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The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal: A Girardian Reading William Mishler Of his more than forty films, Ingmar Bergman has set two in the Middle Ages—The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1956) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1959), the latter based on an early ballad and utilizing a screenplay that he co-authored with Ulla Isaksson—which together form an instructive pair. The former, of course, represents his breakthrough as a director of international reputation. Though heralded by the powerful Sawdust and Tinsel from 1953, The Seventh Seal was his first unquestionable masterpiece. It was a film that to Bergman's own amazement "swept like a forest fire across the world."1 Today it continues to maintain its preeminent position with both audiences and critics. The Virgin Spring, however, is a different matter. Compared to his best work as a director, it has been judged a relative failure, first and foremost by Bergman himself. Initially elated by the film,2 he later became sharply critical of it. In an interview from 1970, he stated: "Now I want to make it quite plain that The Virgin Spring must be regarded as an aberration. It's touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa."3 And in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he neglects even to mention the film4 and thus tacitly removes it from among the works by which he evidently wishes to be recognized as a director. Bergman's condemnation of The Virgin Spring is in my view excessive. Taken simply on its own terms, it possesses an undeniable power and presents sequences of great visual interest. On the other hand, it is true, the film is a far less captivating work than The Seventh Seal, less surprising to watch and less challenging to think about afterwards. Bergman locates its flaw at the conceptual level, and in my opinion he is correct to do so. After all, there is nothing amiss with the film's actors or technical resources, which are nearly identical to The Seventh Seal's. Speci106 William Mishler107 fically, Bergman locates The Virgin Spring's problem in what he intriguingly calls its "totally unanalysed idea of God."5 In the present essay I would like to open up this "totally unanalysed idea" first of all because I believe that it will hand us an important key for understanding the disparity in artistic quality between the two films and also, I hope, provide some insight into the connecting logic of Bergman's work as a director and screenwriter. To carry out this inquiry I will draw on the work of the literary critic and anthropologist René Girard, whose theories concerning the function of religion in human society strike me as offering a powerfully articulated parallel to the psychological and anthropological insights implicitly present in many of Bergman's films. I It is important in regard to the matter of religion to distinguish the two senses in which the subject is particularly relevant to Bergman—i.e., the personal and the ethical. There is on the one hand the Christianity of his childhood which shadowed him well into adulthood. As the son of a strict Lutheran pastor, Bergman grew up in an atmosphere pervaded by Christian theology and Christian habits of thought from which, as an artist, he struggled mightily to free himself. This endeavor is particularly noticeable in the films of his middle period, extending from The Seventh Seal through the so-called trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom i en spegel, 1961), Winter Light (Nattvardsgästern, 1963), and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). These last three record the progressive stages in an examination and rejection of the notion of God as a sufficient response to the ills of the world. Bergman has called the trilogy a "reduction," thereby pointing to the tight interlinkage among the films, each taking the minimal optimism of its predecessor, its faint glimmer of theistic possibility, and subjecting it to destructive scrutiny. By the end of the trilogy, the notion of God even as resonant absence or significant silence has been expunged. In The Silence the trio of the film's principal characters are carried deeper and deeper into a gritty...


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pp. 106-134
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