Disclaimer: Generally I do not include spoilers when I write about movies, but I feel that with the The Virgin Spring I could make an exception. The movie has been in circulation for forty seven years now, and even film buffs who have not seen the film are more than likely familiar with its plot. That having been said, if you have not seen The Virgin Spring and do not wish to have it spoiled for you, don't read this article.
Of all Ingmar Bergman's films, Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring in English) probably had the most mixed reaction. Filmmakers of the French New Wave and former Bergman supporters elsewhere dismissed the film. Even Bergman himself would later refer to the film as an "aberration" in his career. In Sweden the movie's violence (tame by today's standards, although it still packs a punch) caused many to walk out on the film upon its first showing. Some even suggested that Bergman was spared the censor's scissors simply because of his reputation. In the United States the rape scene (again, tame in the light of more recent films) was censored. At the same time, however, The Virgin Spring received overall positive reviews in the United States. And it received both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961.
One of the most frequent criticisms of the film is that it is a straight forward morality play. Indeed, many have noted that it is the one film Bergman made in which the Christian God is not silent. To me this would make Jungfrukällan an unusual film for Ingmar Bergman, particularly given it immediately precedes his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), in which faith and even the existence of the Christian God is often questioned. It is my thought that The Virgin Spring questions faith in much the same way that his Trilogy of Faith does, and that it is not quite so straightforward as many would have it to be.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it is based on the 13th century ballad "Herr Töres döttrar i vange." The plot of the ballad is very close to that of Jungfrukällan. A young girl was on her way to church when she is raped and murdered by highwaymen. A spring then miraculously appeared where her body lay. Bergman expanded on the plot of "Herr Töres döttrar i vange" a good deal. Although the ballad is overtly Christian in tone, Bergman and screenwriter Ulla Isaksson (a popular Swedish novelist at the time) set the movie at a time when Sweden was in transition from its native heathen religion to Christianity. Wealthy landowner Töre (Max Von Sydow), his wife (Birgitta Valberg), his daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), and many of his servants follow Christianity, while his foster daughter and servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) still prays to the Norse god Óðinn.
Setting the movie in the transition period between heathenism and Christianity gives Bergman a chance to portray the different relationships between people and their religious beliefs. Töre's wife Märeta is a strict Christian who takes comfort in the religion's ceremony, to the point of burning her wrists with a candle in penance. While Töre prays with his wife, he seems reluctant to do so and not particularly amiable to his wife's idea of burning her wrists. Despite their apparent devotion to Christianity, both Töre and Märeta dote on their spoiled daughter Karin and even permit her to ride to church to deliver candles without an escort. Like her parents, Karin follows Christianity, although it is quite apparent that she is much more interested in the secular world than any spiritual one. She oversleeps on the day she is to deliver candles to the church because she had too much fun at the dance before. She is vain about her appearance, admonishing her mother to get out of her light when admiring her reflection and insisting in being dressed in her Sunday best for her trip to the church. Karin is quite obviously spoiled, as she is able to wrap her parents around her little finger and get nearly anything she wants. Similarly, she seems perfectly aware of her power over men and willing to use her sexuality to get her way, although she seems overly innocent of the effect this has upon the men. Overall, Karin is proud, vain, and overly boastful, hardly the ideal Christian.
Karin stands in stark contrast to her foster sister Ingeri. Although Ingeri appears in the movie as dirty, slovenly, and carrying a child out of wedlock. she is arguably the more religious of the two. She seems quite devoted to Óðinn, which, along with the fact that she is pregnant without a husband, is probalby the reason she is a bit of an outcast in the household. Indeed, this probably explains why she is dirty and slovenly--one has to wonder that she wasn't denied personal amenities because of her status (the heathen Swedes were meticulously clean when it came to their bodies--an Old English source complains about the Vikings getting all the women because they actually take baths and comb their hair...). Karin and her parents are also contrasted with the servant Frida and the beggar who has travelled to various holy sites across the world. Frida seems much more genuine in her belief in Christianity, thanking God for preventing from stepping on a flock of chicks at one point. As to the beggar, he sincerely explains to the goatherds' younger brother the heavenly reward awaiting one in Christianity and talks with awe of the religious sites he has seen to Frida.
When it comes to religion, the goatherds occupy a completely different stratum from anyone else in the movie. They are neither Christian nor heathen, but apparently have no religious beliefs. When they rob Karin's body after raping and murdering her, they stomp on the holy candles that she was to deliver to the church. They also make a mockery of hospitality (a virtue valued by the pre-Christian Swedes) when they offer to sell Karin's blood soiled clothes to Märeta. The only one of them with any decency is the youngest. While the boy passively watches (as does Ingeri) as his brothers rape and murder Karin, he also has enough respect for her to attempt covering up her body. If Töre, Märeta, and Karin are people of little faith, and Ingeri, Frida, and the beggar are people of fairly solid faith, then the goatherds are people of no faith at all.
Not only does The Virgin Spring, a movie assumed by some to be a straightforward, Christian morality play, offer a fairly complex look at the relationship of various individuals to their religion of choice, but it actually lends some credence to the old, pre-Christian, Swedish religion. This is not only seen in the figure of Ingeri, but in Töre himself. Following his daughter's murder and the discovery that the goatherds are the culprits, Töre does not forgive them and figure out a peaceful means to teach them the error of their ways. Instead he does the same thing that his heathen, Viking ancestors would do. He orders Ingeri (the heathen in the family) to prepare his bath and then cuts down a birch tree for its branches. Afterward, in the bath, Töre switches himself with the birch branches. As both Bergman and screenwriter Isaksson probably well knew, switching with birch branches was a means of purification performed in Sweden during spring time rituals, and probably other important times as well. Töre is then purifying himself before the task at hand--namely avenging Karin by slaying the goatherds who murdered her. This too would appear to be a heathen act rather than a Christian one. Among the ancient Swedes when a family member was murdered, his or her family were obligated to avenge them. Töre's brutal slaying of the goatherds could easily fit into any number of Icelandic sagas or Norse myths. Quite simply, in the Dark Ages, prior to the evolution of complex court systems, revenge was one of the few means of punishing evildoers. While Töre does beg the Christian God's forgiveness for what he has done, he does it nonetheless.
Töre's ritual of vengeance is not the only way in which the movie seemingly lends credence to the old Swedish religion. In the beginning of the film Ingeri believes in Óðinn and prays to him. Later Ingeri is given the task of accompanying Karin to the church. At a stream bordering the forest, Ingeri decides to visit the Bridge Keeper there rather than enter the woods with Karin (which she fears a good deal) and continue to the church. As it turns out, the Bridge Keeper is also heathen--apparently a seer of some sort. He shows Ingeri his various talismans and tells her what they can do. After he touches her and offers her strength, Ingeri flees the Bridge Keeper's cabin. Many have interpreted the Bridge Keeper as having made advances to her, but I am not so certain about that. It seems to me that like Ingeri, the Bridge Keeper is a bit of an outcast. Not only does he live in what we would today call the "boondocks," but he is heathen in an increasingly Christian world. I don't think it is too far fetched to assume that he is very, very lonely. I am then not so certain that the Bridge Keeper's motives were so much sexual in nature. Instead, it seems to me that he was, perhaps overzealously, offering her help as a fellow heathen in hopes that they could be friends.
Of course, it seems possible that the Bridge Keeper is something more than a lonely old heathen. Outside his house there sits a raven, a bird associated with Óðinn. In fact, according to Norse myth Óðinn owns two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who report the news of the world to him each day. Once Ingeri is inside the cabin, the Bridge Keeper brags of the knowledge he possesses, knowledge that would seem to go beyond a mere, mortal seer. He even asks Ingeri if she can hear three dead men riding, perhaps foreseeing the ultimate fate of the goatherds who are about to kill Karin in a short time. Finally, among many other things, Óðinn is the god of death, whose Valkyries not only carry those slain in battle to Valhalla, but who sometimes goes forth to take his chosen heroes there himself. In some respects he is a figure similar to Charon in Greek mythology, the ferryman who carried the dead across the River Styx to Hades. In the Volsunga Saga he appears as a ferryman who carries the dead body of the hero Sinfjotli away in his boat. The Bridge Keeper would seem to perform a similar function, seeing individuals off to the other side. It seems possible, then, that the Bridge Keeper is none other than Óðinn himself. It is notable that immediately before Töre and his household find Karin's body, a raven is seen in a tree.
Further credence that the movie gives to the old Swedish religion may also be seen in Ingeri's confession to Töre in the wake of Karin's murder. She tells Töre that she prayed to Óðinn for Karin's comeuppance and that he made the rape and murder happen and begs Töre to kill her. In asking that Töre take her life, Ingeri is being perfectly heathen--Karin must be avenged and since Ingeri thinks she caused Karin's death, she must die. While it seems very unlikely that Óðinn or any god would cause the rape and murder of an individual, the fact that Ingeri believes this demonstrates how much she believes in Óðinn.
Even the climax, assumed by many to be blatantly Christian in tone, could lend credence to the heathenism of the early Swedes. In the climax, upon finding Karin's body, Töre states that he does not understand the Christian God, but begs his forgiveness nonetheless. He even vows to build a church of mortar and stone of the sort the beggar had described on the spot. Karin's body is then moved, upon which the spring appears. As a hymn plays in the background, many viewers may be inclined to see this as a Christian miracle. And it seems quite possible that this is what Bergman and Isaksson intended, but it is not the only possible interpretation. It is notable that Ingeri, the heathen girl, is the first to notice the spring. Not only is it the first time she actually looks happy in the movie, but she eagerly washes herself in the spring. Some might view this as showing that Ingeri has accepted Christianity and is eager to be baptised. This seems unlikely to me, however, especially given the significance of springs in the early Germanic religion. According to Adam of Bremen in his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum there was a spring outside the heathen temple at Uppsala in which the early Swedes made sacrifices. Several penitentials from Dark Ages Europe forbid worshiping at springs, and sacred springs among various Germanic peoples are mentioned frequently in Dark Age sources. In fact, it seems possible that "Herr Töres döttrar i vange," the ballad upon which Jungfrukällan is based, drew upon the heathen sacredness of springs for much of its power among its medieval audience. The spring which emerges after Karin's death, then, may not be a response to Töre's vow, but simply Óðinn showing his power and perhaps reassuring Ingeri that he did not cause Karin's death, and that he will aid her. Even if it is interpreted as a Christian miracle (which seems likely), it seems clear to me that Ingeri does not view it as such. Indeed, while the others look reverently on the spring as a miracle, Ingeri is cleansing herself in the spring, something any ancient heathen would have done.
Here I want to stress that in lending credence to Sweden's old religion I do not feel either Bergman or Isaksson are slighting Christianity. Nor do I feel that Bergman or Isaksson are in any way condemning or critiquing Christianity in this film. It must be pointed out that the two happiest people in the movie are ardently Christian: Frida and the beggar. Frida thanks God for something as simple as not stepping on little chicks. The beggar eagerly and joyfully tells the goatheards' little brother about the Christian heaven. Early in the film, Frida and the beggar discuss the beautiful churches, made of mortar and stone, he has seen around the world. When the goatherds' younger brother grows sick at the supper table (no doubt remembering the violence his brothers had wrought), it is Frida and the beggar who comfort him. And while both Töre and Märeta are in danger of losing their faith after Karin's death, neither Frida nor the beggar express any real doubts in their God.
The legitimacy of Christianity as a belief system is also shown in the figure of Töre. At the beginning of the movie, he is reluctant to pray and appears to simply be going through the motions of being Christian. Immediately following Karin's murder and the discovery of the culprits, he behaves in a heathen manner--Töre cleanses himself and slays the goatherds. In the end, however, he bets God's forgiveness and vows to erect a church on the spot where Karin has died. Töre has gone on a journey from being a Sunday Christian to an avenging heathen to someone who actively believes in Christianity. Between the portrayal of Frida and the Beggar, and Töre's transformation, Jungfrukällan is much like Bergman's film Winter Light, in which an individual undergoes a transformation from someone in doubt of his faith to someone whose faith is on a much firmer foundation.
It must also be pointed out that in the end, regardless of how Ingeri interprets the spring, the other characters clearly view it as a miracle from God. They behave reverently as any good Christian would in the presence of what they consider a genuine miracle. There is little doubt that Töre views the spring as an answer to his prayer and his vow to build a church there.
Ultimately, Jungfrukällan is not a simple, straightforward morality play, but a movie not unlike Bergman's Trilogy of Faith in which the nature of faith and of God (or in the case of The Virgin Spring, gods) is examined. It is not a film with an overtly Christian message, nor is it a film which is anti-Christian. Instead, I believe it was Bergman's intent with the film to show that people need faith, even if that faith is accompanied by doubts and insecurities. In the end, the miracle is not that the spring erupts where Karin died, but that faith blooms where previously there was none.