Sauna in cinema: Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring

Saunas are not just for hedonist pleasure (though there's nothing wrong with that). For many they are used for ritualistically connecting with life. They are used as a contemplative space for coping with life transitions, including the pain of loss and sorrow. There is a very powerful sauna scene in Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960) which uses the sauna as part of a tragic tale of loss. 

Oddly enough, I've actually scene a couple Bergman films just recently (Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal). I'd always wanted to know what people were talking about by "Death on the beach," etc. So I was surprised when a sauna friend of mine, Michael Nordskog, mentioned a sauna scene in another Bergman flick, The Virgin Spring. (Michael, by the way, is the author of one of the U.S's primer sauna books, The Opposite of Cold. He was a speaker at the Perfect Sweat Summit.) He suggested the movie might make for a good topic for Tinygogo's Sauna in Cinema.

I got a copy from the library and all I can say is "absolutely." It is a powerful movie with a powerful poignant sauna scene.

The story centers around the rape and murder of an attractive, if spoiled, innocent young girl, Karin. She is the only daughter of Swedish parents who act as the heads of a small medieval feudal compound. 

Human pettiness and resentment set the stage for bad things to come. The mother and father both desperately love their daughter, though there is a rift between them in that their love is not a shared mutual love. The mother dotes on the daughter. Her daughter is all she has in the world. She is jealous of her daughter's relationship with her father, Töre. The father, tough, stoic, clueless, doesn't bother to reach out and share these affections with the mother as a family love. There is a adopted step-sister, Ingeri, who is treated more like a domestic servant. She deeply resents Karin for the love and happiness that is bestowed on her. Ingeri is further shamed with an unwanted pregnancy.

A tragedy ensues. Karin is sent off on an errand to deliver cheese and candles to a church for the Virgin Mary. Along the way she is waylaid by goat herdsmen, she is raped and murdered. The act is witnessed by her jealous step-sister Ingeri who fails to try and stop the act. 

Later that night, the herdsmen seek lodging unknowingly in the very house of Karin and Ingeri's parents. One of the murdering herdsmen offers some of Karin's clothing they stole off her body to sell to the mother. The mother, in cool silent horror, brings the dress of her dead daughter to the Töre. On his way to investigate, the stepsister returns to tell the tale of murder she witnessed. She confesses her jealousy of Karin.

With little doubt now of what became of his daughter and who was responsible, Töre, begins to ritualistically prepare to exact retribution and kill the herdsmen.

He calls on Ingiri to prepare "the bath," a traditional Nordic sauna. While it is heating up he wanders off to collect birch branches. He vents his rage by tearing down a tree with his bare hands.

He chops off birch branches for the bath to be used as vihta

Dutifully, the step-daughter has prepared the bath--water on the rocks for loyly.

Töre cleanses himself. It is ritual purification. The flagellation and dumping of cold water on himself are acts of waking himself up and gathering strength to face the deed he must carry out. (Max von Sydow, you hardbody! How'd you get yourself so fit for this role?)

Töre locks himself in the great hall with his wife and the herdsman. He stands vigil until dawn when he kills both men with a knife and his bare hands. However in his fit of murderous rage, Töre kills an innocent younger brother of the herdsman, a child. He realizes that he has overstepped his bounds in exacting vengeance. "God forgive me for what I have done." Töre, dude, you're going to need a lot of sauna sessions to work this one out.

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