Friday, November 12, 2010

The Virgin Spring (1960)

by Eric "The Swede" Beetner

That’s right. I went there. A black-and-white Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman. Hell yeah. What does that have to do with cinematic revenge? you say.

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Full disclosure here: I went to film school. I worked in a video store all through high school. I had seen The Virgin Spring by my junior year. Yep, I was that much of a film geek that I would subject myself to a ponderously slow meditation on faith and the price of vengeance on a man’s soul all in the name of cinematic art. I intentionally watched Fellini and Godard right alongside stuff current in the theater back then like Gremlins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. My walls were adorned with horror movie posters like Basket Case and Pieces while my VHS collection included David Lynch and Ken Russell.

Am I suggesting you go rent The Virgin Spring if you like the ultra violent crime films usually discussed here? No, I’m not. You’ll be bored silly. What I’m suggesting is that you know it exists.

Like I said--it’s slow. Beyond slow. Swedish slow, and brother, that is a special kind of slow from a land where sometimes it takes a few months for the sun to rise.

But at its core The Virgin Spring is a brutal revenge story. It is common knowledge that it formed the basis for Wes Craven’s early Last House On The Left, which is surely one of the seediest, grimiest, most unforgiving horror/crime films ever made. Watch that one and it won’t wash off you with a bucket of ammonia and a steel brush.

The story is simple. A Swedish farm house headed by a simple farmer played by Max Von Sydow (Father Merrick in The Exorcist) is rocked when their comely daughter heads off into the woods to make the long trek to church to light a candle for the Virgin Mary (Yep, it’s a deeply religious film. You’ve been warned). Along the way, she meets three traveling goat herders, two adult and one a young boy, who are as back woods scary as anyone in the cast of Deliverance. They’ve got rape and murder on their feeble minds as soon as they see the beautiful girl and before long--well, actually, it does take a very long time to get there, it takes a long time to get anywhere in this film--the girl is dead in a ditch and the men are on the run through the Swedish countryside.

A rape scene is nothing easy to watch, even in the hands of the greatest cineastes. When it’s done in such a matter-of-fact, single take, no music, no dialogue way it is even creepier. The entire film, by the way, has about as much dialogue as any ten pages of a Tarantino script. This movie does seem ripe for a QT remake. It’s essentially a blank slate with a kick-ass framework.

More full disclosure: I am a film editor by trade. It’s what I do every day. I’d love to get my hands on this film and turn it into a 20 minute short. Then I might actually recommend you see it, even though it did win a Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1961.

Slow bits aside, let’s focus on the story. In a fantastic plot twist, the three killers seek refuge in the home of Von Sydow’s farmer. The killers don’t know they’ve wandered into the dead girl’s house; the farmers don’t know who the men are. Slowly but surely (and a little more slowly thrown in for good measure), the farmer realizes who the men are.

Now the best part of a revenge film can kick in: the moral questioning before the flurry of violence. Von Sydow plays a deeply faithful man who calls out his God for letting such a thing happen to his virginal daughter. He also questions the feelings of rage and violence his heart.

What can a father do? Well, he can jump the boys as they sleep and stab them to death with a giant knife, the hilt inlaid with a carving of the face of a demon skull. Sure, why not? Wouldn’t you?

Sounds like a kick-ass scene, right? Did I mention the fire he throws a guy into? And do I need to remind you that one of the trio is about 8 years old?

What I should remind you is that this is Ingmar Bergman film. The scene plays out in an oddly silent way. It does not invite you to revel in the actions of revenge. There is no music, no heroic score. There is no dialogue. The father never asks the men why, only goes about his duty to dispatch the zaken (a very bad word in Swedish. Look it up.) who killed his flesh and blood. When faced at last with the young boy who did not rape and did not kill his girl, only sat by and watched when it happened, he still murders him. Throws him across the room in a rage, in fact.

Of course, as soon as he has done the deed he falls into deep regret. There is a lot of staring at his hands and asking questions to God. When they trek to the woods to find the body, he promises to build a church as penance for his deeds. Possibly the only time in film history a father has done anything other than toss off a quippy bon mot as he lights a cigarette after snuffing the life out of the scumbags who killed his daughter. Max Von Sydow is no Charles Bronson.

It’s powerful stuff. Or it could be were it not so stillborn. Story-wise though, you can’t beat it. And certainly there are many fans. I’ll admit to liking the film quite a bit. It’s just so . . . so . . . Swedish. There’s nothing quite like it.

Let’s go back to Deliverance. Backwoods hicks with no other purpose than to torture anyone who ventures into their neck of the woods. Victims whose only crime is wandering off the marked trail. And what next? Why, bloody vengeance of course. But watch the two side by side and you see what an odd film The Virgin Spring really is. Is Deliverance more fun? Hell yes. Will The Virgin Spring stay with you longer? Could be.

And what of Last House On The Left? It may be the same genesis of a story but it’s apples vs. oranges. Or more like black-and-white with subtitles vs. an open throat gushing blood. Similar and yet so far.

It may sound like I’m slagging on the film but I’m really not. It happens to be one of those artifacts that influenced a generation who now have influenced another and possibly even two, so the true impact of The Virgin Spring can never be recreated. You certainly can’t see anything as bluntly brutal and methodical in U.S. cinema before 1959. That it calls such big questions of faith and humanity into what could be just a pulpy revenge tale is what drew so many American filmmakers to the Europeans at the time. Big themes like that were never so overtly on the surface in American cinema. Hollywood likes to dress up its metaphors in costume and colors. The Virgin Spring is different, and different is good.

So you may be tempted to check out the Criterion edition and now you know to be stocked with No-Doz and crystal meth to help you get through it. But if you do you’ll see a seminal work in the revenge film lineage, and for a foreign film, you don’t even have to read much. Just bask in the stately Sven Nykvist cinematography.

Yep, still a nerd. I didn’t even have to look that up.