Anchor Staff Writer
Karin, the angelic virgin daughter of a medieval Christian farmer is commissioned to deliver candles to a distant church. To reach her destination, the young girl crosses a bleak pagan woodland harboring souls yearning to take advantage of her chastity and naivete. In traveling with her adopted sister Ingeri, Karin is viciously assaulted and murdered by herdsmen in the thick of the wood. Confronted with a clash between faith and vengeance, Karin’s father seeks the blood of the men who robbed his daughter of life and virtue.
On the surface, acclaimed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman presents a rather simple fable-like narrative. Early on, depth is allotted to each character remarkably. Karin, depicted in absolute purity, contrasts with Ingeri, her malicious pagan sister. Ingeri, in envy, becomes giddy at the thought of the virgin’s defilement. This foreshadows, fairly plainly, Karin’s ultimate demise at the hands of two herdsmen on their journey. What places this film below greatness is the lack of time and plot attention given after Karin’s death. The true heart of the film starts racing after Karin’s death but presents no timeline. Every element up to the swinging club perfectly sets the stage for a much deeper conflict to follow. Unfortunately, the conflict ends up feeling too rushed leaving surface-level elements to remain lackluster. This being the case, the latter half’s symbolic nature is the true driving force for the rest of the film and not the plot itself.
Proceeding the attack are a few scenes in which Karin’s religious parents, Töre and Märeta, display stages of anguish. Töre challenges his lord by grappling a tree from the ground unable to cope with the affliction, while Märeta broods after burning her wrists in penance to God. Although these scenes conveyed their purpose, there was still not enough opportunity for the viewer to fully absorb the inner conflict being experienced. Töre, a man of devout faith, was now being stripped of his morals and driven to seek sinful retribution for the loss of his little princess.
This being said, “The Virgin Spring” is not a surface-level film and mostly everything that amounts to importance recedes to an inner, symbolic level. Bergman’s picture, though simple in structure, is very thematically complex, requiring great attention to detail. Does Töre get his revenge? Yes, he exacts brutal vengeance on those responsible for Karin’s death. Does Töre spend several nights sharpening knives, methodically tracking down the evildoers? No, he does not. The culprits simply come knocking on his door by chance, falling right into his hands. The process of devising retribution, though being a fundamental element in the revenge genre, is shown no concern here. It remains a surface-level component that doesn’t add to the film’s depth.
Now, the real narrative being masked under a flat revenge plot is one of purity and impurity, Christianity and waning paganism, sin and atonement. Driven by resentment, Ingeri willed the destruction of her sister. Her pagan beliefs have become obsolete from the dominating wave of Christianity, leaving her an outsider. On top of it all, her pregnancy out of wedlock bogs her down to the lowest of the low in this medieval Swedish period. These factors provoke Ingeri’s jealousy. Yet, when she gets exactly what she wants and witnesses the assault on Karin, guilt drives her to blame herself for the crime and repent for her transgressions. Repentance is perhaps one of the most important themes that Bergman displays here.
The murder was committed by two herdsmen and their kid brother. Being forcibly involved in the killing, the youngest brother is overcome with guilt, although he could never have stopped the crime. His innocence is stressed, for he only ever knew the evil of his brothers and was a stranger to religion and virtue. By the film’s climax, Töre realizes the goat herders are the ones who killed his daughter and strikes them down in a display of egregious rage.
A faithful man executes cold-blooded retribution – even on an innocent child. Is this really justice or is it revenge? Whether you practice religion or not, this theme is still vital. Töre, a holy man, defiles himself in sin, rejecting God’s justice and exacting his own will. The actions of the Christian farmer are no better than that of the pagan herdsmen. Both victims in this matter, Karin and the child, were innocent and pure of heart. Again, the theme of penance concludes “The Virgin Spring.” Töre supplicates himself in guilt and shame for God’s forgiveness, showing that the true test of one's righteousness occurs when they lose what they hold dearest. “The Virgin Spring” is not a film to take lightly despite its simplicity and remains exquisitely crafted. Shrouded by deep meaning and religious undertones, Ingmar Bergman has created a unique experience. All sprouting from one simple concept: A virgin is killed on her way to church.