in Criterion Month, Review

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Last spring, I watched the 2009 remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (underrated). While sitting there, witnessing Garret Dillahunt’s head explode in a microwave, I found myself pondering the earliest incarnation of the rape and revenge film. I had always assumed it was the original The Last House on the Left from 1972, a film so controversial, it ended up on the infamous “Video Nasty” list where it was banned in the UK.

In the wake of The Last House on the Left, there were numerous copycats, as filmmakers and distributors sought to capitalize on the controversy of this burgeoning subgenre. Additionally, as author Carol J. Clover notes in her 1992 book “Men, Women, and Chainsaw,” this was a time when rape was finally being taken seriously as a social issue.

So, when I discovered that there was a film made 12 years prior to The Last House on the Left that delved into this subject matter, I was surprised. What compelled Ingmar Bergman to make The Virgin Spring all the way back in 1960? Was the film as controversial as The Last House on the Left?

Set in medieval Sweden, The Virgin Spring follows a devout landowner named Töre (Max Von Sydow) and his family. When Töre’s daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is raped and murdered by a group of herdsmen, fate brings the killers to Töre’s home seeking shelter. Unaware of their crime, Töre and his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), welcome them in. However, as the truth unravels, Töre seeks vengeance.

The story is based on a medieval Swedish ballad called “Töre’s Daughters in Vänge,” which Bergman read as a student. It was during the production of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) that he conceptualized the story as a film. Later, he hired Ulla Isaksson to write the script because he feared his own take on the story wouldn’t feel as genuine.

Needless to say, the story stayed with Bergman. But again, why did he want to make it? It’s important to note that Bergman’s father, Erik, was a strict Lutheran minister, and Ingmar’s complex relationship with him, particularly regarding religion, is reflected in many of his films. Bergman had numerous questions for the divine: “What is God?” and “Why does God do the things He does?” In the case of The Virgin Spring, he wondered, “Why would God let this happen?” and “Is it just to seek vengeance?”

Despite the lurid subject matter, Bergman approaches this story respectfully. However, the response to the film was far from respectful. It was banned and heavily edited in various countries, with The New York Times describing it as a “brutish and horrible offense.” Yet, a solid group of American critics appreciated the film, leading to The Virgin Spring winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards.

Watching the film today, the assault of Karin remains a difficult scene, although not as explicit as its 1970s counterparts. The film is shot fairly straightforward, with a few delicate touches. Bergman always had a talent for presenting nature in profound ways, and here, that talent is evident in a scene where Töre, upon hearing the dreadful news, goes outside, rips a tree out of the ground, and proceeds to flog himself with its branches.

Max Von Sydow, one of Bergman’s finest collaborators, delivers a performance full of gravitas as the grieving father. Another standout is Gunnel Lindblom’s portrayal of Ingeri, a pregnant servant who secretly worships Norse gods and witnesses Karin’s death. Ingeri carries guilt not only for standing by and watching but also for praying to a different god than Karin.

The Virgin Spring is often a contemplative film that has become defined by a moment of brutality. Nevertheless, I believe the film offers much more in terms of morality than most films of its kind. It may not feature Garret Dillahunt’s head exploding in a microwave, but overall, it is a worthwhile viewing experience.

P.S. I almost forgot to mention that Bergman was also inspired by an even earlier film that deals with similar subject matter, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Bergman later referred to The Virgin Spring as “a wretched imitation of Kurosawa”.