The Virgin Spring
Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring is a harrowing tale of faith, revenge, and savagery in medieval Sweden. With austere simplicity, the director tells the story of the rape and murder of the virgin Karin, and her father Töre’s ruthless pursuit of vengeance, set in motion after the killers visit the family’s farmhouse. Starring frequent Bergman collaborator and screen icon Max von Sydow, the film is both beautiful and cruel in its depiction of a world teetering between paganism and Christianity.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their edition of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring to Blu-ray, presenting the film on this dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Criterion doesn’t simply reuse the high-definition master found on their previous DVD edition I’m happy to say, instead making use of a new 2K restoration sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
The original DVD doesn’t hold up as well as some of Criterion’s other standard-definition presentations from the time (compression looks a bit messier now) so I’m thankful Criterion is using a new master. It’s a marvelous upgrade, improving upon the DVD in pretty much every area, right down to the restoration aspect. The DVD wasn’t terrible in the restoration realm, but far more work has gone into this one. There are a handful of specs that show up throughout the film, along with some mild flickering and a subtle but notable shifting in the frame after a key moment, but the image does look just about perfect otherwise and 95% of the film looks clean.
Also aiding the presentation is the superb digital encode, which resolves the compression issues found on the DVD and delivers a far sharpwe and more natural image. The stitching, patterns, stains, and other textures found on the costumes look far more natural here thanks to the excellent rendering of the finer details, which also aids those wide exterior shots. Grain isn’t overly prominent but it’s there and is rendered cleanly, while black levels and contrast look superb, supporting the film’s shadowy photography and giving the image splendid depth. It’s a beautiful image in the end and for those that already own the DVD I’d say it’s probably worth the upgrade for this aspect alone.
Criterion offers two audio tracks: the original Swedish track, newly restored and presented in lossless 1.0 PCM mono, along with the English dub, which is only presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono.
The Swedish track does sound noticeably better in comparison to the DVD’s track. It manages to not sound like a track for an almost 60-year old film, offering superb fidelity and range with voices even offering incredible depth and clarity. Though quieter moments make a slight background hiss more audible there is no other sign of damage and it does sound cleaner than the original DVD’s Swedish track.
The English audio sounds exactly the same as the DVD’s: music and sound effects don’t sound too bad, but voices are about as flat as can be, lacking all of the intensity and depth found in the Swedish track. The background hiss is also more audible and there are a few pops.
Ultimately it will come down to preference but the Swedish track is the clear winner here from a technical perspective.
Criterion ports all (well, almost all) of the features found on the DVD edition, starting with an audio commentary featuring Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene. I remember not caring too much about this track when I first listened to it back in the day, but I found myself enjoying it more this time around. Steene talks about the pagan/Christian set up in the film, and also points out beliefs of the time, which again helped improve my understanding of some moments in the film (like the use of the toad early on). There’s plenty of standard material one would expect, such as the filming techniques, the look of the film, Bergman’s influences (Kurosawa seems to have been an influence for this one) and its place in his filmography. There are some interesting sides thrown in, like how Bergman intended this film to be the first of his trilogy (which would be made up of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence) but he changed his mind later. She also touches on its reception throughout the world with the U.S., where it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, receiving it better than most other places surprisingly, including Sweden). I’m not sure what my issue was with it initially. I mean, it doesn’t stand out from many other scholarly tracks, but it does offer some fascinating context and background.
Also ported over is Ang Lee’s introduction to the film. Lee discusses when he first saw the film and the impact it had on him. It was his first “art film” and it showed him that movies could be more than just stories, but could also make you “feel and think” and he claims that the film has influenced his style of movie-making today. It’s a decent interview with Lee, but it’s not one I would recommend you have to look at (and definitely don’t look at it if you haven’t seen the film yet as, like the menu warns, it does contain spoilers). I found it to be more about Lee rather than The Virgin Spring.
Running a little over 20-minutes the next feature are interviews with actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Petersson, both recorded separately. They talk about the characters they played in the film and touch on the basis of the story. They mention what it’s like to work with Bergman in theater and on film, how he likes to work with his actors, and the friendship he usually develops with his actors. Birgitta talks a little bit about the rape sequence and how it was hard to do but feels may have even been harder on her male co-stars during that sequence.
The best feature, though, may be the 40-minutes’ worth of audio from an October 31st, 1975 Q&A session with Bergman at the American Film Institute. In this segment (edited down) Bergman talks with who I assume are members of the press about his techniques, including how he works with the actors, his characters, and how if he has nothing to say then there is no point in making the film. It’s in English, and he does occasionally question his English but he’s perfectly fine. It’s a very good clip and an excellent interview with Bergman. It has been divided into six chapter stops and is shown over a still image.
Rounding out the release is a booklet that mostly duplicates the original DVD booklet. An essay by Peter Cowie offers an analysis of the film and then from the press book for the American release are notes by Swedish author Ulla Isaksson, who writes about the film and the ballad on which it is based. The ballad itself, “Tore’s Daughter at Vanze” is also included, sections of which are read by Steene in the commentary. What has been left out, though, are notes about how a key sequence in the was initially censored in the U.S. (and that Criterion’s DVD is the first time the full film has ever been released on home video in North America), which also featured a letter by Bergman about that sequence. This whole portion was only a couple of pages so it is a bit puzzling why it would be left out.
At any rate, it’s still not a packed special edition but the features are decent, and I seem to have enjoyed them a bit more this round.
The supplements don’t offer anything new, but I did enjoy them a bit more this time around. But the A/V presentation is far superior in comparison to the original DVD edition, and I think it is worth the upgrade for this aspect alone.