You saw it
God you saw it
The death of an innocent child and my vengeance
You allowed it to happen
I don't understand you
I don't understand you
And yet still I ask you for forgiveness
These words lie at the heart of the Virgin Spring and constitute its theme. The events of the film are horrific- they begin with rape and end with the murder of several men and a child. There are acts of petty maliciousness and great crimes- but at the centre of the film lies the question of where guilt for those crimes, for that maliciousness lies. Is it more guilty to will or to commit a crime? Is it more guilty to love too much or love not at all? Those questions dominate this modern retelling of Job: and they are set against a vision of Sweden in transition between the pagan and the Christian, between Odin and Christ.
This paragraph contains some spoilers- for which I apologise. Karin, a young pretty girl, is adored by her parents and she is incredibly wealthy. Her foster sister however is not so fortunate and lives in a world of resentment. Her parents are torn apart by their attitude to her- by whether they spoil her or are jealous of her secretly. The entire household is Christian save for the foster sister- Karin and the other girl then go out to deliver candles to the church across the forest. On the way they are divided from each other. Karin is kidnapped by wandering herdsmen raped and murdered. Those herdsmen then come to take shelter with her father- and give her mother Karin's clothes as a thanks giving present- and vengeance is taken.
By telling you the story, I have not told you anything. Bergman's filming gives this a depth that the mere tale does not have. Ang Lee, whose film career started by being inspired from the Virgin Spring, says that the crucial thing about the film is its silences, its serenity. I would agree. It is the serenity of Karin's attitude as she rides through the forest to her doom that makes her doom so shatteringly shocking. Her parents are serene in their faith. The sense that this is a retelling of Job is compounded by this fact: for of course in the biblical account Job too was serene and the Devil tested him by vanquishing that serenity. So too here, you could describe the events of this film in terms of serenity being challenged by illfortune-God testing faith by exposing it to all the hardness of the world. Karin is all her mother has- and she is murdered- can her mother be faithful still?
Can any of us be faithful after that? Can any of us find faith in the century in which Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau have happened? I once heard Rowan Williams asked by John Humphries how people prayed in Auschwitz- what they expected and whether their faith was diminished by the fact that no aid came. God saw it- God watched it- and God let it happen. Should we let something of that sort happen- we would be guilty of it- that is definitely Karin's foster sister's attitude, she lets the rape happen, she doesn't fling a stone in her hand at the rapists and hence she is guilty of it. Is God any less guilty? That question proceeds out of anguish of course- but anguish and our sentiments towards anguish are the root of all morality psychologically. We suffer in sympathy with Karin's parents who suffer in sympathy with their defiled daughter, does God and if so why does he not intervene? If Karin's foster sister 'saw it and willed it to happen' then so did the almighty who might have stopped it and knew it must happen.
The tragedy is not something that is repairable. Running through this film is the sense of the fragility of human life. At one point one of the villains hands the mother her daughter's cloak and says 'skilfull hands like yours will know how to make it whole again' but of course nothing can make Karin whole again. Nothing can make her a virgin again. Nothing can make her alive again. Her foster sister envies that perfection- the sexual perfection in particular (she is pregnant with an anonymous man's child)- and points out early on that one infraction would lose that perfection. Virginity like life is easily lost and can never be recovered and in a society like medieval Sweden that is important. But what is the key to this is not the nature of the loss but that all human losses are really small deaths- we cannot do anything to repair them. We work and labour hard to make things work but they are destroyed, swept away in an instant and never return.
Religion should comfort us in this situation reminding us that there are eternal things. But again does it? Religion should supply us with an answer, with a fortitude to help us through these things. But as soon as his daughter is dead, the father's behaviour becomes pagan- in his rage he is a Beserker not a saint and kills rather than forgives. Furthermore the consolation does not arrive- for both mother and father the consolation is not what religion brings- their daughter's death is painful, it cuts to the quick and will never be assuaged. Rather it provides- and we come back to the quotation at the beggining of the passage a language to describe their feelings- a language to describe their guilt for what has happened. God is a device for them to appeal to a principle of kindness in the harsh northern skies and frosty winters- God is a device to find some kindness in a bleak and barren world. But when the world becomes bleak and barren itself, all there is is to beleive without hope of God's existance or his kindness- all there is is fealty without the knowledge of any aid arriving- like a squadron on the outer reaches of an empire, overrun and almost to die, these characters stand imploring hope from the capital, dying without it but with the word of Rome upon their lips.
The problem for these soldiers is that ultimately they are not sure whether it is their fault that their daughter has died. It might possibly be- they have been selfish in their love for her, neglecting others- or is it the fault of the murderers and the rapists who did the deed or of the foster sister who willed the deed. Bergman leaves us in no doubt that all of these people are culpable, but provides us with reasons to understand why all of them (the parents, one of the rapists a small boy and the foster sister) are in a certain sense to be understood and pitied. Amongst the rapists, two are mere villains- evil men who are totally to blame- but one a boy cannot be held accountable for the actions of the other two particularly as they violently threaten him- and tries furthermore to bury Karin. The problem is dual- the two rapists are undeniably expressions of pure evil (in one exchange with Karin their language mirrors that of the wolf to red riding hood) but how should we cope with that in our world- what resources do we have to understand and deal with evil- can we forgive and if not, are we thrown back to the Old Testament where an eye meets an eye and a life a life?
The promise of the New Testament was an emancipatory one- it excuses us from revenge and calls us to forgiveness- even of pure evil, we must so Christ says turn the other cheek. But how should we? And how guilty are we when we do not? How far do we perpetuate a realm of violence when we do not? Furthermore the demands of religion are just as exacting under the Gospel- how should we love God more than man? Are we called upon to rejoice in Karin's death as part of the unfolding providence that governs the world? Are her parents being told by the omnipotent that they cared too much for their daughter and need to cleave to him instead of spoiling her? Is a jealous God, a good God? Job answered all these questions- this film reopens them. How far are we guilty of a crime just by thinking of it- in Mark to be guilty of adultery is to look upon a woman with lust in your eyes- so is the foster sister guilty of rape? She feels herself so to be. The film does not offer answers at all- and perhaps some of those questions are not capable of answering- but they are dark questions which go to the heart of the human condition.
Bergman stands with Bresson as one of the great directors about religion in the 20th Century and perhaps this film more than the Seventh Seal or than his faith trilogy is his triumph in that sense. It portrays religion as an answer to anguish, a comfort in the dark. But it also questions how far religion can be a comforter. In dedicating their future lives to the construction of a church how far are the two parents diminished by their daughter's death, the foster child arguably is the only one who comes out of the film more whole as she is purged of her jealousy- they are purged of their love and reminded that all human things die- they are forced to take Augustine's advice to never love humans too much as humans fail at the end and fall. Is this the message of a loving God- that only he deserves our love? Bergman captures all of this because his camera is so deeply sympathetic- we see this tragedy and dilemma unfold before our eyes- he points his camera at people's backs, allowing the characters privacy, he gives us silence to think and feel.
Religion emerges from this film as a mode of being and coping- the questions it answers dive to the deepest anxieties of humanity, both philosophical and emotional- but ultimately religion is a way for people to cope. At the end of the tale the father resolves to build a church on the spot that Karin was raped and murdered, and songs of harmony ripple through as Karin's body, its smile seraphic is washed- but nothing can quite expunge from my mind the agony of the rape and murder or the anguish of the parents.