By: Denis Blot
Last year Ingmar Bergman released Saraband which he claimed would be the last one he would ever make. I remembered somberly watching it, seeing the well written and acted film take shape and resonates the filmmaking style Bergman had cultivated over sixty years. In his lengthy career, he has made several prolific films that would be a staple of any good film class. Criterion has been consistent in releasing many of Bergman’s works on DVD; their latest is The Virgin Spring. The 1960 film earned an Academy Award for best foreign film, was the last film Bergman would set in medieval times, was the first full length film for which he used cinematographer Sven Nykvist (a partnership that would last throughout his career), and was Bergman’s most controversial film.
The controversy stemmed from a rape scene which while tame by today’s standards, was shocking for an audience of 1960. The very matter of fact and unforgiving scene still manages to unsettle, and functions as the climax for the film that successfully builds tension while depicting the harsh reality of a farmer’s family following strict Christian guidelines at a time period when paganism was slowly being suppressed in Sweden. The story, based on a 13th century ballad, is a simple tale of murder and revenge, but becomes much more in Bergman’s capable hands. In this film, like several others, Bergman expresses his preoccupation with religion. Here, the sternness of Christian ritual (burning oneself with hot wax, the necessity of bringing candles to church, etc) is placed in contrast to pagan beliefs stemming from human emotion and nature, ultimately painting a portrait of a problematic existence with no easy resolution, albeit comforted by faith.
The acting, as in all Bergman films, is superb in The Virgin Spring. The only surprising exception is Max Von Sydow who gives an uneven performance as compared to some of the other outstanding roles he has played. It may well have been confusion both by Bergman and Sydow as to how best to express the complexity of the character. None the less the drama is exemplary and intensified by cinematographer Nykvist’s lighting.
The DVD extras will wet the mouth of any Bergman fan, and provide a solid introduction to those new to him. The full length audio commentary by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene is a bit dry at times but very thorough in discussing Bergman and the film. Likewise essays by scholar Peter Cowie and the film’s scenarist Ulla Isakson provide insights to the film and the response by audiences when it was first released. Interviewed actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Brigitta Petterson give an actors perspective of being directed by Bergman and behind the scenes information on the film. Those captivated by Bergman’s work will rejoice when listening to a series of lectures he gave at the American Film Institute. While they are unfortunately limited to audio, hearing Bergman discuss his own work and process is phenomenal.
While The Virgin Spring is a solid film, it certainly falls under the shadows of some of Bergman’s other works. For those new to Bergman, viewing The Seventh Seal, or Wild Strawberries would be a better introduction. Those who have had a taste of Bergman and crave more should definitely rent the film and fully reap the benefits of the DVD extras.