As an elaborately constructed, compulsively watchable piece of large-scale fiction made for the screen, Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) is an achievement with few equals even in this new golden era of HBO and BBC. At this point, it is quite firmly cemented in the upper ranks of Ingmar Bergman’s extraordinary cinematic output, which is by no means lacking in masterpieces. In fact, it could easily be considered the Bergman masterpiece, given its famous status as the master’s intended final statement on his filmmaking career. Yet the film’s completion didn’t quite mark a total departure for Bergman, since he occasionally revisited the world of the image through screenplays, filmed theatrical productions, and television projects. His actual swan song, 2003’s Saraband, returns to the central characters of 1974’s Scener ur ett Aktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage) while nicely serving as a stirring, modestly scaled postscript to the grand parting letter that is Fanny and Alexander. But rather than just being a summation of themes and motifs, even though it indeed treads through some very familiar Bergman territory, it would be most accurate to also say that it sums up both his formidable talent and passion for filmmaking. In it, he sought to reflect everything he loved about working in the medium, and what his audience got was nothing less than a sublime feast that pays tribute to the power of storytelling through both its surface-level content and impeccable craftsmanship.
As many may already know, there are two versions of Fanny and Alexander: a 188-minute cut that made its Swedish theatrical premiere in December 1982, and a longer, 312-minute work that was aired on Swedish television. Even though the latter wasn’t seen by the public until December 1983, it will be the main focus of this commemorative piece. While my first encounter with Fanny and Alexander was through the theatrical version, I can’t possibly imagine returning to it now since having experienced and become so familiar with Bergman’s longer (and preferred) version – the extended development of the characters, their relationships, and their atmospheric environments would be too greatly missed once removed from the viewing experience. The five-hour cut allows Bergman’s powers of seduction to fully take hold, providing the necessary space and freedom for the incredible complexity and richness of his vision, which consists of a fairy tale fashioned with the scope and detail of an epic novel. Considerations of the creation and purposes of art; studies of familial, paternal, and marital bonds; an intense, devastating portrayal of human mortality; and a reaffirmation of faith in magic and the unexplainable all adorn Fanny and Alexander’s central narrative, which chronicles the adventures of the titular sibling duo (Pernilla Allwin and Bertil Guve) as they endure the death of their father and subsequent separation from their family. In addition to the impressive amount of themes it explores, the film is a master class in world building that, over the course of its considerable duration, establishes an intricate ecosystem of characters, each of whom perfectly placed along their respective courses in the story. At certain points, key players and elements are casually introduced and swept aside just as quickly only to re-emerge later on with a larger role to carry out – take, for example, Bergman’s sneaky inclusion of Bishop Vergérus and his mother and sister within the audience eagerly awaiting the start of the annual Christmas play, or the appearance of the shop assistant and puppet maker Aron and verbal reference to his mad brother Ismael long before their more substantial screen time in the film’s fifth act as Isak Jacobi prepares to leave to join the Ekdahl family in their end-of-year celebrations. In these and many other instances, Bergman is laying down the groundwork, fulfilling his self-appointed role as the busy, scheming, ever-committed architect of his tale. All the while, he is blessed with an equally attentive creative team that carries out his bidding with impeccable results. Sven Nykvist’s glorious cinematography, the art direction, the costume work (all of which earned Oscars), and the remarkable array of actors all not only bring Bergman’s storybook creation to life, but also give it the sheen of artistry and splendor it deserves.
The very first moments of Fanny and Alexander find the latter of the pair, our main protagonist, alone in the rooms and corridors of his family’s home. Here, in this richly furnished, inviting place of safety and comfort, Alexander searches in vain for human company while otherwise occupying himself with the idle delights of make-believe and aimless boredom: a miniature puppet theatre that literally raises the curtain on both the story and our little hero (one of Bergman’s many affectionate tributes to the stage, his other great artistic passion besides cinema), the sight outside a frost-covered window of furiously colourful flowers on display from merchant stalls, an impersonation of a proud king interrupted by the loud clack! of a rat trap. As Alexander briefly zones out underneath a table, the first whiff of enchantment is introduced by way of a chiming clock, the appearance of a beam of light onto a statue that gestures to the boy, and the chilling sight of a cloaked Grim Reaper slowly dragging his scythe across the wooden floor before moving out of sight – at once a sly nod to The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1957), a sign that this big old house might not be so safe after all, and Bergman’s way of getting a head start on foreshadowing future events.
But then, with the sudden clatter of coal being poured into a hall stove, the film begins to wake up and move along into its first proper act, ‘The Ekdahl Family Celebrates Christmas’. Mainly set in the Uppsala Theatre where Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), Alexander’s father, stages his yearly production of the Christmas play and the Ekdahl home, this lengthy, justly famous segment introduces most of the key characters as they partake in one of the biggest – and most accurate – Christmas parties ever portrayed onscreen. Not one scene is wasted in this magnificently engineered whirlwind of exposition, each moment revealing new facets of personality and behaviour or further defining the nuances of specific characters’ relationships with one another. Gun Wållgren’s Helena, the Ekdahl family matriarch, is marvelously developed in an assortment of observational scenes: an inspection of the house before the guests’ arrival, brief exchanges with her servants, a moment on her own in which her composure dissolves in a brief pang of reflective melancholy. Her interactions with Isak imply with total conviction a long history of friendship and lust between the two, and it is with him, while wavering between laughter and sobs, that she discusses her three sons’ current predicaments, recalls memories of scandalous past events, and tearfully voices her fears brought on by the arrival of old age, all of which received with patience and kindness (even if interrupted by the odd lapse in consciousness) by her wise old companion (Erland Josephson’s performance as Isak is an absolute delight, perhaps at its height in his scenes with Wållgren). As the family steadily gathers together, energy and emotion levels build and the festivities truly kick off, with Bergman guiding Nykvist’s camera across the fabulous visual splendour of the celebration – fine clothing, trees overflowing with tinsel and ornaments, candelabras, wrapped presents, Santa Clauses. And, of course, the food and the drink! But as the alcohol flows, tasty delicacies are piled up and devoured by the plateful, and merry songs are sung, less pleasant matters are also given their due attention, not least of all the deep-rooted tension between the servants and their employers, the sizable gap between them momentarily (and, to a considerable extent, uncomfortably) bridged when they all sit together to dine for the occasion. Key lines further develop an authentic sense of history between the characters – Ester (Svea Holst), one of the oldest servants, notes that this will be her forty-third Christmas with the Ekdahls to Helena; later, during the feast, a relative claims it is the twenty-fourth Christmas she and Helena have shared together – that creates a cyclical, interactive bond between the film and the loyal viewer who is revisiting it once again after a period of time. As traditions are upheld, assumptions based on familiarity and past events are fulfilled, and familiar faces are seen once again, one feels as though this is a brand new Christmas celebration at the end of a whole new year for the Ekdahls, and the habits of expectation take hold. How late will the start of the Nativity play be this year? Will Uncle Carl and his wife Lydia be late yet again? Will certain people’s spirits be a little more improved from how they were last year? And the game isn’t just limited to the winter season – unfolding over the course of about three years, Fanny and Alexander exhibits Bergman’s fondness for aligning his narratives with specific seasons, here making the most of winter, spring, and summer’s specific traits and tones in their own turns.
Over the course of the evening, the three Ekdahl brothers – Gustav Adolf, Carl, and Oscar – come into sharper focus, as do their respective situations. Jarl Kulle’s uproarious, larger-than-life Gustav Adolf is one of Bergman’s many charming satyrs, a grinning, booming, big-hearted man of great appetites who shamelessly attempts to court the pretty young nursemaid Maj (Pernilla August, credited under the surname Wallgren) with the consent of his extraordinarily tolerant wife Alma (Mona Malm). Börje Ahlstedt’s Carl is a more frustrated man whose few moments of good spirits – the drunken sing-along in full swing when we first see him, the “fireworks show” he gives the children – are all-too-brief respites from the storm of anger, sadness, and self-loathing broiling within him. Criticized at his university, drowning in a sea of debt, and trapped in a stifling marriage, he takes out his rage on his poor wife Lydia (Christina Schollin), most notably in an agonizing tour-de-force scene that fully illustrates the couple’s long history and ever-repeating routine of bitter attacks and pitiful consolations. Despite Carl’s multiple threats to leave her, the two of them seem fated to forever keep enacting their farce in a darkly humorous Sisyphean cycle. (1) Finally, bearing a quiet contentment and domestic stability that his two brothers seem to lack, there is Oscar, whose scenes with his wife Emilie (Ewa Fröling) and children show a man who deeply loves both his family and profession. Out of the three Ekdahl brothers, he seems the most grounded and content with what life has given him.
If the film’s first act offers up a dense slew of virtues and foibles that invite the viewers to form their own views and judgments of the complex, flawed people presented before them, the second act (entitled ‘The Ghost Rehearsal’) puts all of their (and our) separate concerns on hold to make way for a horrible, unifying tragedy. It seems that, with multiple viewings, rather than becoming more familiar and comfortable with this segment’s course of events following Oscar’s final journey from the stage, where he collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, to his deathbed, I have instead become more sensitive and emotional to the point that I know with absolute certainty that at some point during the painful proceedings, I will be reduced to tears. Struck down by a stroke, Oscar very rapidly slips away from life while surrounded by the ones dearest to him – his actors, his wife, his mother, his children. His sickly, pale face framed opposite Emilie’s (a staggering juxtaposition), he does his best to prepare her for after his departure, calmly urging her to keep things going as usual and reassuring her that he will always be bound to her and the children. Bergman has of course specialized in confronting the cold, frightening limits of mortality throughout his whole career, but never has he been more resonant than in this heartbreaking passage. And after a year that seemed to bring an unusual amount of works that unflinchingly focus on illness and death in both the young (John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars) and old (Michael Haneke’s 2012 Palme d’Or winner Amour) – not to mention far too many cases of personal acquaintances facing such hard situations in their own lives – it packs an especially strong punch.
The following portion of the film proceeds from the trauma of Oscar’s passing to the proper introduction of Bishop Edvard Vergérus, not only one of Bergman’s finest characters (based on his own father, a strict Lutheran minister), but also one of fiction’s most exquisitely realized villains. A grave misunderstanding on Max von Sydow’s agent’s part prevented the longtime Bergman veteran from obtaining the role, which was originally intended for him – and thank goodness for that. While von Sydow’s interpretation surely would have been at the very least interesting to see, it is impossible to imagine the Bishop better realized by anyone else besides Jan Malmsjö. He brings before us a formidable man whose greatest weapon is his outer persona of pride, calculating determination, and utter faith in his beliefs. There is an undeniable sense of nobility in the upright, dignified way he presents himself, projecting an incredibly commanding presence – though he soon proves to be a menacing one as well. At one point aptly described by Gustav Adolf as a bully, he targets Alexander and exerts his control over the boy with a barrage of invasive gestures: taps, pats, prods, strokes, clutches, all deployed with infuriating condescension and visible nastiness. Offering the enticing prospect of a life of stability, simplicity, and relief to Emilie at a point when such other concerns as the theatre feel frivolous, he very quickly wins her over and makes her his wife – much to the discontentment of the rest of the Ekdahl clan, including Fanny and Alexander. In this particular fairy tale, the Bishop is very much the Wicked Stepfather figure, with his frigid, sparsely furnished palace offering the perfect dispiriting counterpoint to the warm cocoon of the Ekdahl home. Emilie and the children begin a new way of life not only with the Bishop, but also his ghoulish family and house staff, including his cross mother Blenda (Marianne Aminoff), his hysteria-prone sister Henrietta (Kerstin Tidelius), and the kitchen maid Justina, played by a mousy Harriet Andersson quite far-removed from the fresh beauty who appeared in Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1952) and Sommarnattens Leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955). As Emilie is introduced as a famous stage actress, it is clear that none of these people give a damn about acting or the theatre. For the imagination-fed Ekdahl children, whose love for and reliance upon stories was so effectively established in the film’s earlier portions – particularly in the wonderful scene in which Oscar transforms a simple wooden nursery chair into something so much greater with only his words and a bit of playacting – this is a toxic, dangerous place.
Dreams, magic, and the irrational versus order, logic, and institutional loyalty – this dichotomy has been seen before in at least one other Bergman film, which is perhaps the most fitting companion piece to Fanny and Alexander: 1958’s Ansiktet (The Magician). That film’s Vergérus, the doctor played by Gunnar Björnstrand, both pits himself against and yearns to better understand the brooding showman Albert Emanuel Vogler (von Sydow), who has given his life over to trickery and the impossible. His livelihood depends on people’s willingness to believe the unbelievable, something that confounds and angers both Björnstrand’s Vergérus and Malmsjö’s. In Fanny and Alexander, the institution of science is replaced by that of religion, though what matters is not what each one actually consists of, but rather the stance of power it allows its appointed spokesmen. Adorned in his robes, collar, and gold cross, Bishop Vergérus sets out not to spread the word of God so much as to crush or conquer that which he cannot explain, and thus cannot control. What are fanciful tales and yarns to Alexander are described by the Bishop as harmful and dangerous lies; these differing perspectives on stories and imagination define the antagonistic relationship between the boy and his new guardian. Alexander soon realizes the impact his words have on the Bishop, and brashly uses them to hatch a new tale involving the ghosts of the Bishop’s deceased daughters – suggesting he was responsible for their deaths – that strikes him like a blow. The inquisitional sequence that follows most starkly outlines the extent of the Bishop’s cruelty, though it also reveals further ever-surprising layers in his character. When he faces Alexander and urges him to confess to the lie and accept his punishment, he is close to tears and swollen with emotion. His actions are evil, but he carries them out with clear faith in his own righteousness and, most interestingly, genuine concern for Alexander. “The love I feel for you and your mother and sister is not blind and sloppy,” he explains in one of his most revealing moments. “It is strong and harsh.” Later on, when Gustav Adolf and Carl present themselves at the Bishop’s palace to attempt to negotiate the children’s freedom in a delicate duel of carefully worded queries and statements, the great divide between the Ekdahls and the Vergéruses of the world becomes even clearer. What makes the Bishop such a fascinating and masterful creation is that he is not simply a bad man, but rather a complicated person who can only see things from his firmly rooted position. He has chosen his stance, and he will keep it regardless of how much it may drive him apart from others. He acknowledges this strange truth aloud to himself, voicing his sincere regret that people like him cannot forge closer ties to people like the Ekdahls.
The third major setting of Fanny and Alexander is Isak Jacobi’s previously glimpsed shop, which, in the film’s fifth act, ‘Demons’, is a place thick with the intoxicating perfume of magic and mystery. Amid the leering, bobbing huddles of puppets that line the twisting, dimly lit corridors, the film becomes the most closely aligned with Alexander’s perspective – which is to say, the open perspective of a child to whom the fantastical realm of ghosts, demons, and miracles is still intertwined with the realm of the possible. After all, at the start of his La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1945), Jean Cocteau noted children’s superior ability over adults to suspend disbelief and surrender themselves to the strange and mysterious. Bergman’s film operates according to that same quality, and indeed, most (though not all) of its more extraordinary phenomena are solely perceived by Alexander. Both he and Fanny are able to see Oscar’s white-clad ghost as he solemnly watches his family from afar; so is Helena, who in a touching scene converses nostalgically with her dead son. Meanwhile, as always with Bergman (or nearly always, given the final scene of Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1959)), the question of God’s existence is much more open. The best Alexander gets is a giant puppet controlled by Isak’s nephew Aron (Mats Bergman, the director’s son) – an illusion that, for a brief moment, has him fooled. However, Alexander is not one of Bergman’s searching, desperate souls who strive to discover God in a solid, tangible way so as to salvage some meaning in their lives. He is simply a boy, and to him, God is just one more cryptic possibility in a world over-brimming with them, all as real as his imagination allows them to be. He isn’t occupied with analysis or philosophical contemplation, but instead the uncontrollable fusion of emotions, memories, and dreams that so often overtakes him.
Though he is a fairly quiet and passive character as far as protagonists go, Alexander visibly emerges from his experiences a much wiser person. His father’s death, the Bishop’s tyranny, and the betrayal his mother commits against him and Fanny by ignoring their needs in favour of her own all expose him to new kinds of pain he has never before experienced. As a result, he returns to the insulated worlds of theatre and family with perhaps a more critical eye, indicated by the passive, guarded expression he wears while watching his mother greet their actor companions once more. Will he be able to laugh and play with them with the same simple innocence of the past? It is even possible that he harbours some resentment towards the actors for their preoccupation with their own matters while he and his mother and sister were in peril. For along his journey, Alexander has also become more fully aware of the negative feelings he carries and fuels within him, particularly during his secret meeting with the caged, possibly deranged Ismael (Stina Ekblad), who teaches him that thoughts and desires of ill will can bring about terrible consequences. In different ways, the Bishop, Ismael, and Oscar awaken Alexander to the hatred and bitterness he is capable of wielding against others.
Alexander comes away from his adventures changed, but thankfully, not broken, and similarly, Bergman finishes on a positive note. Echoing Oscar’s touching speech to the theatre troupe in the first act that describes the simple yet essential service they as artists provide to the public, Gustav Adolf speaks before the gathered guests of the Ekdahls’ double christening celebration, exalting the joys of family, safety, and small pleasures and their great importance in a world that is too often overwhelming, merciless, and cruel. Bergman has reflected this beautiful philosophy many times before in such films as Till Glädje (To Joy, 1949), The Seventh Seal, Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957), and Viskingar och Rop (Cries and Whispers,1972), resting on moments of peace, food, pleasant weather, and good company and offering them up as the things of truth worth in life. Alexander comes to comprehend this outlook on the struggles of life and the question of their significance in the mesmerizing story Uncle Isak tells him and Fanny in a scarlet-hued bedroom in his shop which encapsulates the many efforts Bergman has made to examine the ways people summon the strength to wake up every day and continue onwards through the world, be it through prayer, a ceaseless search for truth, an open spirit of curiosity, or simple surrender to how things are, for better or for worse.
The final argument that art, along with communal and familial security, provides a crucial shield to the evils of the world is the film Fanny and Alexander itself. That Bergman dedicated himself so totally to such an incredibly developed work that coasts along the tracks of narrative with such fluid ease is his testament to the power of pure, clean storytelling. In a sense, we get the best of both worlds from it: the fun, populist appeal of Bergman’s early-middle period (particularly the run from Smiles of a Summer Night to The Virgin Spring) combined with the formal mastery and discipline of his later colour works (Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Hostsonatem (Autumn Sonata, 1978)). Bergman’s great capacity for entertainment even when considering the gravest and most intimidating subject matter (a quality that longtime Bergman admirer Woody Allen has repeatedly recognized and praised) remains one of the prime reasons for his lasting appeal. Thirty years onwards from its release, Fanny and Alexander stands as one of the most ideal avenues for discovering this still-underrated aspect of his work, so compelling, straightforward, and accessible is the viewing experience it offers. Universal truths about love, life, and death lie within its frames, as do torrents of humour, sadness, suspense, absurdity, and awe – yes, it delivers all of that and more, but the irresistible allure, stunning craft, and piercing impact of their presentation may yet remain this great film’s most impressive accomplishments.
- While researching this essay, I was surprised to discover that Bergman revisited Carl’s character, once more played by Börje Ahlstedt, in the 1997 television film In the Presence of a Clown, which finds him as a crazed patient in an Uppsala mental ward – a grim but perhaps not so surprising fate for the troubled soul we see in Fanny and Alexander.