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The Virgin Spring: The Criterion Collection

In October 2005, Ang Lee took time out from Brokeback Mountain's festival circuit to record a video introduction for this Criterion edition of Ingmar Bergman's austerely beautiful The Virgin Spring. In it, Lee says that when he first saw this black-and-white Scandinavian film as an 18-year-old in Taiwan, it "dumbfounded" and "electrified" him. He stayed in the screening room to view it a second time, and "life changed afterward," he declares. Its quietude coupled with brutal violence, and its whispering fundamental questions — particularly "God, where are you?" — expressed for Lee a "microscope into humanity." He adds, "Watching that movie made me a different filmmaker." Lee probably didn't set out to speak thematically of The Virgin Spring in terms of a filmmaker in transition, though it's fitting given the film's place in Bergman's canon. Released in 1960, it marks the final title associated with the auteur's classical period, those major films of the 1950s such as Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Seventh Seal. Although its stark visual and existential aesthetics strike us here and now as unmistakably "Bergmanesque," the director himself became critical of his reliance on imitating the visual styles of other filmmakers, chiefly Kurosawa. Beginning with his next major work, Through a Glass Darkly ('61), we see Bergman's own distinctive style assertively developing. And in terms of practical professional transitions, after The Virgin Spring ended up winning Bergman the first of his three Best Foreign Film Oscars, the newfound acclaim brought a financial and prestige boost that helped him ascend to the next phase of his career.

Transitions of a broader sort are woven into the film. Adapted by novelist Ulla Isaksson from a 13th-century ballad, its folk-song-simple narrative — a naïve and pampered virgin girl, Karin (lovely Birgitta Peterson), on her way to church is raped and murdered by two herdsmen, who soon afterward receive bloody retribution at the hands of her father, Töre (statuesque Max von Sydow) — takes place in a medieval land where the pagan Norse gods are giving way to Christianity. Both Odin and Christ are prayed to in the film, though by the time a miraculous spring emerges from the ground beneath Karin's body, it's clear which faith now holds the cards. Bergman paints the primeval world in elemental images of fire, earth, and water; a portending raven; a deranged sorcerer with his pagan charms; and the Brothers Grimm woods where the encounter occurs. Shot with startling naturalism by cinematographer Sven Nykvist — in his first of many collaborations with Bergman — the attackers' bestial rape was censored in the U.S., yet Bosley Crowther in the New York Times still called it "sickening on our screen."

Contrasting Karin's silk-clad, golden-child status is lascivious Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a raven-haired wild-child, the illegitimately pregnant servant girl so jealous of the spoiled blonde maiden that she "wills" the terrible act to occur. At the end, in a moment ripe with cleansing transfiguration, Ingeri bathes her filthy face in the magical waters; however, it's a cleansing bought with the savage, almost ceremonial revenge (à la Kurosawa's samurai) the father metes out on the murderers. When the Christian patriarch kills one herdsman too many, an innocent boy, his eye-for-an-eye vengeance turns into his own equivalent sin. That realization spurs him to question a God of grace who would allow a virtuous child to be destroyed while He watched. "I do not understand you," he prays. Yet he asks for forgiveness all the same, and vows an act of penitence. In response, he receives a miracle from a New Testament God of paradoxical means and mysterious ways.

As the thorough commentary track on this disc points out, Bergman's symbolic textures are not explicit archetypes; rather, they're suggestions of emotional layers quivering beneath his images. When Töre wrestles with a birch tree during a thunderstorm, the film's signature takeaway shot merges visual power with a symbolic and emotional potency of King Lear. Bergman's aim is for us to feel, not think overmuch about what he's showing us. So despite the apparent miracle at the end (and the fact that the film received a warmer audience in the staunchly religious U.S. than in its more secular homeland), nutshelling the film as Christian allegory is too reductive. While the source legend's virgin-blessed healing spring (a real pilgrimage site in Sweden) might prompt a themed double-feature with 1943's The Song of Bernadette, it would be at the expense of Bergman's suggestiveness, not to mention the painfully less artful earlier film.

Nonetheless, years later Bergman decried The Virgin Spring's "spiritual jiggery-pokery." He expressed particular misgivings about its "totally unanalyzed idea of God" and said that Töre's atonement vow was "therapeutic" for the characters "but artistically it was utterly uninteresting" (Bergman on Bergman, 1968). In 1990 he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, "The God concept had long ago begun to crack, and it remained more as a decoration than as anything else. What really interested me was the actual, horrible story of the girl and her rapists, and the subsequent revenge."

Bergman may have been too self-critical. How can Man progress spiritually with Nature in our veins? What is piety's value in a cruel world? At what point is revenge an evil act? Although the "jiggery-pokery" does mute the "actual, horrible story," Bergman still poses worthy questions, offering no answers, a key difference between art and baloney, or spirituality and dogmatism. And his ambivalence doesn't hamper our appreciation of the film's craftsmanship and artistry. Nykvist's camerawork, the sculpted performances from Bergman's players, and the detailed, dimensional sets work together in a plainsong harmony that's immersive and rewarding.

*          *          *

It goes without saying that, now at catalog title #321, the Criterion Collection gives us a DVD release of The Virgin Spring that's a superbly presented and authoritative edition. Struck from the original camera negative, the black-and-white print (1.37:1, windowboxed) delivers an image that's exemplary even by Criterion's standards, with precision tones and sterling detail. The default audio is the original Swedish language track in clean DD 1.0 with "new and improved" English subtitles. An English language dub is here too.

The commentary track is by Birgitta Steene, professor emerita in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington and author of Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide. She comprehensively annotates the film's production history, onscreen elements, and its place within Bergman's aesthetic and professional history.

Another new extra here holds two 2005 video interviews with actors Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Peterson, reflecting on their experiences making The Virgin Spring and working with Bergman. The man himself delivers a fine classroom seminar in the 40-minute audio-only "Ingmar Bergman at the AFI," presented in Los Angeles in 1975. Speaking with obvious pleasure in English, Bergman gives his thoughts on six chaptered topics — Working with Actors; Dreams and Music; Budgets, Beginnings, and Rushes; The Camera; Theater and Film; and Something to Say (about the need to express one's passions through art).

Finally, a 28-page booklet prints an essay, "Bergman in Transition," by Peter Cowie; an essay from by the script's writer, Ulla Isaksson, from the 1960 U.S. theatrical release program; a letter from Bergman justifying artistically and ethically the rape scene's "naked atrocity" in the face of the film's censorious U.S. distribution; and the source ballad. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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