- The Virgin Spring
In 1960, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was at a key career crossroads. His international breakthrough films Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), and Wild Strawberries (1957) were behind him, whereas his experimental attempts toward a more intimate “chamber film” mode Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963), and Persona (1966) lay immediately ahead. The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukälan) occupies a transitional, hybrid position in the Bergman canon.
Returning to the world of the Middle Ages that he had powerfully reimagined in The Seventh Seal three years earlier, Bergman conceived another medieval morality play based on a thirteenth-century legend, Töres dotter i Vänge (“Töre’s Daughter in Vänge”), which he had first read as a student in Stockholm in the early 1940s. Another source of inspiration was an actual spring in the churchyard of Kärna parish in Östergötland that was thought to have healing powers.
Bergman cast several members of his 1950s stock company of theater and film actors [End Page 102] in major roles. Bergman’s most omnipresent male lead, Max von Sydow (who starred as the knight Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal) played wealthy farmer Töre and Birgitta Valberg played his wife Märeta. Birgitta Pettersson, then a young actress in the Malmö City Theater student program, was assigned the pivotal role of their daughter Karin and Gunnel Lindblom (The Seventh Seal and Winter Light) played Karin’s foster sister Ingeri. Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal, and Ove Porath appeared as the three herdsmen who rape and kill Karin in the forest and upon whom Töre later exacts a bloody revenge.
Bergman contracted Brink of Life collaborator Ulla Isaksson to cowrite the screenplay. The Virgin Spring also marked the first collaboration between Bergman and legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist who would shoot all of Bergman’s films through the early 1980s and win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for Cries and Whispers (1972) and Fanny and Alexander (1982).1 The film’s exteriors were shot in the Dalarna region where the lyrical renderings of the Swedish landscape and sky at times recall such glorious silent-era collaborations of director Victor Sjöström and cameraman Julius Jænzon as Terje Vigen (1917) and The Outlaw and His Wife (1918).
Unlike Nykvist’s near-shadowless lighting and rougher look that was inextricably associated with the barren Baltic island landscape of Fårö, The Virgin Spring looks as if it was photographed by underrated cinematographer Gunnar Fischer with its baroque compositions and lyrical yet expressionist studio lighting. Fischer shot most of Bergman’s masterworks of the 1950s including Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries; however, the two allegedly quarreled during the shooting of The Magician (1958) and by the time The Virgin Spring went into production, Fischer was shooting a live-action film for Walt Disney.
In many ways, the film marks the end of Bergman’s “classical” period that began with his first film as a director, Crisis (1946), and before he would break from Svensk Filmindustri studio-bound aesthetics and experiment in very new directions with Through a Glass Darkly (1961). In terms of music, The Virgin Spring remains Bergman’s final link to film scores composed directly for the screen. Erik Nordgren, Bergman’s talented and largely unsung composer from his 1950s triumphs, created for the film the last new score ever composed for a Bergman film. It is hard to imagine the emotional power of 1950s Bergman classics such as Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries without the melancholy lyricism of Nordgren’s music. But in Bergman’s “ascetic aesthetic” of the 1960s and 1970s, the director chose to mostly punctuate the silences with fragments of classical music and the ambient percussive effects of clocks ticking and bells chiming.
Bergman himself has tended, perhaps unfairly, to retrospectively regard The Virgin Spring as one of his least favorite creations. In his 1990 autobiography, Images: My Life in Film, he avoids mentioning The Virgin Spring altogether. While in a...