The theme of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring can be best recognized as an allusion to the philosophy of the Absurd.
“You saw it. God, you saw it. The innocent child’s death and my vengeance. You permitted it. I don’t understand you,” declares Töre (Max Von Syndow) towards the end of the film The Virgin Spring (Swedish: Jungfrukällan). The grieved father cannot come to terms with the injustice that befell his daughter in spite of their being devoted Christians. Many anti-religious or atheist interpretations may have been drawn from this film but I personally feel that this film’s theme can be best recognized as an allusion to the philosophy of the Absurd.
The Virgin Spring opens with Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) calling upon God Odin (a God of Norse mythology) for some service. Then we are introduced to the prosperous Christian family who are represented as a role model for a perfect Christian way of living.
We are also introduced to the innocent and virginal, but a bit pampered daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) who is given the duty to carry candles to the church for Friday mass. It is also revealed that Ingeri is pregnant from an illicit relationship and is secretly jealous of Karin since she is hailed as an ideal woman by everyone in the household as opposed to herself who is constantly looked upon with contempt.
Ingeri accompanies Karin as they set out for the long journey towards the church. When they reach the edge of the forest, they quarrel and Ingeri tricks Karin into continuing alone by giving an excuse of her condition. Through the conversation of Ingeri and the bridge keeper, it is revealed that she has invoked a curse on her stepsister.
As Karin continues her journey, she encounters three herdsmen with whom she shares her food. The herdsmen turn out to be heartless ruffians who eventually rape and kill her. Ingeri watches the whole scene but does not intervene. They also take her expensive dress.
In the next cut we are shown that these herdsmen, in a twist of fate, take shelter in Töre’s house unaware of the fact that it is his daughter whom they have murdered. Ingeri returns alone and confesses to Töre. She blames herself for what happened to Karin. When the herdsmen try to sell off Karin’s clothes her mother identifies them as her daughter’s murderers.
Next we find Töre doing a self flagellation to atone for the sin he is about to commit, namely taking revenge on the herdsmen. After a violent fight the three herdsmen are killed. The whole family approaches the scene of murder guided by Ingeri. Here Töre expresses his doubts about God’s judgement.
Just then Karin’s body is lifted and a spring starts flowing from where she had lain. Töre vows to build a church in that place and asks forgiveness for his sins from God. The film ends with Ingeri washing her hands in the stream to atone for her sins.
Let us now analyze the films storyline from the point of view of absurdism. Absurdism is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd), because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to the individual.
In simple words Absurdism states that it is not possible for any individual to understand the real order or causality in the world. Whatever he perceives to be absolute is only an approximation and is generally a constructed meaning. Human beings are governed by their own constructed meanings, which are the result of their upbringing or are imbibed from their surroundings.
As a philosophy, absurdism also explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should react to it. For understanding how this is related to the film, we need to concentrate mainly on the character of Töre throughout the movie.
Töre is a religious devout who upholds Christian views of righteousness and justice, and has staunch faith in God. He is confident that no evil can befall him or his family as long as he is devoted to Christianity. This is his constructed meaning which has been passed on to him by his ancestors as well as teachings of Christ.
His faith is pushed to the limits when he finds events occurring in contradiction to his constructed meaning which he had earlier considered to be absolute. He questions why all this was necessary. First the abuse and murder of his innocent daughter Karin, then fate landing up the murderers in his house and his subsequent revenge and finally the spring originating from the place where Karin dies.
The whole scheme of events appears meaningless from the purview of Töre’s constructed meaning. Although Töre concludes that he can never understand God, he still pleads to God for forgiveness for his vengeful actions, subsequently proclaiming he will build a church on the site of his daughter’s murder. And here we come to another important principle of absurdist philosophy, namely an individual’s response to the absurd.
According to Albert Camus, who was responsible for developing the philosophy of the absurd in its present form, there are three ways in which individuals could react to the absurd.
* Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person simply ends one’s own life. Camus dismissed the viability of this option. He stated that it does not counter the Absurd, but only becomes more absurd, to end one’s own existence.
* Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, which finally boils down to the belief in God. However, Camus regarded this solution, as “philosophical suicide”.
* Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve absolute freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process.
Hence Töre’s reaction to the absurd falls in the second category, namely belief in God. Consequently this film shows Töre’s inability to accept the absurd and cling more desperately to his faith, being bound by the teachings of his religion, which in fact is philosophical suicide, going by Camus’s theory. It shows how deep rooted his belief or constructed meaning is, since even when faced with the absurd he cannot rise above the bounds of his faith and try to find the answer to the question he himself raised.
He concludes, “Yet now I beg Your forgiveness. I know no other way to reconcile myself with my own hands. I know no other way to live”. When one stops questioning in this way, it certainly puts an end to philosophical quest. Hence this whole film portrays the absurdity of the world and how people are confronted with the absurd when their constructed meanings fail to explain certain occurrences that are contrary to their beliefs and yet they desperately reconcile with them in the end without questioning.
Now the question arises whether Ingmar Bergman was aware of this philosophy at the time when he made this film and had consciously included these elements in his script. The story is loosely based on a Swedish legend, Töres dotter i Wänge, but the treatment is certainly Bergman’s own.
Considering the chronology of events, Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus which contains a complete discussion of his views on absurdist philosophy was published in 1942 and The Virgin Spring was released in 1960, so it is quite possible that Bergman could have read Camus’s work and appreciated its importance. Bergman’s atheist views are quite widely known; hence he could not have agreed more to Camus’s idea of ‘philosophical suicide’.
But these are merely speculations since Bergman probably never referred to his film as absurdist. There exists another possibility. For a great thinker such as Bergman, it is not impossible to arrive at similar conclusions as Camus, without being aware of the previous works on this philosophy.
Whatever be the case, I felt that this film can be best appreciated from the context of absurdist philosophy. As Camus puts it absurdity is a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict or a “divorce” between two ideals. He also defines the human condition as absurd, due to the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other. From this point of view, The Virgin Spring is nothing but a celebration of the absurd.
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