A tale told since the 13th century, the story behind Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring was based on a medieval Swedish ballad, which took its own inspiration from a local legend that occurred initially a century before the ballad was penned. The gist of the legend is about why a forlorn church, located at Malmslätt in Östergötland, Sweden, had originally come to be in the middle of a desolate forest. Though Bergman makes some slight tweaks to the details of the original ballad, his cinematic approach to the subject is faithfully portrayed, but was received with controversy.
The Virgin Spring is centered on the rape and death of the innocent, golden child, Karin, daughter to the wealthy, landowning, Töre, who is as equally loving as he is personably relaxed. His wife, Märeta, is the kind of God-fearing wife and mother figure that instills discipline and caution into those around her. The three characters, along with the disrespected, pregnant servant maid, Ingeri, are at the forefront of a simple tale of lost innocence; or rather innocence stripped. Occult influence, social justice, the nature of evil, Norse mythology, Paganism, Christianity and the questioning of religious faith all play a role in what leads to a symbolic crime against universal morality.
The plot is simple. Karin was meant to deliver candles and food rations to a man of God a little ways away from her home compound. On her travels, three herdsmen, two men and one boy, consequentially pillage her goods, violently strip Karin’s coveted virginity, bludgeon her to death and leave her to decompose in the forest. As a result, her father takes vengeance on all their lives when the herdsmen attempt to pull the wool over the family’s eyes and seek refuge in their compound.
The idea behind Bergman’s film, beyond its inherent controversial nature, is its overarching message. In the face of death, many societal and moralistic beliefs we hold near and dear tend to fly straight out the window, like our composure, when something we love is destroyed before us. Some look to God for an answer and others gaze into themselves. Many point the finger at the Devil and rationalize the black arts as an intangible form of corruption. Others look nowhere and see nothing, blinded by their own overwhelming anger. What makes The Virgin Springs so special is its lack of moral insight.
The characters in the film each rationalize Karin’s death on their own, with no fulfilling sense of righteousness in sight. What stands left in the void of each character’s heart is a spring that flows from the spot where Karin’s life was taken. Instead of a grave, Töre vows to resurrect a Church in his daughter’s place. And that is that.
The Virgin Springs went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1961, as well as taken home a Golden Globe, a Golden Palm from the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, and earning the Best Costume Design award from the same 1961 Academy Awards. As of recent years, it has become immortalized in the cinephile’s paradise many know as the Criterion Collection. However, during its time of release, the infamous rape scene depicted was deemed as morally evil as the act itself. Screenings of The Virgin Springs went so far as to be banned in Fort Worth, Texas; a decision that went all the way up to the state’s Supreme Court.
Ingmar Bergman’s film stands as a classic testament of redemption under God’s watch, if he or she is even there watching over us at all.