The Virgin Spring


“God…I don’t understand you!”

So Max von Sydow, as an anguished father, cries out in the closing scene of Ingmar Bergman’s great The Virgin Spring (1960).  The moment, when it comes, is inevitable: the end of a path paved by torment and loss of faith.

I’ve long suspected that Bergman (1918-2007) was the cinema’s greatest director; after my second viewing of The Virgin Spring, I’m sure of it.  And if Bergman was the greatest director, then so too was Sven Nykvist (1922-2006), his long-time collaborator, the best of all cinematographers, a master lensman who understood better than anyone else the awesome power of light and shadow.

Filmed in exquisite black-and-white, Spring is a devastating meditation on mercy, retribution, and the fine line that separates the the two. Bookending the story are two startling acts of violence, made all the more shocking by the overall quiet tone of the film; both moments are anticipated–even expectedbut nothing prepares us for their sheer brutality.

Based on an 18th-century ballad, the story centers on a young maiden who, while delivering candles to the church for matins, is savagely raped and murdered by a trio of highwaymen–among them, a young boy.  In a bizarre twist of fate, the killers seek refuge in the home of the girl’s parents.  One of the trio offers a dress from their victim to the mother as repayment for her kindness, setting in motion the third act, as the parents, now fully aware of their little girl’s fate, decide what to do with her killers.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Wes Craven sourced The Virgin Spring for his classic 1972 shocker, The Last House on the Left.  And while Craven’s update is certainly violent and disturbing, and moderately effective in its own way, it’s weightless when compared to the anguish the father of Bergman’s version experiences, as he quietly weighs his faith in God against the need for primal vengeance.  Indeed, there’s a magnificent sequence near the end, where von Sydow sits at a table and rummages through the trio’s belongings, simply thinking about what he plans to do.  As he does so, morning sunlight filters through the window, illuminating him–and his decision.  Craven, in his haste for exploitation, failed to include what Bergman surely knew was the defining moment of his own film.

The closing scene I mentioned above comes as von Sydow kneels by a stream, mere feet from his child’s lifeless body.  He curses the heavens, not only for his daughter’s murder, but for his own vicious act.  It’s a powerful, heartbreaking moment, a parallel to Bergman’s own long-held belief that God remains largely absent in times of need.

The Virgin Spring is a great film–one of the greatest–and should be seen by anyone who isn’t afraid to be profoundly moved by the medium.

(Also see Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny & Alexander, Scenes From a Marriage, and Saraband.)

1960; starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg; directed by Ingmar Bergman; 89 min; Not Rated; in Swedish w/ English subtitles; available on Criterion.