The theory that Bergman would appear to disregard the place of The Virgin Spring in his own filmography based on the dearth of comments on the film in his autobiographies is perpetuated multiple times throughout Criterion’s DVD package. The fact remains that it’s also one of the only Bergman features to inspire a worthy remake, Wes Craven’s 1972 grindhouse debut Last House on the Left. Oddly enough, it’s the sleazy, pockmarked Craven film that holds up better today, and that’s even taking into account Bergman’s pre-mortem reputation upswing in cineaste circles. (Not to mention the fact that then-new Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, unlike his previous lensman Gunnar Fischer’s work, still looks fantastic even in faded university 16mm prints.)
Based off a medieval sonnet about the rape and murder of a farming family’s only child and her parents’ subsequent vengeance-cum-spiritual awakening, Virgin Spring presents a spare, pastoral setting in which a young girl’s metaphoric, doomed journey through the forest primeval represents the terror of filial dissolution from the parents’ point of view. Bergman and his screenwriter Ula Isaksson set this theme against Scandinavia during a period in which the region’s religious identity was writhing in its own parallel domestic divergence, caught between Norse paganism and blossoming Christianity. (As we all know now, there was no place in Europe where Christianity established a more tenacious foothold, excepting perhaps Italy.)
According to Bergman scholars, Virgin Spring itself represents the primary nexus between Bergman’s austere but accessibly recherché works of the 1950s and his downright ascetic 1960s cinema. In case you needed to know, Christianity wins hands down, across the spread. When Max Von Sydow’s patriarch, upon discovering that the trio of herdsmen seeking refuge from the wintry elements in his guest shack have defiled and killed his daughter on her way to deliver sacred candles to church, kills the three murderers and finds her corpse in the forest, he spends 30 seconds contemplating God’s cruel whims before declaring his intentions to build a stone cathedral on that very site. Quavering faith is scarcely in question, though—the titular spring gushes from the very spot where the dead girl’s head rested as if in divine approval of Sydow’s vow.
While an undeniably powerful conclusion, one can be forgiven for wondering if Bergman’s taciturnity toward the film in print suggests he preferred cinematic ellipses and question marks, as well. Then again, Craven’s film trades in morality wholesale, choosing instead to emphasize the young victims’ adolescent naughtiness (they’re making pilgrimage not to church, but to a metal concert), their attackers’ complete nihilism and the parents’ elaborate, almost spiritually satisfying vengeance. The result is less dogmatic but makes far more disturbing suggestions about the human race, even centuries after having supposedly transcended Virgin Spring-era barbarism.