Sunflower Skins

January 29, 2010

Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan (1960)

Jungfrukällan (1960)

A.K.A. The Virgin Spring

Dir. Ingmar Bergman; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom

It is little wonder that Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant Jungfrukällan took best foreign language film at the 1961 Academy Awards; based on “Töre’s Daughter at Vänge,” a Swedish ballad from the 13th century, the stark imagery and symbolism create a visually stunning, emotionally moving experience. Filmed in black and white, the cinematography stresses the conflicting spiritualities of medieval Sweden, from the pure white candles of Christian devotion to the dark hair and dress of the Norse god worshippers.

Jungfrukällan is an excellent introduction to Bergman’s work, for it is not as psychologically demanding as many of his other, later films. One of the few scripts he did not write, he instead employed Ulla Isaksson to adapt the simple ballad for the screen. The story follows a peasant family whose proud and beautiful daughter, Karin, is brutally raped and murdered by three herdsmen; seeking food and shelter, the men appeal to a farmer, unaware that he is Karin’s father, Töre. The herdsmen offer to trade Karin’s clothing for Töre’s hospitality and only then do the men discover each other’s identity. Violence controls the latter part of the film as Töre attempts to avenge his daughter’s life, but anger quickly turns to horror as he realizes that he too has become a vicious murderer. If one is familiar with the storyline, subtitles are not especially necessary to the strong imagery presented; in all languages we recognize grief. Bergman insists that the viewer both sympathize with and condemn Töre for his actions—we must feel and understand his anguish, yet at the same time require that he atone.

Though tame in the face of modern-day work, the film faced severe controversy and censorship due to its rape scene; as Bergman himself argues in a letter about his explicit filmmaking, “[i]t shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace.” He adds that in the search for truth, the viewer must “take part in the herdsmen’s crime, but we must also, in despair, witness the father’s evil deed” regardless of certain taboos. The restored version of Jungfrukällan, presented by The Criterion Collection, contains a booklet about the film, including essays, a translation of the original Swedish ballad, and Bergman’s letter in defence of his artistic vision.

Despite the heavy religious imagery and Töre’s plea for God’s forgiveness, it is insufficient to label Jungfrukällan as merely a religious film, as that narrows the scope of spirituality found in the story and its well-developed characters. Töre must ask for forgiveness not only from God, but from himself as well. Emphasizing the division between Paganism and Christianity in Sweden’s changing world, Bergman forces us to examine the human spirit and its capability for vengeance and compassion.

*          *          *

The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven’s adaptation of Jungfrukällan, recoils from Bergman’s subtlety and delves head-first into horror with an exploitation film so shocking that the tagline reads: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…’.”

Updated to “present day” 1970’s, 17-year old Mari Collingwood is beautiful, charming, and sexually mature. It’s her birthday and she’s going to a rock concert with her bad-ass friend Phyllis Stone, but first the girls want to score some “good grass.” Unfortunately they ask the wrong people—recently escaped convicts—and are raped, tortured, and left to die. The convicts, needing food and shelter, appeal to a pleasant rural couple who just happen to be Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood. Cynthia Carr gives an especially gruelling and powerful performance as Mari’s anxious mother, desperate for retribution.

Some may question why this horror movie falls into the exploitation category; Craven exploits the contrast between hippie love and unmitigated violence, forcing the viewer to watch a scene that will have no happy ending and, at the same time, knowing that we won’t look away from what’s happening to these girls. Craven is exploiting his audience and our disturbed curiosity. We want just as much justice as Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood do, so our sympathies lie with their revenge, stepping back only after it’s too late.

Craven’s ending strays from the original, carrying less impact, for he does not use the same heavy symbolism that Bergman relishes. Additionally, some viewers, like myself, may find David A. Hess’s honky-tonk score too over the top; intended to sharply contrast the onscreen violence, the light-hearted music is often more distracting than effective. Like its predecessor, however, the final scene of Last House makes it difficult to determine exactly who we feel sorry for—and this vagueness is exactly what makes this film so important, paving the way for other ambiguous and open-ended films.

The Criterion Collection presents Jungfrukallan

The Last House on the Left on IMDb

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