Horror giant Wes Craven reportedly claimed that the violence of his debut feature The Last House On The Left (1969) is a reaction by his generation to the horrors of the Vietnam war. While this justification seems a trifle pretentious and self-serving, it does raise the issue of why it is that depictions of violence in film need to be justified at all.
Why is it that Richard Curtis never feels compelled to speak about how the goings on in Darfur dictate that he must produce sentimental comedies involving smug upper class people? Is the production of a third Ice Age film a direct reaction to the death of Baby P? Were it not for the death of Princess Margaret, would Woody Allen ever have made Vicky Christina Barcelona?
A lot of the time, the way in which we justify things is only as interesting as the fact that we feel obliged to justify them at all. This is the issue that Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) seeks to address.
The film is set in the same kind of Medieval Sweden depicted in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). A blasted but beautiful landscape full of deep forests, endless skies and terrifying weather. Against this landscape, a small farm has managed to do well, despite the crippling winter. This farm is sheltered by Tore (Max von Sydow), an oak of a man whose stern face, imposing presence and absolute moral compass hide a heart full of love, mercy and forgiveness. Tore, his wife and his household have managed to carve a comfortable life for themselves out of the Scandinavian wilderness and yet they live their lives on their knees. Trembling before the presence of God. They sense his gifts, his punishments and his capricious whims in everything they do and see. Even those that have never seen a church fear God as they send parcels off to the local priest in the hope of gaining tele-absolution for their sins of “you know what”.
From this household come two daughters. One natural, the other adopted. They could not be more different.
Ingeri opens the film by blowing on some embers to start a fire. Embers which, metaphorically at least, will soon consume the entire farm. Ingeri is a dark-eyed and dark-haired fury. She begs Odin for some sort of deliverance from the miserable life she has created for herself : sack-cloth clothing, six months pregnant, no husband in sight. When the flames leap up they could just as easily have been willed into creation by Ingeri’s resentment and fury at the world around her. By contrast, Karin is literally all sweetness and light. Blond, wide-eyed and naively bright, Karin has her parents wrapped around her little finger. When she refuses to get out of bed in order to take some candles to church for matins she negotiates with her mother : Yes, she will take the candles into town, but only if she can wear her best outfit.
The pair set off into town but never get there. Ingeri is lured away to speak with a sinister old man who speaks with the old gods while Karin meets some goat-herds whose praise of the ‘noble maiden’ is enough to get her to leave her horse and share her food with them. As the herdsmen lavish praises on the naïve girl, she glows with delight, aware only too late of how close the men have drawn and how precise their praise has come. Suddenly, things go disastrously wrong and Karin is raped under the impotent eyes of her sister.
In the era of illegal downloads and home cinema, it has become fashionable for cinema chains to play up the ‘experience’ angle of cinema-going. But with films such as Transformers or Star Trek, the relentlessness of the experience can actually force thoughts out of your mind. You’re so busy ‘experiencing’ the film that you don’t have time to think about what it is that you are watching (and when it comes to the films of Michael Bay, this is a win-win arrangement). Bergman’s rape scene is all the more powerful because of its stillness and silence. The scene itself is not in the least bit graphic and it is stripped of any incidental music or non-visual atmospherics. But because the scene is so stripped bare and naked, it carries so much more power. As an audience we have space in which to think about what we are seeing, and what we are seeing is the utter destruction of a being who was not only good but also completely blameless. It is an act of callous and horrifying murder and rape. the casual way in which the herdsmen strip off her expensive clothes and trample over her candles underlines the utter pointlessness of it all. The ad hoc, opportunistic realism of it.
Nor is this the last such scene.
Out of pure chance, the murderers turn up at the door of Karin’s parents and beg for food and shelter. They find a house-hold which, though still ignorant of Karin’s fate, is filled with indescribable sadness. One of the farm hands speaks morosely about how some days begin with such beautiful promise before dying in misery. He speaks of how he saw the May Queen riding off into the sun, but she never returned. Along with the sadness is an amazing sense of growing tension. The youngest herdsman is incapable of eating, so great is his sense of culpability but his older brothers are arrogant enough to ignore the warnings, even going so far as to offer the girl’s clothes for sale to her own mother.
When Tore becomes aware of what he has beneath his roof, he is filled with the same terrifying stillness and silence that imbued the earlier rape scene. He scours his flesh with birch branches and picks up a butcher’s knife before setting to exacting his terrible vengeance. Again, there is no incidental music and the only sounds come from gargling final breaths and anguished groans. Tore reserves his most brutal killing for the child, shattering his bones by throwing him against the wall.
Having read a bit about this film, it would appear that a critical consensus seems to have emerged about the film’s central theme. Apparently it is about the tension between the Godly world of the New Religion and the older, more savage world of Nordic myth.
Ingeri’s bitter disposition and invocation of Odin links her with the sinister old man in the woods. A man who claims to be able to hear what the world whispers. A man whose name has long since been forgotten. A man who keeps a box filled with the remains of past sacrifices. When Ingeri returns home to meet her adoptive father, she claims responsibility for the murder of Karin, weeping that she willed it and had willed it ever since she became pregnant. The pagan imagery is also ladled on quite heavily as the film is filled with goats, crows, toads and dancing flames.
By contrast, Karin and her parents are deeply devoted to Christ. We see this in their simple prayers, the way that Karin’s mother burns herself with a candle every Friday in memory of her Lord’s suffering on the cross. When Karin’s father pushes down a birch tree, he is pushing down a sapling standing on its own in the middle of the Swedish landscape. A sapling representative of the new Christian faith. A sapling quite possibly planted by Karin’s family. By pushing it down, chopping it up and using it to clean himself, Tore is wilfully turning his back upon God and returning to the old Nordic ways. The ways of fire, blood and steel. When Tore finds the body of his daughter in the forest, he throws himself to the ground, weeping that while he does not understand why God would do this, he will still beg God for forgiveness. As penance he pledges to build a Church out of stone and mortar and he is rewarded by a spring flowing from the Earth. A spring whose waters Ingeri uses to wash herself clean, prompting her to smile for the first time in the film.
While I acknowledge the Christian roots of the story and the pagan symbolism, I think that to present The Virgin Spring as a neat opposition of two metaphysical and moral infrastructures is to miss its subtleties. The central currency of the film is the commitment to one’s beliefs.
Ingeri is a bitter and scornful creature. She calls readily upon Odin to strike down those around her and she fools around with toads and pre-marital sex but her beliefs totter when confronted with reality. When she meets the old man – who coos about her capacity for power in an attempt to seduce her – she is horrified as much by his box of body parts as by the possibility that she might well come to resemble him. When Odin answers her prayers by having Karin raped and murdered she is horrified and begs her adoptive father for forgiveness. Her terror when confronted by the realities of the old ways shows how motivated by spite and expediency her invocations were in the first place.
Karin’s beliefs lie primarily in the realm of paying lip-service to the traditions of her parents. When scolded for her lack of religiosity, she responds that she says her prayers every night and before food. Karin’s beliefs are the beliefs of a child. They are untested by adversity or introspection. She praises God through mumbled homilies but she sees a ride to Church as nothing more spiritual than a chance to get dressed up and flirt with some boys. The unquestioning nature of her beliefs is what ultimately does her in. She lacks the scepticism and cynicism that might have allowed her to take a second look at the goat herders who way-laid her in the forest.
Karin’s naïve good humour stands against Ingeri’s naïve cynicism but also the beliefs of her father. Tore’s world is up-ended when his daughter is killed. He sets about calmly doing things he knows are wrong. He commits incredibly acts of violence when he should be turning his cheek. And yet, despite having seen evil in the world and the way God inflicts that evil upon good people, his faith does not waver. If anything it is strengthened by what he has seen and what he has had to do. He has sinned, but he recognises his sins and begs God’s forgiveness for them. His submission is total.
The final act of The Virgin Spring deals largely in how these different degrees and forms of belief translate into action. According to the old gods, one suspects that Tore’s actions would not have needed justification. For the rape and murder of an only child, one suspects Tore would not have transgressed any cultural taboos by killing not only the herdsmen but also their family as part of a wider blood feud. Tore would not have needed to say a word or beg for forgiveness, his acts of violence would not need any verbal justification. Events would lend his sword arm all the justification it needed. However, in choosing to take his revenge as a Christian, Tore is aware that he is stepping outside of the realms of that which his culture considers to be moral. When he wails to God about his lack of understanding, he is not just railing against the injustice of the world and submitting himself to it, he is also justifying what he did, placing it in a wider spiritual context of a man who loves God but does not understand the demands that God places upon him.
This act of self-justification is neatly fore-shadowed by that of the decidedly worldly Ingeri. Upon returning home she falls at the feet of her adoptive father and takes full responsibility for Karin’s fate. She admits to wishing the girl’s fall, she claims that the herdsmen were possessed. She weeps and seeks absolution from her father figure but, unlike God, Tore is in no position to grant it. He simply tells her to warm a bath. As a practitioner of the old ways, Ingeri should not need to justify her actions. Odin is a wrathful deity and he granted her her wish. Surely one who prayed to the old gods would accept this as a favour, not a curse? but Ingeri’s admission of guilt comes after being confronted with the reality of the old ways. Her devotion to Odin shattered she begs for forgiveness from the only authority figure to hand and in doing so she recognises that she is subject to a different set of rules than she thought. She wants to be submissive to the rules of her father. Rules that do not permit the rape and murder of a sister. When Ingeri cleans her face in the spring that emerges from where Karin died, she is taking the final step. Following her father in submission to God and rejecting the old ways and the old gods.
The Virgin Spring was, of course, re-made as Wes Craven’s The Last House on The Left, a film all about a white suburban middle-class family being driven to horrific acts of revenge over their daughter. In Craven’s film, the transformation of the father figure is more complete. Instead of a towering authority figure whose ownership of a sword at least suggests a history of violence, Craven’s father is a bibbling ninny. A chortling fool. The transformation itself is ridiculous and, I suspect, therein lies the relationship with Vietnam : The Last House On The Left shows us how absurd and horrific it is when violence erupts into an every day life. Modern humans, unlike those of Medieval Sweden, are ill-equipped for it. If a man can look absurd in seeking vengeance for his daughter, what does it say of the same sort of man wanting to mete out terrifying violence upon an entire nation?