Rítdómur: Bergman's Virgin Spring

Yesterday, between finishing the set up of the Thor Heyerdahl exhibition and greeting the female students participating in our Lucia festival this year, I showed the Ingmar Bergmann film Virgin Spring, as part of my Viking film series. So it was a busy, long, and strange day. But the film has stuck with me (probably because I watched it 3 times this weekend) and I am still thinking about it. Ingmar Bergman felt it was far from his best film, and most critics seem to agree, but I do not wish to be so harsh. The rape scene is very oddly handled, vacillating between objectifying and sympathizing with the victim, but as the advocate we had on hand (to deal with any possibly trauma viewing such a film might inflict), the good thing is that the rape scene is in no way gratuitous. It is what the film is about, and how the people around it are affected by this act of violence, and that is in some ways very good. I chose to show the film however as a treatment of the Viking Age, or the early medieval period I should say, and in that regard, I rather like the film. The set and costumes are all very good, and it is interesting to take a story from a ballad that has nothing whatsoever to do with paganism and the old Norse religion, and try to make it such. In the discussion afterwards, the best theory for why Bergman made this change was that he was a preacher's son, obsessed with theology. I still think it had something to do with Sweden's emerging identity post-World War II, perhaps a way to shed the kind of impulses that led to the near-collusion with the Nazi's. A spring wells up out of the ground, cleansing not only the inhabitants but the landscape itself, preparing it for rebirth. My favorite line, the one that made me cry each time I saw it, was when Max von Sydow says he doesn't know how to say anything to atone for his sins, but he does know how to build something new, "Med dessa mina hönder", with these my very hands. And isn't that just what Sweden has done post-World War II, built a society so unlike that which came before? Anyhow, this is my own theory on the film, and a rather standard approach on my part to most movies, and indeed most plays: that they are not the individual genius of the film maker, but a part of a national cinema and a national dialogue about identity. But I am not a film scholar, and such a view could be wholly naive of me.

What the film is more ostensibly about is naivete, about misplaced optimism, about using narrative frames drawn from fantasy to interpret novel situations. Karin meets the three "herders" on the road, and chooses to interpret the situation like a princess in a fairytale, as if they were her three helpers that would make sure she meets her goal. She sits with them and spins a wonderful, childish tale, completely unable to see the situation for what it is until it is too late: that the three herdsmen never for a moment had any intention towards anything else but harm. Their charms were duplicitous and calculated, and the goal was always and only destruction of the young virgin. What is most amazing is this pattern is then repeated when the three herdsmen arrive at the home of the father. The father wants to believe the best of these three, engages them in friendly conversation immediately, offers them food and a warm place to sleep with no hesitation, and most remarkably of all, even offers them a job. He wants to see their lives improved, and he believes he can elicit that change. What he is forced to confront, just as his daughter had to do, is that he cannot. This threesome is irredeemable. Abusive, manipulative, lying, and entirely selfish.

It struck me as odd that the commentator tried to negate this theme of the movie, saying instead that Bergman had humanized the three herdsmen, by giving them all distinct personalities. And certainly one feels pity for the youngest of them, who seems barely more than a boy, and who tries to give Karin some sort of make-shift burial. In the conversation after the film, there seemed to be some feeling that the father could have spared that boy, maybe given him a chance as a foster-child at the farm. But it is clear in the film that he had taken in a stray child once before, who became the woman Inger. She proves to be constantly troublesome, even willing Odin to bring harm to her foster-sister, Karin, and watching with some titillation as she is killed.

But to return to the Viking theme in the film--the overlap between faiths in this transitional period--which was afterall the original reason why I chose to show the film. I find it really fascinating, from a theological point of view. The film gives both Odin and the Christian God agency and power in the world, one through destruction and the other through rebirth. Like ying and yang, these two need each other. One is the tree, the other the waters from which it draws strength.


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