Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Virgin Spring: Finding Meaning in Chaos

People need to make sense of chaos. Anything will do: superstitions, religion, fairy tales. And if your actions contribute in some way to the destruction of a loved one? What then? Find a way of making sense of things that simultaneously absolves you of blame. On the other hand, a person incapable of latching onto conscience-soothing beliefs faces true terror. What better way to explore the benefits of using fairy tales to cope with trauma than in a film based on an ancient folk ballad (i.e., a fairy tale)?

In medieval era Sweden, a servant girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), struggles to light the morning fire in the dining hall of a feudal farm compound. Flames finally come to life and she opens the roof hatch to let the smoke escape. Then she prays to the Norse god Odin, telling him to make himself seen on Earth. So ends the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film, The Virgin Spring.

In the next scene, prosperous farm owner, Töre (Max von Sydow), and his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), pray in front of a crucifix of Jesus. The wife pours hot wax on her wrist to further show her devotion. It’s spring, likely close to Easter, and their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), must take candles to a church in a distant village because tradition indicates the task must be performed by a virgin. Karin begs her father to allow Ingeri to join her on the journey, and he relents.

The contrast between Ingeri and Karen is an interesting one. Ingeri is pregnant and at one point hints that her pregnancy may be the result of rape. But nobody cares. She's a throwaway person. What happens to her doesn't matter. Karin, on the other hand, is a virgin. The daughter of wealthy parents. But is she really a virgin? Or at least, as innocent as her image suggests? Karin tells her mother she danced with countless boys last night. Ingeri saw Karin kissing a boy in the barn during the same night of apparent abandon. Later, Karin's father remembers a time Karin stayed in the distant village over night. Perhaps not the same connotation it might have nowadays, but part of a pattern. All these scenes contribute to the theme that people believe what they want regardless of other contrary evidence.

Karin and Her Mother
Most of the characters in the film have a belief system based on Norse paganism or Christianity. But Simon (Oscar Ljung), a labourer on Töre's farm, may be an exception, at least by degrees. He sprinkles his poetic language with cryptic riddles. At turns, he appears obsequious and clownish; a kind of jester. And like most jesters in literature and fairy tales, he's more intelligent and prescient than first impressions might suggest.

But there's something darker there. In one scene, as he chats with the old servant, Frida (Gudrun Brost), Simon makes a light-hearted, bawdy insinuation about her. She counters with a suggestion about an indiscretion in his past. He laughs and swats it aside with a line about the benefit of fleeing a bad situation. It's in this scene the viewer might first notice a lesion at the corner of Simon's mouth. Perhaps symbolic of a tainted past.

The two girls set off, the blonde Karin in silk dress and on a white horse, the dark-haired, pregnant Ingeri in grubby peasant's dress and on a darker horse. They travel across fields, along the shore of a lake and into a forest until they come to a stream and the ramshackle mill-cabin of a one-eyed old man (‘Bridge Keeper’ in the credits, played by Axel Slangus). Karin carries on alone and Ingeri remains in the cabin with the old man. 

Bridge Keeper and Ingeri
His beliefs are based on magic and superstition. At the sound of galloping horses nearby, he proclaims the riders 'three dead men riding north.' Is he referring to the three goat herders we are soon to meet? They have no horses and one of them is only a young boy. But they hail from the North and perhaps begin fleeing in the direction of their home region after committing the horrific crime at the heart of the film. And, indeed, they do meet a nasty end later in the film. Through observation and speculation, or sheer luck, the old man has hit on a partial truth, at least on a symbolic level. And he seems aware of the real purpose of his belief system, saying "I hear what I want and see what I want."

Karin is brutally raped and murdered by two of the three goat herders she meets in the forest. Ingeri watches, transfixed, from a copse of trees, having trailed after Karin on foot after the incident in the cabin. Unwittingly, the murderers (Axel Duberg and Tor Isedal) and their young brother (Ove Porath) later seek shelter inside the walls of Töre's modest compound. Töre agrees to give them food and a place to sleep, and now we're on a collision course with the brutal, vengeful climax.

Simon of Snollsta
Before that horrific explosion of violence, we see one of the most arresting scenes of the movie, involving the young boy and Simon. After the three brothers have taken refuge at Töre's home, the young boy is the first to realize their horrible mistake. Later, as the boy lies in a bed in the dining hall, Simon at first mesmerizes, then terrorizes him with a story soaked in metaphor, violent imagery and conflict. Simon describes a dangerous journey the boy is on and horrible obstacles he will eventually overcome.

It's not difficult to see religious connotations in the parable. A description of hell, good triumphing over evil and, in the following lines, eventual redemption for sins a person may have committed: "But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away…where evil no longer has power over you." 

And following the scene, the film cuts to an image of Christ on the cross. But despite its elaborate flourishes, Simon’s tale is absent the wild rationalizations made by the other characters yet still intends to make order of chaos, to help the boy overcome guilt and move on in life. Simon's monologue is surely one of the most overlooked and powerful in film history.

The Young Boy
Immediately after the conclusion of Simon’s tale, something takes place off screen in the dining hall. It seems the tale may have led the young boy to the verge of a confession about the murder his brothers committed. Or perhaps something more sinister takes place. Viewers never find out for sure. Regardless, Simon rushes out of the hall just as Karin's mother, Mareta is about to enter, telling her that "They struck the boy."

In the folk ballad on which the movie is based, the men who kill Karin are revealed to be the sons of Töre, cast out years earlier due to the impoverished state of the family before the farm prospered. In other words, they are Karin's brothers. No indication that the film includes this final noirish twist. In fact, the age of the youngest brother in the film wouldn't allow this scenario to be possible. At most, there might be an allusion to this twist from the folk ballad when one of the brothers offers to sell the soiled dress of the dead Karin to her mother, claiming it's all the brothers have left of their 'dead sister.' Karin's mother now knows the horrible truth but doesn't let on to her daughter’s murderers. She rushes to tell Töre, which triggers the film’s famous revenge scene.

Before Töre sets out to avenge his daughter's murder, he takes a sauna while flogging himself with birch branches. Like all such rituals, it is done to assuage guilt, which, together with jealousy, is also a theme throughout the film. Perhaps the ritual will also give him guidance. Or at the very least, attach grand, righteous meaning to the task at hand. Upon finishing his sauna, he strides to the food hall, where the murderers have been sleeping for the night. He does away with the two older brothers: first plunging a dagger in the neck of one and then driving the other into the flames in the central fireplace.

Is the young boy spared? No. Töre hurls him against the wall, killing him. He is perhaps the most innocent character and suffers the same fate as his brothers despite the fact he didn’t take part in the rape or murder. He has no coping mechanisms, no ability to rationalize, and remains mute throughout the film. He experiences the true terror of what has happened to Karin and what, unjustly, happens to him. Perhaps, too, together with Simon, the small boy sees more clearly than anyone else in the film. 

When Ingeri leads Töre and his wife to Karin's body, they move her and water springs forth from where her head had rested. This is absolute proof to Töre of divine intervention. A sign from God that he must build a church at that spot. Not the more likely reality that, because it is spring and Karin had been left to die on a slope below a stream, the water overflowed and gravitated towards the depression her body made. The guilt of his earlier actions is all but forgotten.

The Virgin Spring has been classified under the genre ‘rape and revenge.’ That crude description does a disservice to this film. Like most fairy tales, it’s deeper and more powerful than its simple, linear presentation suggests. And just like the characters, viewers of this film will see the action through their own personal lens of life experience and world-view. Religious and superstitious types may have a more literal take on the film while skeptics may share the interpretation included here. 

In a world of chaos, terror and, finally, eternal non-existence, many people latch onto irrational explanations to get them to the finish line. Every random act can be attributed to divine intervention. Every misstep explained away. It’s a game that validates your status, ignores those with less power and has a particular flavour that just happens to suit your chosen fairy tale and level of intellect. The alternative is to let chaos sweep you into eternity before you have a chance to make sense of the world.