Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007) had turned 40, and had already directed 20 films (including international hits like Sawdust and Tinsel, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Magician), when he made his Oscar-winning Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring). Although he was an established director, there is, for me, a sense of breakthrough in The Virgin Spring. Bergman had worked with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist once before (on the excellent Sawdust and Tinsel/The Naked Night), but with The Virgin Spring they embarked on a quarter-century-long collaboration and mutual dependence with few rivals in film history. As Robin Wood points out in his book-length study of Bergman, one of the great virtues of The Virgin Spring is the credible re-creation of medieval life, largely devoid of the mysticism and magic so dominant in much of Bergman’s work. The film thus makes him more accessible, and much of the credit must go to Nykvist’s ability to capture the textures of the natural world. For once, it seems Bergman is not manipulating his characters to present larger metaphysical truths in his obsession with his personal relationship with God. I don’t pretend to be an authority on Christianity or any other religion, but it seems that, over time, Bergman despaired of faith in a way the great Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer (Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet) did not. Ultimately, Bergman seemed to retreat to a realistic/autobiographical/non-cosmic milieu (as in Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander).
Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom are illustrative of another important aspect of Bergman’s career. Great directors (Griffith, Chaplin, Renoir) had historically relied on their own personal stock companies of actors. Von Sydow and Lindblom (today both well into their eighties) were there for him well before The Virgin Spring, and remained for decades. The former, of course, parlayed his Bergman connection into a highly successful international career, including two Oscar nominations and roles as varied as Jesus, Father Merrin (the exorcist in The Exorcist), and Ming the Merciless.
Bergman’s reputation in America has undergone a degree of revisionism. By the time of The Virgin Spring he was considered, as Daniel Humphrey puts it in his new book Queer Bergman, “arguably the paradigmatic figure in the history of mid-twentieth-century art cinema.” In big cities and college towns, it was impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of his influence, even though a great many who venerated him were blissfully unaware that serious filmmaking was already a half-century old and that Bergman, himself, was singing the praises of a disreputable cowboy director named John Ford. It would have been impossible to foresee a time when a screening of Wild Strawberries or this film would meet with surprise. I must confess to a certain ambivalent respect for Bergman’s work. His serious films seem perhaps too serious, his comedies perhaps too unfunny; I feel strangely more comfortable with his operatic adaptation of The Magic Flute or the soap opera-ish Scenes from a Marriage. And, frankly, this may result more from my failings, not Ingmar’s.
It might be appropriate here, while praising Bergman’s recreation of the medieval world, to take note of the passing of Ray Harryhausen. During his 70-year career, Harryhausen seldom took directorial credit for his films, but he managed like very few others (designer William Cameron Menzies or special effects guru and Harryhausen mentor Willis O’Brien, for example) to place a personal stamp on the work. In the process, he created his own world of the past (both archeological and mythological) and the future.