The Virgin Spring (1960, Jungfrukällan)
The Virgin Spring (in Swedish, Jungfrukällan) is a black-and-white Swedish film from 1960 directed by Ingmar Bergman, and is based on the thirteenth-century Swedish ballad Töres döttrar i Wänge, which translates to "Töre's daughters in Vänge," takes places in fourteenth-century rural Sweden, and the gist of plot is as follows: Tore and Mareta, devout and humble Christians, send their virginal, adolescent daughter Karin to deliver special candles to the church accompanied by their wild, pagan servant and foster daughter, Ingeri. Along the way, Karin meets three brother goatherds (one of them is a child), and after giving them food the two older brothers rape and murder her and steal her nice clothes, while Ingeri watches, hidden. The goatherds then come across the homestead of Karin’s family, unaware that they are interacting with the parents of their victim. Tore and Mareta, being deeply Christian and seeing that the goatherds are poor, provide the brothers shelter and food. The brothers offer Karin’s valuable garments for sale, and Mareta instantly recognizes her daughter’s clothes, revealing to Karin’s parents what the men have done. In a fit of rage and desire for vengeance, Tore kills the men, including the child, which fills him with guilt, after which he asks God for forgiveness. In the end, Ingeri leads the family to Karin’s body, and Tore declares that a church will be built on the scene of the crime to honor her and as an act of Tore’s penance.
The Virgin Spring made $700,000 at the U.S. box office, which may not sound like a lot of money but was impressive for an art-house, foreign-language film in the 1960s. The critical reception of the film, however, was different in its home country and the United States. The Swedish response was not too great, as critics and audiences called it “absorbed with irrelevant metaphysical questions” and “hopelessly out of touch with secular, modern Sweden and the social and political issues of the day” (Arne Lund). But apparently it resonated much stronger with American audiences as it was “an immediate art house hit” (Lund), and went on to win the 1961 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Today it garners high praise from critics and movie patrons on Rotten Tomatoes, and currentaly holds a 90% critics score and a 92% audience score. It is also licensed in the U.S. by The Criterion Collection, which distributes highly acclaimed and important films, so clearly American viewers and critics rank The Virgin Spring highly.
The lifestyles and mannerisms that the film portrays are effective, as they make historical references that are accurate to the story’s time period. The rural Swedish family in The Virgin Spring demonstrate various forms of high medieval devotion, including some ascetic practices and affective piety. In contrast to these accepted forms of Christian orthodoxy, the film also portrays the “heretical” world of paganism that lurks underneath. Odin, the pagan god of war, vengeance, and death, figures prominently in Scandinavian mythology and is prayed to in the film. Norse mythology describes him as violent, savage, and selfish, enjoying human sacrifice. Because the worship of Odin became increasingly taboo and forbidden with the conversion of the Swedes to Christianity, those who worship him in the film are portrayed as low-class or uncivilized. Christianity—being deemed as the more proper, righteous faith over paganism—serves as a metaphor for civilization. At the start of the film, Ingeri prays to Odin, and because of her immoral actions, like being pregnant out of wedlock and wishing for Karin’s demise, we associate her paganism with being uncivilized. The goatherds are also implied to be pagan, for they show hatred towards Christianity by stomping on the virgin candles after killing the Christian maiden, Karin. This sets up the clash of cultures that we see in the film, which uses paganism and Christianity as broader markers of social status.
Tore, however, unjustifiably kills the child goatherd out of vengeful rage, and therefore betrays his Christian morality with an immoral act. This action disrupts the idea that the film sets out in the beginning that devout Christianity automatically puts someone in a higher and more moral plane, and shows us that every person, no matter their status, is susceptible to evil acts. This disruption is also shown when Ingeri expresses guilt for wishing for Karin’s demise and begs to be punished, revelaing that a “Christian” conscience is attainable despite being “uncivilized.” It is an interesting idea that even those close to God can fall from grace, while a “savage” servant can have redemption. Even though the film sets us up to believe that there will be a clear relationship between the characters’ morality to their social status and religious beliefs, it actually ends up telling us that those things don’t determine someone’s righteousness. It really seems like Bergman wanted us to think more about the response to Karin’s murder rather than the murder itself.
November 14, 1960 (USA)
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
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