Rape/Revenge Review – The Virgin Spring (1960)

Now, I believe it’s time to wonder back into Extreme Cinema territory and look at what is possibly the most controversial genre that ever saw the light of day, the Rape/Revenge genre. Nowadays, Rape/Revenge films are usually seen as the genre of choice for hack film-makers: directors and writers who wish for nothing more than thoughtless exploitation and meaningless violence in oirder to sell tickets to the most depraved of movie-goers. Whilst that is partially true, the other side of the coin dictates that there are Rape/Revenge movies that truly have something to say about society, misogyny, trauma and the irrational emotions of mankind. Truth is, either side of the argument can be valid, but Rape/Revenge movies mainly fall into two categories of cinema. Either the film is symbolic about society, trauma, and the plight of womanhood against a violent, male force; or the film is about seeing irredeemable villains get killed in very violent, cathartic ways, and in my opinion, both sides are valid points. It really all depends what one wishes to see in a movie versus what the filmmaker wishes an audience to see. In terms of history, Rape/Revenge films reached their heyday in the 70s and 80s, mainly because violent exploitation films were very profitable during those times (Hell, they still are). In recent times, I’ve noticed that there’s been a resurgence of Rape/Revenge films; mainly thanks to the remake and subsequent sequels of the I Spit On Your Grave remake and the New Wave Of Grindhouse cinema movement that started in 2007. So, I think it’s time I looked back and try to analyse some of the more famous examples of these types of movies in order to see if the popularity of the genre was worth its merit, or was it just a horrid fad that should have died decades ago…

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Where better to begin than where it all started. The Virgin Spring is, according to my research, the first ever example of Rape/Revenge cinema. It is the inspiration behind more well-known Rape/Revenge films such as Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave. The Virgin Spring was itself was inspired by a Medieval ballad called Töre’s Daughters In Vänge.  It was directed by legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman not long after his two greatest cinematic achievements The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and I have to say, I find it astounding that a legendarily artistic filmmaker created such a controversial genre; a genre usually reserved for films commonly hailed as ‘exploitative trash’, a genre to which its filmmakers are called ‘tasteless, misogynistic hacks’ by critics. However, that is not to say that Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic reputation stopped this film from becoming controversial. In Ingmar Bergman’s homeland of Sweden, The Virgin Spring received mixed reviews, with a lot of the criticism being thrown at the film’s violent aspects, saying that those scenes “…may leave one sickened and stunned.” Also, the film was very controversial in America where it had to be censored to be shown in cinemas, and even then, the film was banned outright in Texas. However, as successful as the film may have been at the time, it’s place in cinematic history was pushed aside by Last House On the Left, and once the Rape/Revenge genre started lifting off, The Virgin Spring was all but forgotten by mainstream cinema. Thus, it was left in the hands of film scholars and arthouse cinema fans; much like many of Ingmar Bergman’s film that weren’t The Seventh Seal, Persona or Wild Strawberries.

As for the film itself, The Virgin Spring is a very slow, very simple affair. There’re no outlandish sequences, no surrealist plotlines. All things considered, The Virgin Spring is an incredibly realistic affair. To me, it stands out among other medieval era films. This is because whilst many Medieval dramas focus on kings, queens, or those with a great impact on history, The Virgin Spring focuses on very normal, average people. The story is about a Swedish family, of whom the father is a prosperous Christian man, who live on a farm with their servants, the most important of which is Ingeri, the maid with a bitter jealousy over the family’s virgin daughter Karin. What’s important to note about the family, however, is that the family are presented as realistically Medieval as possible. The family has a group of servants, yet they aren’t royalty or even incredibly prosperous people. They are shown to be average and caring as they live on farm and show compassion and understanding towards the servants in their house. There may be a status contrast between the family and the servants, yet the status gap isn’t shown to be dire, and the reasons behind the maid’s jealousy with the daughter of the family is because of situation more so than status. Personally, I liked this approach. It made the family very relatable and ordinary, and as I’ve said before in my Phantasm review, true ordinariness is very relatable in film; as it presents realistic characters that a viewer can attach themselves to throughout the movie. The whole story itself is very realistic in manner with a focus on everyday life, unfortunate coincidence and dramatic irony. The catalyst for the plot is one of coincidence and extreme emotion, and it’s a story that grounded in reality with very realistic situations. That’s not all, however, thanks to Ulla Isaksson’s writing, The Virgin Spring has a lot of conflicting, thought provoking themes of religion. The film takes an intense look at religious fervour from both a Christian and Pagan side, and this approach opens the film to different interpretations over the more major scenes. It does add a sense of fantasy into the plot, but that’s only if one wishes to interpret the story in that way as The Virgin Spring does a great job at keeping the main story grounded in reality.

However, it’s hard to have a Rape/Revenge film without the rape. In The Virgin Spring, the young, virginal Karin is the victim as she is lulled into a false sense of security by three Goatherders – two men, one with a missing tongue, and a young boy – before she is raped and killed by the men with the boy looking on in horror. The rape itself is thankfully short, but nonetheless brutal in execution as both men hold Karin down violently, the tongueless one forces himself upon her as the other holds her down and forcefully puts his hand over her mouth. For 1960, this scene definitely stands out as one of the more brutal sequences of that era of filmmaking, as many critics and censorship bodies were unprepared for just how physically violent the rape scene actually is. Personally, this is one of the more toned-down rape sequences I’ve seen as filmmakers would divulge into more and more brutal depictions as time went on, but it’s nonetheless harrowing to witness. Because of how stripped down and realistic the whole film is, this scene is horrifying to see as the only sounds heard are the grunting of the men and Karin’s pained, shallow cries. Whilst the film isn’t incredibly graphic and hardcore, the intensity and horrific emotion of the scene definitely pushes through. Afterwards, the film lets the depressing tone ring out as the film lingers on the little boy’s guilt over what his brothers have just done, and in a fit of guilt, he slowly buries her body whilst trying not to cry. This scene draws a parallel between young victims, from a victim of brutality, to a victim of his brothers’ actions, and how both lives have been changed forever because of the irrational actions of two grown men. In fact, a large focus of The Virgin Spring is on human fear and brutality, and how it can destroy the lives of the innocent. However, what’s very interesting to note about the rape scene is the ambiguity of why. The rape scene does seem to appear from out of nowhere with no build up or clear prior intension. As I’ve stated earlier, the film has strong religious themes to it and the rape scene can be interpreted as the violent actions of men or the will of a Pagan god, with scenes before and after that collaborate either interpretation which I think is very clever.

As for the revenge, the scenes are once again not overly graphic a one man is strangled whilst the other goatherders are killed by the father’s bare hands. During the revenge and the build-up, the focus is on the father as he battles both rage and morality within him. He tries to release his anger his work and stay true to his Christian beliefs, but it does no good as he seeks revenge for his daughter’s death and murders the three Goatherders in a blind rage before immediately coming to terms with his horrendous actions. He begs for forgiveness and repentance from god at the very end as nature creates a spring of water underneath the grave of his daughter. Acclaimed, legendary actor Max Von Sydow plays the father, and his performance is stunning. Throughout the film he manages to embody the masculine, the caring, and the protective sides of being a father, as well as the human struggle of being a good man. It’s very powerful and incredibly believable to witness, and it shows just why Max Von Sydow is such a fantastic actor.

The Virgin Spring is a beautiful film. Ingmar Bergman’s movies are very well known for being thought-provoking, artistic, beautiful and boundary pushing and The Virgin Spring is no different. It’s intense and depressing, yet also aesthetically beautiful with an emphasis on hard shadows and picturesque shots. That being said, though, The Virgin Spring is definitely a film more suited to arthouse cinema fans rather than extreme cinema fans. The film may have its more extreme elements, but The Virgin Spring is a slow, artistic film at the end of everything. It hasn’t dated as well as other Ingmar Bergman efforts mainly because of how its subject matter has been re-done and exploited over the course of fifty years. Nonetheless, The Virgin Spring is still a great, interesting movie. It definitely served as the prototype of Rape/Revenge movies to come, but even then, there’s still a lot of thematic and artistic inclusions that make The Virgin Spring stand out amongst the Rape/Revenge flicks to come. In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend giving The Virgin Spring a watch if one is open-minded to artistic cinema as it’s still an intense, yet interesting movie fifty years later.

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