Ingmar Bergman’s 1960, black-and-white retelling of a medieval Swedish tale packs an emotional punch rarely realized with such powerful success. Max Von Sydow, a frequent actor in Bergman’s films, turns in a tortured performance as Tore, a father pushed beyond the limits of his Christian beliefs. Other members of the primary cast, including Brigitta Valberg as Mareta, Gunnel Lindblom as Ingeri, and Brigitta Pettersson as Karin also frequent many Bergman films.  

Many modern movies, even those which are contemplative character studies as opposed to action-based films, do not trust silence. Spaces which would otherwise be saturated by nothingness, by the absence of soundtrack and dialogue, instead are filled with noise. Even music can provide distraction in an otherwise quiet moment. In Ang Lee’s eloquent introduction to the Criterion Collection’s edition of The Virgin Spring, the director speaks to the issue of silence. He believes that many modern day film makers do not trust these silent spaces to convey story and emotion and I believe that he is absolutely correct. Ingmar Bergman, master film maker and director of The Virgin Spring, understood the profound power of silence. The Virgin Spring contains multiple sequences of either utter silence, or with only the natural sounds of the landscape – a stream, a raven – in the background. And this film is all the more profound and powerful for it.  

The story is at once simple and devastating, and Bergman delivers it in just under 90 minutes. Karin, the blond and beautiful doted-upon daughter of landholder Tore and his wife Mareta, heads out on horseback to deliver candles to the village church some distance away. Only a virgin can perform such a task and so Karin leaves on her journey, proud and resplendent in her finest clothing. Travelling with her is Ingeri, her dark-haired, unmarried, pregnant, and pagan foster sister. Tore and Mareta, although providing Ingeri with room and board, clearly believe that Ingeri is filthy and fallen, as do the other members of their household. Tore and Mareta are both Christian, Mareta especially devoutly so, while Ingeri worships the old Norse gods, including Odin. As a result, Ingeri harbors a deep resentment for the cherished Karin.

The story in its initial setup seems far different from where it ends up going – the viewer thinks maybe Ingeri will harm Karin. Instead, Karin and Ingeri are separated and three men, two adults and a young boy, confront Karin. Karin has been adored and pampered all her life – she cannot conceive of the danger the two older men could possibly pose to her, so she invites them to share her lunch. Events darken and the two men rape and then kill Karin. Although there is no nudity or salacious elements to the rape as Bergman films it, I found it one of the most intense depictions of rape I’ve seen. It doesn’t need graphic nudity to convey its awfulness. 

By a terrible coincidence, the three herdsmen end up seeking shelter at the home of Tore and Mareta. Mareta learns that the men killed Karin when one of them tries to sell her Karin’s beautiful dress. This scene is harrowing and the actress conveys such an incredible performance here. Tore ends up killing the two adult men, but as his rage consumes  him, he also kills the boy. He wrests the boy, in fact, out of the protective arms of Mareta, who tries to shield the innocent child. The movie ends with Tore, Mareta, Ingeri and the other members of their household going to retrieve Karin’s body. As her parents lift her corpse off the ground, a spring of pure water flows from the spot.

The story is relatively simple and straightforward. Yet Bergman provides no easy answers at all to the viewer, as he does in all his films. What is the upper-limit of faith? Tore accuses God – “You saw it” – referring not only to his daughter’s rape and murder, but to his own violent revenge. He concludes that he cannot understand God, but that he knows no other way to live. Tore swears to build a church at the spot where Karin died. The film also forces the viewer to contemplate his/her own possible reactions to such a scenario. Even if one believes that non-violence, and especially not taking a life, is the proper way to live, would that person hold to this when faced with the murderers of a loved one? Would we be able to stop at just the murderers, or, like Tore, would we lose our self-control and also murder the boy? Two innocents are lost in this film – Karin and the unnamed boy. Both suffer, both die, and both deaths are utterly without sense.

The film making here is exquisite. There are so many scenes of utter skill and beauty that I certainly can’t go through them all. Two in particular stand out. The scene wherein Tore and Mareta have locked themselves in with the sleeping murderers in preparation for Tore killing them unfolds without a single word of dialogue, and I believe with no other soundtrack in the background. A modern film might insert ominous music in the background. None is needed here – the tension is nearly unbearable. The scene where Karin is lifted and the spring begins to flow is also masterfully filmed. It has an organic authenticity to it.

Criterion has done a fantastic job remastering The Virgin Spring, especially crisping up the black and white contrast. As a side note, Criterion has done a tremendous job preserving and restoring Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I cannot recommend this film more strongly. It is a powerful and troubling treatise on what it means to be human.