Friday, September 18, 2009

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Although I am a fan of the original Last House on the Left and thought the remake was excellent, people tend to forget that Ingmar Bergman did it first, and did it best.

The Virgin Spring is set in Sweden in the 1300s. It tells the story of Tore and Mareta, Christians in a time when there was still conflict between Christians and pagans. Tore is master of a large farm. The couple have only one child left living, a young daughter not quite yet of marrying age, named Karin. Karin is beautiful, blond, innocent and sweet, although quite spoiled by her parents' doting after their other children have died. There is another young girl on the farm, Ingeri. Ingeri was taken in as a child when her parents died and she had nowhere else to go. No one could be more the opposite of young Karin. Ingeri is wild, rough, promiscuous, and pagan. She also happens to be within days of delivering an illegitimate child.

It's Friday, and Karin has the duty, since she is the only virgin on the farm, to carry the candles to church for matins, the early morning mass. She slept late, however, and has missed matins, but her father insists that she take the candles to church anyway, even though she at first pretends to be ill. The nearest church is almost a half day's horse ride from the farm. Thanks to Karin pleading on Ingeri's behalf, the foster sister is allowed to ride with her to church, but not before Ingeri calls out to Odin and prays that something will befall Karin, of whom she is sorely jealous.

The two girls set out on their journey together, not expected to return until near dark. Halfway there, however, Ingeri gets spooked by what is hinted are premonitions, or bad feelings, about traveling through the woods, and even asks Karin to stay back with her. Karin refuses and continues on alone. She travels well for a while until she meets up with three brothers who seem to be tending sheep, but behave more like highwaymen.

As if that doesn't sound familiar enough, one of the brothers is very young, about 12 years old, and hesitant to the point of growing ill along the way from what he knows will happen, and what he is witness to in the forest.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But what makes this version the best? Aside from being the first, there is the fact that it has the Bergman touch. Ingmar Bergman has been a love of mine in film since I was probably 13 years old and discovered The Seventh Seal. Just what is the Bergman touch? Well, as was best described in the interview with the two actresses in the Criterion edition of the film, it's his timelessness. Someone can make a film in the 1960s and no matter what period it is meant to be set in, you can look at the hairstyle or the cut of the clothing and say "That's from the '60s". Not so with Bergman. While we do not know what the hair looked like exactly from the 1300s in Sweden, or the clothing, we do not need to know when watching Bergman. No one has ever treated the Middle Ages with such a loving hand and come out so completely realistic. If he puts a dress on a girl, then you know without a doubt that that garment was a relic from Medieval times. If he shows a woman baking bread then you know that is the exact method of baking bread in the Middle Ages. He is honest, even in allegory.

One of the reasons this is, is due to the fact that Ingmar Bergman was the son of a very successful and influential preacher. Growing up, his punishment for wrong-doing was to be locked in a dark closet in the church, at which time he would study the medieval images and sculptures for hours on end, listening to the singing of the congregation and the sound of his father's voice. He has said that this was fertile ground for the imagination of an artist, the images of battles, angels, devils, dragons, humans, and saints. The struggles on the walls of his punishment gave birth to the films of torture and pain that were prevalent in the more than 60 films that he directed.

There is no gore in The Virgin Spring. There is sadness, remorse, loss, and guilt. Once Tore has done his penance and done the deed that each father in each version of the movie has had to do, the rapists are all but forgotten. The guilt is borne by the mother, by the father, by the foster sister, Ingeri, and even hinted at by the farm hands. Each feels guilt in his or her own way for what befell such an innocent child. The only blame that is laid out after the rapists are dead is from the father to God, and then he feels guilt even for that, shown in a scene which Ang Lee (who presents an introduction on the Criterion release) says he strives to emulate in his own films.

There is more than revenge in this film, which is another thing that sets it apart from the two remakes. There is religious conflict, jealousy (between Ingeri and Karin, the mother and the father), angst, and so many things in context with the time period in which it is set that each time I think about it, I can think of a new one.

The rape scene is not as quiet and surreal as Wes Craven's nor as painful and long as the Dennis Iliadis one. But it is there, and it is disturbing in its own way, and the murder of the girl is somehow more shocking. When it's done, there is a scene that was entirely disheartening, turning the rapists into something even less humane than the act of rape and murder did. Likewise, there is another scene that is just as disturbing in the revenge sequence, which sets it above the other two.

There are some interesting differences in style as well. In Wes Craven's version, the actors knew little about each other which led to some nervousness between them. If I remember correctly, Craven said this was done on purpose to give the actors some hesitation and nervousness that made his version seem so real that people thought it was a snuff film. In Bergman's, Karin's actress and one of the rapists worked together in the same theatre where Bergman was their teacher and director for several years. They made their movies in the summer and in the fall they all returned to the theatre together to begin their season and their classes. I also thought that one of the rapists in The Virgin Spring looked a lot like Aaron Paul from the 2009 remake, which was rather amusing and disturbing at the same time.

One of my favorite symbolic scenes in the film is when Max von Sydow, after finding out what happened to his daughter, is planning to do away with her murderers. He goes into the field near the farm to chop down a tree but instead wrestles it down with the strength of his anger. It's a beautiful, very heartwrenching sight.

A note on the story and where it came from. The Virgin Spring was written by Ulla Isaksson after a medieval Swedish ballad that tells of a young girl who slept too late for matins and how trouble would befall her on her way to church. So even here, it is taken from something else. This, indeed, is the best version of the three. Max von Sydow as the father is brilliant and handsome. The cast was perfect. On the Criterion edition there are interviews, parts of a speech given by Bergman on making his films that is simply amazing, and a commentary track by a Bergman scholar. This movie blows the Last House remakes both out of the water as an overall picture. I can see parts that are better in each film, but as a whole, The Virgin Spring is the best. Here is a wonderful review of the 2009 Last House on the Left, if you're interested, written by Heavenztrash.

I am partial to Ingmar Bergman and plan to review many of his other films, but I do believe that even if you find his stuff too weighty or too bleak, that this film should be seen at least by fans of the two remakes.

I've had it pointed out to me that Wes Craven said that his movie was loosely based on The Virgin Spring. I'll throw that out there but Last House on the Left is almost a scene for scene remake. The only thing "loose" in the similarities between both movies is the time period and the religious aspect. There is a scene of the foster sister in The Virgin Spring running through the forest that mirror's Mari's friend trying to reach the highway in Crave's Last House. There is the solomn realization of what they have done after the rape. Hardly a beat is missed right down to the mother having concern over the guilt-induced illness of the youngest of the trio. The virgin in both movies passes a few moments with the killers before everything goes to hell. The rape scene may not be as explicit but many theatres banned the movie, so I'm assuming that for 1960 it was quite disturbing. I found it disturbing today. It goes on and on. So watch it and decide for yourself.


  1. I've always been interested in this movie, since it's the "original" Last House. The stills here are beautiful -- each one is like a painting...makes me want to check it out!

  2. You know, this review makes me want to read an article comparing and contrasting the three versions of the story. I think that could be really interesting. In fact, I think it would be pretty cool to see other articles of the same sort -- for example, how many versions of Dangerous Liaisons have there been? It would be really interesting to see an explicit comparison and contrast of however many you've seen, as opposed to a review.