolic little image where he stands alone staring at a lone birch tree, man against nature, man against God if you will. He rejects his faith, wrestles the tree to the ground, and ritualistically slays it. He uses the branches to cleanse himself, beating away the last of his faith before ordering Ingeri to fetch the butchers knife. It’s a really mesmerising scene, free from dialogue until the knife request. After the slaughter he stares at his bloody hands and begs God for forgiveness in an attempt to redeem his actions. Those images say more than any dialogue ever could. Excellent stuff, the stuff that makes a masterpiece.

The Virgin Spring caused quite a stir when it was released in Sweden igniting spiteful debates in its wake. The graphic rape (well graphic for 1960) and the violent tone of the movie stunned and shocked the audiences, and where heavily criticized by many new papers as audiences in Sweden had never before seen such violence and aggressive atrocities on the screens and the movie was reported to the authorities for its provocative content. Luckily the movie was acquitted and to prove the critics wrong the movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961. The old saying you can’t become a prophet in your own land comes to mind once again.

Now this is in no way an indepth review or analysis of this fantastic movie, quite the oposite. There isn’t enough blog space in the world to do this film justice, but this is merely some of my personal thoughts on the film. A film I keep returning to over and over again.

It is still a very effective movie although I wouldn’t call it a horror film. Once again the grandeur of Bergman was that he could summon up the most disturbing fiends and darkness in everyday life by the slightest twist of hand, exposing the inner demon of everyman and woman in his very stylish dramas. The guy was a genius. The sleaziness, nudity, gratuitous gore and teeth grinding grit, was the bag of tricks that the exploitation films that followed brought with them. The main narrative is the same, young women meets violent death - parents take violent revnenge! And never forget that we have Bergman and Isaksson to thank for those splendid grind house flicks; Last House on The Left, Night Train Murders and Last House on the Edge of the Park, that shocked a nation all over again.

Black & White Full Screen 1:33:1

Dolby Digital Mono, Swedish Dialogue, English subtitles or English Dub optional

Being a Criterion disc you know that there’s going to be a fair deal of extras giving further insight into the movie, There’s an introduction to the film by Ang Lee, an Audio Commentary by Bergman expert Birgitta Pettersson, an audio recording of a seminar held by Bergman at the American Film Institute in 1975, and a booklet with essays on the film and a letter from Bergman concerning the controversial rape scene.

I can't find a trailer, but here's a few neat posters.

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