The Virgin Spring (1960)

by | Jan 4, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow
Studio: Janus Films/Criterion Collection 321
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, Swedish; Dubbed English option
Subtitles: English
Extras: Introduction by filmmaker Ang Lee, Audio commentary by Bergman and film scholar Birgitta Steene, Interviews with Actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson, Audio-only recording of a 1975 seminar with Bergman for the AFI, 28-page booklet with essays by film scholars and screenwriters, and the complete medieval ballad on which the film is based
Length: 89 minutes
Rating: *****

Bergman himself didn’t feel this was his best film but in this glorious transfer to DVD – appearing like it was filmed recently instead of 46 years ago – one wonders why.  It seems to rate at least a place next to The Seventh Seal. I probably saw it at a student film series in a scratched and washed-out 16mm print, with a barely audible soundtrack.  What a difference to finally see the magnificent artistic cinematography of Bergman’s soon-to-be-faithful cohort Sven Nyquist; this was his first film with Bergman. The highest data rate was used in the telecine transfer to DVD, and the picture looks it. Though 4:3 ratio, black & white and with mono soundtrack, the perfect restoration made the beautifully-composed shots take on a monumental quality. 

Bergman didn’t believe in standard soundtrack musical scores – feeling it was “dangerous to use real music,” but used just a few functional sounds such as a birdsong or a single flute or jaw-harp played by an actor in the film. (It seems this approach to sound has been resurrected by Lars von Trier . and his Dogma film movement.) I tried to apply Pro Logic II’s Matrix option (for mono sources) to the original Swedish soundtrack, but evidently since it is DD mono rather than PCM mono it locked into “Dolby Mono,” feeding only the center speaker and Pro Logic II could not be used.  It appears that since there are in effect three different soundtrack options on the disc, Criterion had to use Dolby Digital instead of PCM mono which would have required more space.

The original ballad tells a tale of savagery, revenge and a battle of faiths in medieval Sweden. Christianity hasn’t been around for long, and part of the population still favors the pagan Norse gods such as Odin. The beautiful young only daughter of a wealthy farmer played by von Sydow is waylaid on the way to church in the village, first raped and then killed by two goatherds while their adolescent brother looks on.  The rape scene, though mild by today’s standards, caused the film to be banned and/or censored in some areas of the U.S., and the booklet includes a letter written by Bergman defending the scene’s importance (which has been completely restored on the DVD).  Odd, but somehow predictable, that the violent scenes of the father killing not only the two herdsmen but also their child-brother elicited no concern or censorship.

The extras are of great interest, as they are with most Criterion efforts. The short introduction with director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) speaking directly to the widescreen camera reveals how Virgin Spring changed the young filmmaker’s life, and how even now he sometimes uses techniques he noticed in Bergman’s film – such as filming von Sydow from some distance away and behind as he asks God why he allowed the tragedy to occur.  The six audio excerpts from the seminar with Bergman at the American Film Institute are also worth hearing. He says that intuition was his main method of working with his actors, and observes that “Real cinematography is very close to our dreams.” He describes the contrast between the hypnotic experience of a projected film in a dark theatrical situation and that of a movie on a typical TV. (Wonder would he would think of the hypnotic experience of watching film on a big TV display in a dark room…)  

– John Sunier

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