By Jerome Reuter
Lars Von Trier was once quoted as saying; “Not all of Bergman’s films were great, but all of them were good.” I couldn’t agree more. Bergman is in an elite class of auteurs, such as Fellini, Welles, Renoir, and Jodorowsky. His filming style has a depth to it, but was still easy to comprehend. It’s no surprise that two of his primary rules for filmmaking, were every shot should entertain, as well as have a purpose to the story.
Which brings me to his 1960 film, The Virgin Spring. Quite possibly, one of the darkest films he ever made. There’s a reason I’ve decided to go over this one, primarily as a comparison. Not to long ago, I took a look at The Last House On The Left. Which is hands down, Wes Craven’s greatest work. I discussed his use of contrast, between upbeat and at times comical imagery, with scenes of torture and extreme violence. These were typical for any exploitation film from around the time. However, they served as brilliant commentary fro what one might find on American television during the conflict in Viet Nam.
So much of the origins of the story from last house, can be found in The Virgin Spring. Much like Craven’s story, it follows the tragic demise of a young girl, and the revenge of her family upon the perpetrators. So much of the plot is identical; it’s easy for anyone during their first viewing to notice the similarities. Which begs the question, was Craven’s film a parody, or homage? In my opinion, it’s a brilliant homage, to one of the screens master storytellers. Craven was certainly satirizing events in popular culture. Bergman was telling a story, adapting old Swedish folklore, for a modern time.
Much like in The Seventh Seal, Bergman ties the struggle of a character to a strong religious overtone. He chooses the setting of medieval Sweden, at a time where the old Norse mythology was slowly fading way into Christianity. It’s his great use of cinematography and contrast however, that make this film nothing short of a masterpiece.
Like many of his other works, he captures the beauty to be found in nature. He takes us back to a different time, before technology dominated our existence, and people lived off of the land. More importantly, the family of our victim, and the joy they have. He utilizes contrast in the story, by introducing us to two sisters from the family. The first child is a pristine virgin and devout Christian. The second is the perennial black sheep, carrying an illegitimate child, and holding on to the old beliefs.
Aside from their behavior, it’s the way they’re treated by the other characters in the story that further creates contrast. This all brings me to the inevitable demise of the pristine sister. The two are sent out into the countryside to make a delivery to a church, when she encounters some local herdsmen. Like our victim in last house, trusting strangers to easily, can be lethal. Bergman handles this sequence in a really interesting way. He downplays much of the violence, and instead relies on atmosphere. The majority of the film is without a soundtrack, so he lets the scene take on a life of its own. This allows the viewer to be swept away into the full barbarity of the herdsman’s actions. It’s very easy to see the influence on I Spit On Your Grave.
Much like Craven repeated in last house, it has the killers returning to the girl’s homestead. They’re discovered by the mother, and dispatched by the vengeful father. What separates this from its exploitation counterparts, are the strong religious overtones of the ending. The film concludes with the father apologizing for his deeds, and begging the forgiveness of God.
Bergman’s work though timeless, is not entirely original. The story is based on an old Scandinavian folk tale, “Töre’s daughters in Vänge.” Proving once and for all, that our pension for violence and revenge has always been with us. Stories like this will continue to be adapted, to celluloid, as well as other forms of media.
The Virgin Spring is proof, that good storytelling crosses all genres and boundaries. Keep your’ eyes on the future, you never know when this tale might be retold again.