In the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman's epic swan song Fanny and Alexander we witness a ten-year old boy gazing into a puppet theater, lifting up layers of a skillfully painted backdrop. The boy soon sets off on an expedition through his grandmother's matriarch which is an exuberant and lively world full of colorful antique furniture, beautiful sculptures, flowers, clocks and rich paintings. While running and hiding under a table, the boy suddenly stops and notices something strange: A marble female statue begins to come alive before his very eyes. Immediately Bergman plunges us into the perspective of looking at the world through the eyes of a child, who is free in the realm of fantasy, nightmares and the imagination. It is this world of dreams and nightmares, visions and theatrical pranks as the child who represents a young Bergman, embarks on a journey of self-discovery through the eccentric artistry of film and the theater. "The theater is my wife, and the cinema is my mistress,” Bergman once declared. In Fanny and Alexander he devotes himself entirely to both, without raising thoughts of faithlessness or betrayal to either. With Fanny and Alexander, Bergman constructs the creative landscape of childhood, the loss of innocence and the confrontation between oppressive authoritative figures, in which all becomes the crucial artistic starting point of young Bergman's creative self. Surprisingly children were never presented as a important role in Bergman's earlier work, but with Fanny and Alexander children take center stage. "To be honest, I think back on my early years with delight and curiosity. My imagination and senses were given nourishment, and I remember nothing dull; in fact, the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights, and magical moments," Bergman writes. Fanny and Alexander takes us back to the year 1907, in a Swedish town of Uppsala right during the Christmas Eve celebration of the Ekdahl family who are wealthy, and the matriarch, Helena, who lives in an enormous home, introduces to a colorful eccentric cast of characters, who love to drink, laugh, cry, plot, and dream. Fanny and Alexander is without a doubt, Bergman’s most richly orchestrated work and splendor, and also one of his most accessible creations. Bergman strays away from his bleak and gloom aesthetics that audiences have come to associate him with. Gone are his tortured confrontations with the absence of God, or the impossibilities of romantic lasting relationships; themes which are replaced by the creative and wondrous landscapes of childhood and the imagination. Bergman wrote, “By playing, I can overcome the anguish, loosen the tension, and triumph over destruction. I want at last to show the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, joy that I have so seldom and so poorly given life to in my work. Being able to portray energy and drive, capability for living, kindness. That wouldn't be so bad, for once.” With Fanny and Alexander Bergman creates a massive and epic world where magic and ghosts and life and death coexist side by side, revolving around such complex themes as the love and security of the bourgeois family, the refuge and artistic playground of the theater, the cold and harsh strictness of the church, and the creative imagination of childhood fantasy which becomes an temporary escape from the bleakness of reality; along with the inspirations from the works of Dickens and Shakespeare.
The story is set during 1907 in the Swedish town of Uppsala where Alexander (Bertil Guve), his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and their well-to-do family, the Ekdahls, live. The siblings' parents Oscar and Emilie (who is much younger in age) are both involved in the local theater and are happily married. Their wealthy grandmother Helena Ekdahl has three sons including Oscar. Uncle Gusten is a lively and colorful personality who is married to Alma and has an openly sexual relationship with their younger servant Maj. Uncle Carlchen is a failed professor who is married to a German foreigner named Eva, who which he frequently verbally abuses.
The film opens with young Alexander playing in the wealthy, exuberant, lively and colorful matriarch where his grandmother Helena lives. It's an enormous mansion vibrant with lively colors crowded with antique furniture, beautiful sculptures, clocks, rich paintings and flowers. The sequence opens with young Alexander gazing into a puppet theater (which reads 'Not for pleasure alone') and lifting up layers of a skillfully painted backdrop. Alexander soon sets off on an expedition through his grandmother's matriarch which is in itself a fantastical theater of its own with several different layers. Alexander hides under bed blankets, looks out a window and runs under a table, but then he suddenly stops because he notices something strange. It's completely silent besides the sound of the clock ringing, the slight movement of the chandelier, and the breathing of Alexander, as he watches a marble female statue comes to life before his very eyes along with the figure of death dragging his scythe on the carpeting. His fantasy suddenly is interrupted by his grandmother Helena's maids as they are getting ready for the family guests who will soon be arriving for Christmas dinner. His grandmother walks into the room and sees Alexander playing under the table. "Alexander? How are things? Would you like to play cards before dinner?"
THE FIRST ACT: THE EKDAHL FAMILY CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS
Everyone in the town of Uppsala patiently await in the theater auditorium for the yearly Ekdhal Christmas show. "It takes longer every year," one person complains. Suddenly the show begins as the curtain rises and the lights dim, as the show presents the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem which stars the whole Ekdahl family.
After the Christmas presentation Gusten has his servants (suggesting to not present any snobbishness) bring out gifts for the actors and actresses that work for Oscar and Emilie's theatre. Oscar gives a powerful speech to his all his cast and crew of his theatre saying: "My dear friends, for 22 years, in the capacity of theater manager, I've stood here and made a speech without really having any talent for that sort of thing. Especially if you think of my father who was brilliant at speeches. My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I'm fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better. Or perhaps, we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while, for a few short moments, the harsh world outside. Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love. I don't know why I feel so comically solemn...this evening. I can't explain how I feel, so I'd best be brief. My wife and I, and the rest of the Ekdahl family, - We wish you all a happy and joyous Christmas. I Hope we meet again on St. Stephen's Day, strengthened in body and soul. Merry Christmas."
Meanwhile Isak Jacobi who is a Jewish art dealer and money and close friend of the family locks up his work shop and arrives at Helena's matriarch early before the rest of the Ekdahl family get there. Shocked that no one has yet arrived Helena tells him, "I expect Oscar is making a long, dull speech". Once the theater production is over Helena hears her massive family make their way down to street and towards her matriarch. The family start arriving from down the street as Helena smiles looking out the window and she says to Isak, "There comes my family."
When arriving at their grandmothers, Alexander his younger sister Fanny and all the other children run and look at all the presents under the tree. Carlchen and his German wife Lydia are once again late to Helena's Christmas party, as they are late every year. Helena's servants including Mrs. Ester feel unseemly being allowed to sit at the same dinner table kitchen with their employers. Over the next several hours the Ekdahl family eat, drink, laugh, and cry as they all celebrate by holding hands and dancing around the dinner table. Gusten grabs Maj his servant from the dance and says to her privately, "What would Maj say to a little visit in her room this evening?"
Oscar gets winded in the middle of all the dancing and has to take a rest on the staircase. Carlchen decides to take the children away for a moment as he tells them, "Uncle Carl is going to treat you to one helluva fireworks show." Uncle Carl takes the kids into another room (passing a winded and exhausted Oscar). Carl pulls down his pants on the stairway and passes gas making the children laugh hysterically. "Now comes Number three. Alexander, bring me the candle." Alexander hands him the candle as the wind of his gas blows it out.
Later that evening Maj is having a pillow fight with the children and Emilie and Alma giggly walk in and playfully catch her in the act. Embarrassed by her behavior Maj says to her employers, "I'm sorry. It's a terrible mess." Alma calls her to come forward and says, "Come see us later and you'll get a Christmas present." She then physically smacks her which greatly shocks Emilie. All the children head to bed to say their prayers, and . Alexander is awakened by Maj as she shows him her Christmas present she got from Helena. "Tonight you can't sleep in Maj's bed because Maj will have a visitor, and I can't just have any number of men in my bed." she tells him. Alexander is upset when hearing this but she tells him, "But you're Maj's sweetheart. You know that."
While everyone heads to sleep, Helena and Isak stay up together. (They used to be lovers but they keep it private between one another.) During the night Alexander gets up and shows the rest of the kids a slide-show from a magic lantern. When the kids all scream and make a noise they immediately head to bed as Emilie and Oscar go in to check why they are still awake. Oscar smells the kerosene and knows that Alexander has just been playing with his magic lantern, and decides to entertain the children with one of his stories. He picks up a chair, just an ordinary old nursery chair, and spins a wonderful yarn about it and where it came from. The children are entranced, by this story as Oscar acts out the visuals.
Helena lays next to Isak out in the main lobby as she drunkenly speaks her mind saying, "You're my best friend. Whatever would I do without you? Last year, I enjoyed Christmas. This year all I wanted to do was cry. I suppose I'm getting old. Though I love having the grandchildren, of course. I didn't think Oscar looked well. He wears himself out with the theater. And the idea of him playing the ghost. He should take it easy. Besides, he's an awfully bad actor. I wonder if Emilie realizes that he's weak and needs rest." Helena talks about her son Carl saying, "He asked me for a new loan, but I refused. If he comes to you for money, you must say no too. I don't understand it. Time and time again I clear everything up for him. After a year, he's in dire straits again." Isak is dozing off to sleep and Helena says, "Your not even paying attention. Never mind. The main thing is that you keep me company." Helena brings up how Carl and Gusten are oversexed and how Gusten's wife Alma doesn't mind her husband philandering with their servant Maj because Gusten treats Alma well. "It's fortunate that Alma is so understanding. Perhaps I ought to warn that nursemaid Maj, or whatever her name is (she seems to be physically disabled and has a wooden leg). I must say she is pretty and good with the children."
Helena talks about how Carl and Gusten have became successful with their careers and have everything and Oscar unfortunately came out with nothing. "Oscar and Emilie are enormously fond of each other," Helena says. Helena then brings up when her deceased husband caught her and Isak having an intimate moment which is how her husband and Isak became good friends. Helena starts to weep thinking of the past. "A happy marriage in spite of everything." The happy splendid life is over," Helena says.
Gusten is in bed with Maj (who has a wooden leg) After teasing one another Gusten is upset with a comment that Maj made, and begins to pout. Meanwhile Carl is belligerent and going on a while tangent on how he is in debt and how his mother turned him down for money. When Carlchen's wife Lydia tries to offer up solutions and even pawning off own jewelry and her husband becomes emotionally abusive to her saying, "Idiot. Why did I marry you? Your ugly, poor and barren. You couldn't even give me a child." Since his wife Lydia is a foreigner he insults her Swedish speaking. "You smell bad. Have you given up washing, or are you starting to rot?" After horrendous verbal insults Carlchen starts to cry and apologize to how he is so unkind to his wife. Lydia calmly says, "When you're sad and unhappy you always talk like this. I don't care anymore. You know that."
The morning finally arrives and Gusten gets dressed and heads to his wife's room and the two of them have a quickie while their daughter goes to get breakfast. That morning everyone meets in Helena's kitchen for breakfast before heading to church as it is announced that the Bishop will be announcing the church service today.
THE SECOND ACT: THE GHOST REHEARSAL
The day after Christmas the Ekdahl family head to the theatre to rehearse William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Oscar playing the role of Hamlet's dead father suddenly becomes becomes silent during his performance. Slowly forgetting his lines Oscar slips and collapses. He looks around disoriented. "Where am I...?" He suddenly doesn't know where he is or what he is doing. When his wife Emilie and friends rush to his side Oscar slowly looks at his wife and says, "What happened? What am I doing here...? Why was I acting...? Am... I going to die now?" Everyone quickly rushes Oscar out for immediate medical attention, as Maj calls Alexander, "Alexander, come along."
During the next several hours the local doctor arrives to check on Oscar and he informs the Ekdahl family that Oscar suffered a stroke and only has a few hours. Helena calls in Alexander and Fanny to have them say their goodbye's to their dying father saying, "Come, Alexander. Don't be afraid." Alexander can't seem to have the courage to confront his father on his death-bed, especially when Oscar struggles to speak to him, frightening him and having him run in the corner. Oscar alone with his wife tells Emilie how he feels no pain and to not worry. "I could play the ghost now," he tells her. "I'll be closer to you now, then when I lived. Take care of the theater. Mr. Sandblad will explain the business side. Artistic matters you'll decide on your own. Eternity, Emilie. Eternity," he lastly mutters before passing on.
Later that evening after the passing of their father both Fanny and Alexander are awaken by the loud mourning of their mother. They both step out into the main hall as they watch their mother walk back and forth letting out animal cries of such pain, grief and sorrow between their father's body lying in his casket. It's an haunting image that is not easily forgotten.
After Oscar's death friends from all over Upham arrive to give their heartfelt condolences to Emilie and the Ekdahl family. "Allow me to assure you that my family and I feel the very greatest sympathy in this difficult hour that has befallen you and your esteemed family." The actors of Oscar and Emilie's theatre arrive and Emilie announces to them that they will continue theater rehearsals and the premier of Hamlet as planned.
During Oscars funeral service Fanny quietly swears under his breath angrily saying, "cock, piss, shit, cunt, fart" with Fanny only hearing. After the funeral everyone is having dinner at Helena's as the town bishop arrives to emotionally comfort Emilie.
Late that night, Fanny and Alexander are playing with the magic lantern when Fanny asks Alexander, "Did you hear something?" Fanny tells Alexander that their is something out in the study. They both step out into the study and see their dead father playing the piano as their father turns to look at his children, with a sad face of sorrow.
THE THIRD ACT: THE BREAK-UP
Emilie wants to talk to the actors and actresses of the theater after one of their shows, and it doesn't sound good. Emilie makes a speech and tells them, "My husband died a year ago today. He wanted us to go on as usual, and we have gone on as usual, though everything has been different. We draw the theater over our heads like a security blanket. Our dressing rooms are bright and warm. The stage enfolds us in friendly shadows. Playwrights tell us what to say and think. We laugh, cry and rage. People sit there in the dark, kindly disposed towards us. They're remarkably loyal, though we often give them stones instead of bread. Most of the time we're simply playing. Almost always. We play because we enjoy it. And if we don't enjoy it, we sulk and blame the circumstances, never ourselves. That's how it is." One of the actors asked if she is tired of the theater and wants to quit. She says "I'm afraid so. Perhaps, and for good." The cast doesn't know what will happen to them after she departs, but she informs them that is something they will figure out when the time comes.
One afternoon when Alexander arrives home from school, his mother calls him into the other room for a serous talk. When Alexander walks in he finds the local Lutheran bishop Edvard Vergerus waiting for him. The bishop quickly calls young Alexander out for telling a simple white lie to his classmates that his mother sold him to a circus:
"Good day Alexander. We met once before under sadder circumstances, when I officiated at your father's funeral. Since then, your mother has turned to me with her worries, as is only natural. I am the spiritual side of the parish. You and your sister are doing well at school, I'm told. Diligent and attentive and earning good grades. But diligence and good grades aren't everything in this world. Your a big boy so I will talk to you man to man. Can you tell me...Can you explain to me...what a lie is and what the truth is? You think that was a stupid question, and it probably was. I was just kidding you. Why does one lie...can you explain to me why one lies?"
"Because you don't want to tell the truth."
"A very sly answer, my young friend. Why does one not tell the truth?"
"One lies to gain an advantage."
"Good answer, my boy. Good and concise. Forgive me if I ask another personal question, a bit more personal this time. Can you explain to your mother and me why you lied at school? Go to your mother and ask her for forgiveness for all the sorrow and worry you've caused her."
"I ask Mother's forgiveness for lying, and I promise never to do it again."
"Imagination is a splendid thing...a mighty force...a gift from God. It is held in trust for us by the great artists, writers, and musicians."
Fanny is then brought into the room as Alexander's mother wants to make an announcement to the children. Fanny and Alexander are then told by their mother that the bishop and her will be getting married saying, "I have something important to tell you. Edvard has asked if I will marry him. I've acceptet with gratitude and joy. I've been alone for a long time, and my children need a firm hand. And a father." The bishop says, "May God and his mercy, take care of our little family. Let us kneel down and ignite in a heartfelt prayer. May God our father in his mercy take care of our little family and bless us and keep us from evil all the days of our life." While Alexander and his sister are told to kneel and unite in a prayer as a family, Alexander looks up to see his father watching from the other room.
The children are later introduced to the Bishop's mother, his bitch of a sister Henrietta and his crippled and barren aunt whose bound in a wheelchair and has to be force-fed. The bishop wants his wife and children to move into his home and asks his new wife for a single wish. "I want you to come to my house without possessions. I want you to leave your home...your clothes, jewels, furniture...your valuables. Your friends, habits and thoughts. I want you to leave your former life entirely. I want you to come to your new life as if newly born." Emilie says, "Shall I arrive naked?" The bishop says he is serious. The bishop even has Emilie close down the theatre that her and Oscar have owned for several decades.
During the wedding after Alexander watches his mother walk down the aisle with the bishop he looks back in the corner of the room and again sees the spirit of his father sadly watching his family about to be torn apart. During the wedding ceremony Alexander collapses on the top of a table. "I have a feeling we'll have Emilie back...quite soon," says Helena as the Ekdahl family sadly watch Emilie and the kids leave with their new husband as they all walk past the old theater which is now barred off and closed.
Right When Fanny and Alexander begin their new life in the bishop's home, this new world drains all the love, color, art and life that was in their old world. In this new home you notice only a few necessary pieces of furniture, bolts and bars on every door and window and regulations and prohibitions in which the bishop controls their lives with a stern, dominant iron grip.
During dinner at the new home the bishop's sister Henrietta says that the children don't appear to have a appetite. Emilie says, "Everything's new and strange to them. You must understand, Henrietta." Henrietta says, "Perhaps they're turning up their noses at the food. I might as well mention it now. In the future no one may leave the table without having eaten up..." Emilie interrupts and says, "Dearest Henrietta, I'll tell my children what to do." Henrietta says, "There's a basic rule in the house which no one must break, not even you, dear Emilie, and that is respect for the temporal gifts." When Emilie tells Henrietta that they will discuss this at a different time and not in front of the children, Henrietta starts making an emotional scene by weeping and her mother quickly interrupts and says, "That will do, Henrietta." When the mother talks about duties the children will start doing Emilie doesn't care for what she is saying and speaks up. Her mother falsely smiles and says, "Time will tell, dear Emilie." The Bishop holds out his hands and says, "Let us bring our hands together and thank God for this meal."
The kids get ready for bed and their mother and the Bishop come up for their prayers. When Alexander starts to read a book, the bishop asks him what he is reading. Alexander doesn't answer the bishop and so the bishop swipes the book away from him. "Goodnight, my boy," he says as he roughly pats the back of Alexander's head. "My dearest wish is for us to live at peace with one another. Love cannot be commanded, but we can show respect and consideration." When the Bishop leaves Emilie tells the kids that bishop's two daughter's slept in this room before them with their mother. Fanny tells her mother, "I think we've got a terrible step father." Alexander adds, "And the sister is crazy. " Fanny adds, "And that tub of lard that has to be fed. I don't want to live here." Their mother says they have to give it some time and she tells Alexander, "Don't play Hamlet, my son. I'm not Queen Gertrude, your kind stepfather isn't the King of Denmark, and this is not Elsinore Castle, even if it does look rather gloomy."
THE FORTH ACT: THE EVENTS OF SUMMER
At Helena's matriarch during a storm she gets a visit from Maj, as Maj is greatly worried about Emilie and the kids. Alexander promised to write to her and Helena tells her not to underestimate Helena. Maj also brings up how Gusten is making things difficult for her, and taking over her whole life. In spite of her love for him, and their delightful sexual activities, she tearfully admits that she wants to be free of his total control.
Meanwhile at the Bishops home Justina the maid serves the children food dinner, while their mother is away. Justina begins to tell the children the story of the children who drowned right outside and the mother who died trying to save them. Fanny says that they're no such thing in ghosts but Justina says that the house does funny things to you. Alexander then says that he's seen the woman and the children.
Justina asks if Alexander is telling the truth and Alexander says: "Word of honor as a Swedish citizen. I had been in the library with that man who married my mother. He'd been lecturing me. I don't remember why. I was passing through the dining room...then I saw a little girl in the doorway. She ran passed me without a sound. Then I saw the older girl. And there stood the women in her black dress. She said in a faint almost inaudible voice...not to be afraid, that she had something to tell me. I don't want to frighten anyone, but these were her very words: 'I want you to know our secret. Your stepfather, my husband, locked me and my children in the bedchamber. For five days and nights he kept us without food and water. In our misery we decided to escape. We tied sheets together and tried to climb down to the finger of land sticking out into the deep, swirling water. My daughters went first, but they fell headfirst into the water and were dragged under. I tried to save them but was sucked down into a black whirlpool that grabbed my clothes. Underwater I grasped my children's hands and drew them to me.'"
Justina is astonished at what Alexander has said and angrily tells the kids to get to bed. After Justina leaves Alexander tells Fanny if they concentrate hard enough on the Bishop dying, it will happen. Justina goes downstairs to the bishop's study and decides to tell the bishop the story that Alexander had told her. Justina has been ordered by the bishop to keep an eye on the children, listen to their conversations, and let him know of anything unusual. "Alexander made up a terrible story," she says. "He says you locked your first wife up, and she was drowned with her children when they tried to escape."
In one of the best scenes of the film The bishop confronts Alexander on his lies, which feels more like Alexander going on trial. In this tense scene in which Alexander and the bishop face-off with one another with the both of them not willing to back down is masterful.
The bishop's mother angrily wakes the children up during the night. "Get up. Your stepfather wants to talk to you."
When brought downstairs the bishop asks Alexander:
"Alexander, my boy. In the presence of your sister and Justina you have accused me of having murdered my wife and children. Do you recognize the story?"
"So Justina has given false testimony?"
"She could have dreamt it."
The bishop has Alexander place his hand on the bible and swear that he didn't tell that story. Alexander easily puts his hand on the bible and says, "It's a moral sin to swear falsely. It's called perjury and it is severely punished. Lay your hand on the bible and say after me: 'I, Alexander Ekdahl...swear by Holy writ and by the living God...that all I have said, say and will say, is the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
"Alexander, you remember that the two of us had an important conversation about a year ago, it concerned certain moral questions."
"It wasn't really a conversation."
"What do you mean?"
"The bishop spoke and Alexander said nothing."
"And felt ashamed, perhaps on account of your lies."
"I've grown wiser since then."
"You mean you lie better."
"More or less."
"I don't know what you imagine. Do you think you can besmirch another person's honor with impunity? Do you think you can lie and get away with perjury without consequence? Do you think this is a game, Alexander? Or a play in which the children get to make up their lines?"
"I think the bishop hates Alexander. That's what I think."
"Oh, so that's what you think. I'll tell you something, that may come as a surprise. I don't hate you. I love you. But the love I feel for you and your mother and sister is not blind and sloppy. It is strong an harsh. Do you hear what I say?"
"You're hardening you heart. Moreover, you misjudge the situation. I am much stronger than you are. "
"I don't doubt it."
"I meant stronger spiritually. Because I have truth and justice on my side."
The bishop can't get Alexander to confess so he resorts to different measures:
"In my childhood parents were not so softhearted. They had the cane. I have one too. It's an ordinary carpet beater, but it can dance a fine step! If that didn't work, we had other effective means, namely Castor oil. There you see the bottle and a glass. A few mouthfuls of this and you're more docile. If that didn't help, there was a dark and cold cubbyhole where you sat for a few hours until the rats started sniffling at your face. The punishment is to teach you a love of truth. Which punishment do you choose? Cane, Castor oil or the dark cubbyhole?"
"How many strokes of the cane?"
"Then I choose the cane."
"Pull your pants down. Bend over."
"I'll never apologize."
He orders Alexander to pull his pants down and bend over and he whips Alexander ten times with the cane. When Alexander still doesn't confess the bishop whips him once again until Alexander can't stand the pain no longer and finally confesses.
"What do you have to say now. Speak up. I want everyone to hear your regret."
"Alexander asks the Bishop for forgiveness."
"You do understand that I punished you out of love?"
"Kiss my hand Alexander."
"May I go to bed now."
"Yes you may. But so that you may contemplate the day's events in peace and quiet you're to sleep in the attic. At 6:00 in the morning you will be let out. Understood?"
"Yes, your Grace!"
Meanwhile Helena is resting alone in her home and she gets a visit from her son Oscar. Helena speaks of Oscar's father, and he sits by and listens. She takes her son's hand and tells him, "Yes, you're a good boy, Oscar and I grieved terribly when you passed away." She asks if her son is sad and Oscar says he is worried about the children. Emilie suddenly visits Helena and explains to her how cruel the bishop has been on her and the children:
"Helena, it's hardest on the children. They're punished for the slightest misdeed. His mother locks them up, puts them to bed in the middle of the day. How could I be so blind? How could I feel compassion for that man? I'm an actress. I should have seen through the pretense. Oscar was my best friend. You know that Helena. I saw nothing, understood nothing. He said together with the children we'd live nearness to God. I'm in constant fear that Alexander will say something to displease him.
"Alexander can't see that his stepfather is a dangerous opponent who's just waiting for the right opportunity to crush him."
"You must leave him, Emilie."
"I'm pregnant. I asked for a divorce. He refuses. I tell him I'll leave just the same then he explains in detail what will happen. In a court of law, I'll lose on grounds of "desertion," as it's called. The children will be taken from me, to be brought up by him. I am shut in and can no longer breathe... I am dying Helena! I hate that man so violently...!"
While Alexander is in the attic he asks his father, "Father. If you are going to visit me, please remember I'm scared of ghosts and that you're actually dead. I don't understand why I have to see dead people when it makes me sick." He starts to hear his voice being called and suddenly he sees the dead sisters that died, one seems to be hiding behind the crucifix. They tell him they are mad at him because of what he said about their father locking them up, and they reveal to him the truth. "You said he locked us up. That's not true. The floodgates had been closed for several weeks, and the river had frozen over. We'd gotten new skates for Christmas. But the ice broke, and we fell into the water. Mother tried to save us, but the current dragged us under the ice. Now you know the truth, wretched boy. My sister and I thought we'd free our father fro you and your hatred. We'll scare the wits out of you so you end up in the hospital, locked in a cell, chained hand and foot." Alexander pleads for them not to frighten him, as one of the sister seems to puke out a ooze like substance.
Suddenly Emilie returns home and realizes Alexander is locked up in the attic and she fights Henrietta for the attic door key as Henrietta shouts, "Edvard has forbidden it!" Emilie opens the attic door and runs up to comfort her son noticing the bloody bruises left on Alexander's back.
Meanwhile back at Helena's home, Helena's two son's arrive to have their summer visit with their mother. Gusten and his wife Alma to talk to him about Maj and Helena explains to Gusten on how Maj is not his plaything, and how she suffers in her own way when Gustav Adolf Ekdahl more or less takes over her life. All the while Carlchen and Lydia argue outside Helena's home, as Carlchen lives in a state of neurotic sadness and despair, blaming it on his long suffering German wife Lydia. She, in turn, accepts and tolerates his moods, but not with any passivity. She is frequently in tears, which angers him even more.
Helena, Fanny and Alexander all are holding each other up in the attic. The bishop walks up to wish them goodnight and when Alexander doesn't answer he asks if Alexander is asleep, and Alexander says he's not.
Later that evening downstairs the bishop states to Emilie that he knows she went to see her mother in law earlier in the day. Emilie confronts the Bishop. "You locked up the children," she says. "You abused Alexander." the bishop tells her she is being so dramatic, and that he punished him. She tells him that he broke skin when whipping Alexander. "I could kill you," she tell the bishop. "You harm the baby with thoughts like that?" he asks. "Our baby will never be born." She says. The bishop tells her to be careful on what she is saying and says:
"You're not strong, Emilie. The pregnancy is draining your strength. From now on you'll stay in a room that we'll make as comfortable as possible. Henrietta and my mother will take turns looking after you. For the time being, your freedom will be somewhat limited. But we must be very careful. You should also know that the slightest attempt to rebel or contact the outside world will affect your children's welfare. By being irresponsible, you've forced me to take responsibility, not only for your children, but also for you. It's a heavy burden. I feel a terrible loneliness. I'm an ordinary man with great faults, but I exercise a powerful office that always overshadows the person holding it. A man becomes a slave to such an office, with no right to opinions of his own."
THE FIFTH ACT: DEMONS
In the water stream outside the bishop's home there is a skeleton of a dead animal. Fanny and Alexander are now prisoners of the bishop home as the two of them peer out the bared up windows. Heading towards the home is Isak Jacobi as he arrives proposing a business deal with the Bishop on a matter of money. When arriving Isak tells Henrietta, "Its like this: In November His Grace wanted to borrow money. Regrettably, Jews have certain principles, like never lending money to the clergy. He suggested I should buy that chest for a reasonable sum. I declined. Foolishly now, since I've changed my mind. I'd like to buy that chest, and at almost any price." Isak points to a large chest that the bishop owns claiming he now wants to buy it.
Henrietta goes to get the bishop and Isak quickly rushes upstairs and informs the kids who are locked in the nursery, to get ready to leave. When rushing back downstairs the bishop comes out of his office and Isak offers his price on purchasing his chest. Isak asks if the Bishop can make up a contract and while the Bishop again leaves towards his office to make up a contract, the children hurriedly rush downstairs and hide into the chest. The bishop returns knowingly that Isak arrived on different intentions and attacks the man yelling, "Filthy Jewish swine! You damned, filthy Jewish swine! You thought you could cheat me! You'll regret this, you repulsive, hook-nosed bastard!" Henrietta pulls the bishop off Isak as the bishop shouts, "That swine is trying to steal my children!" But Henrietta says that she has the only key to the nursery. There is a beautiful moment of magic that occurs when Isak gets on his knees and screams to the heavens and a bright light flashes while the bishop runs to the children's nursery to check on the children and clearly sees the children still asleep in their beds; even though we as an audience know they are downstairs hiding in the chest.
Isak is allowed to leave with the chest but not before eyeing Emilie, comforting her that her children are now safe. After Fanny and Alexander's successful escape they arrive at Isak's home who seems to have a mystical house full of antiques and puppets. Perhaps the magic in the film has something to do with the magic arts of the Jacobi family because Isak has two nephews, Aron, who helps in the business, and Ismael, who is 'not well' and is kept in a locked room but can be heard singing at night. Isak show's Fanny and Alexander Aaron's puppet theater and says to the children, "Behind this door lives my nephew Ismael. He's sick. The door must always be kept shut. Remember that , both of you. Sometimes he sings, even at night."
It is their first night in Isak's home, and the children don't want to go to sleep. Isak offers to read to them from an old book of tall tales, stories, prayers and verses, explaining that it is in Hebrew and will take him a while to translate while he reads. His quiet, gentle reading soon moves to story-telling as Isak tells the tale of a youth who is on a long dark journey, and doesn't know what his destination will be. When he meets an old sage who is also on the journey, the camera shows us that Alexander identifies himself with the youth within the story as it goes off on a dream sequence placing Alexander within the story.
Meanwhile, Gusten and Carlchen arrive at the bishop's home to discuss a proposition in having the bishop release Emilie from captivity. "Shall we have a seat?" the bishop says. Carlchen says, "Were here on behalf of the family to ask that you set Emilie and the children free. We can't say with certainty that we know what has occurred. We only know that our dear Emilie is extremely unhappy, and that the children hate the bishop's palace." Gusten makes a offer of a considerable sum for retrieving Emilie and the children. The Bishop says, "The children have been abducted from their home. They must unconditionally and without delay be returned to their legal parents. Every day will cause all of us...not least their mother unspeakable suffering. When the children are returned , I'll be prepared to listen to any proposals the Ekdahl family may have. But to avoid any further misunderstandings, I must make it clear that a divorce is absolutely out of the question." Carlchen then tells the Bishop that the children will never be returned to live with the Bishop and be subjected to suffering and that the children are part of their family.
The bishop says, "It grieves me that the Ekdahl family should be dictating conditions. Especially since, as their stepfather, I have the law on my side. And furthermore, as a representative of the church, I have the moral advantage." Gusten angrily says, "You may well have morality and the law on your side, old man, but bear in mind that I'm in league with immortality, and even were you to win in court, we who side with immortality will have spread so many credible rumors about your person, your way of life, your household, your sister, your servants, your sanity, your sexual excesses, your phony hair, your hypocrisy, your hypochondria, and your lack of decency that you'll be forever forced to preach to Huguenots, hooligans and Eskimos! I can see right through you! You're a cad of monumental proportions! Emilie is to have her divorce, or I'll declare His Holiness bankrupt!" Carlchen tries to calm his brother Gusten while the bishop leaves the room only to return with Emilie. She tells the two brothers that she expresses their gratitude but they've misunderstood. She tells them Isak took it upon himself to abduct the children, and that it is nice and safe at the home and the Bishop is good to them, with her words surprising the brothers. She begins to cry and says, "I am happy and safe. Edvard is goodness himself. You must believe me. I imply you will all my heart: Bring back my children! I cannot live without them!"
One night Alexander is awakened in Isak's home and gets lost when walking back from the restroom and says, "I hope there aren't any ghosts." Alexander then comes across his dead father and Alexander tells him, "It would be better if you went off to heaven. You can't help us anyway. Why can't you go to God and tell him to kill the bishop? Or doesn't God give a damn about you, or any of us? Have you even seen god on the other side? Not a bastard has a thought in his head. Idiots, the whole bunch of 'em." His father tells Alexander that he must be gentle with people. Suddenly Alexander is brought into a room where he believes he is having a conversation with God behind a door and is terrified and hides.
"Who is behind the door?"
"It is God behind the door."
"Can't you come out?"
"No living being can see God's face."
"What do you want?"
"To prove I exist. Shall I show myself?"
"This is the end of me."
Alexander is greatly frightened and says that he is done for; until he finds out God is a puppet being manipulated as a joke by Isak's brother Aron. Alexander was truly frightened by the prank and gets very angry with Aron. When Aron realizes this he apologizes especially when he notices Alexander was crying. Aron then decides to give Alexander a tour around his magic shop showing him many miraculous devices including a realistic looking mummy who breaths and moves. Aaron says he was up all night working on a puppet but Alexander tells him he saw him sleeping. Aaron says:
"There are many strange things that can't be explained. You realize that when you dabble in magic."
"I know quite a bit about ghosts."
"Uncle Isak says we're surrounded by different realities one on top of the other. There are swarms of ghosts, spirits, phantoms, souls, poltergeists, angels and demons. The smallest pebble has a life of its own. Everything is alive and everything is God or God's thought. Not only good things, but the cruelest too. What do you think?"
"If there is a God, then he's a shit, and I'd like to kick him in the butt."
"Your theory is very interesting and appears to be justified. For my part I'm an Atheist. If you've been raised as a magician and learned all the tricks since childhood, then you can do without supernatural interference. As a magician, I create the believable. The audience provides the unbelievable."
Meanwhile at the bishops home the bedridden sister is severely sick. Emilie, now in the later stages of her pregnancy, refuses to restore the children to the home and Edvard insist she do so, and that her remaining in the home is not enough. Emilie gives Edvard a large dosage of her sleeping pills without him knowing by placing them in his coffee. While the two get ready for sleep the bishop says to Emilie, "I always thought people liked me. I saw myself as wise, broadminded and fair. I had no idea, that anyone could hate me." Emilie says she doesn't hate him but the Bishop says to her that her son Alexander does. "I'm afraid of him," he tells her.
Hours into the night the bishop finally comes to the realization that he was drugged and that Emilie is leaving him. She tells the bishop, "You will sleep soundly. When you wake up I will be gone. I'm going back to my children, my home and my family." The bishop says that he will follow Emilie from town to town and ruin her children's future, but the sedative finally take full effect and he passes out, and Emilie flees the home.
Back at the home of Isak, Alexander and Aron hear Ismael singing. "Poor Ismael. Human beings are more than he can bear. Sometimes he gets furious. Then he's dangerous, " says Aron. Alexander goes with Aaron to take his breakfast to Ismael, who for some reason not explained is played by a girl. It appears that Ismael contains magic psychic like powers as he asks Aron to leave Alexander alone with him saying, "Don't worry. I won't eat him, even if he does look appetizing. You can come back in a half an hour."
Ismael says to Alexander, "I'm considered dangerous. That's why I'm locked up." He tells Alexander to write his name on a piece of paper and when he comes he comes to realize that he wrote Ismael's name.Ismael says to Alexander, "Perhaps we're the same person, with no boundaries. Perhaps we flow through together, stream through each other boundlessly and magnificently. You bear such terrible thoughts, its almost painful to be near you. You've heard of making an image of someone you dislike and sticking pins in it? Your thinking of a man's death? Wait a moment. I know who you're thinking of. He's sound asleep...plagues by nightmares...A door will be thrown open. A scream will echo through the house. I merge into my child. Don't be afraid..."
Ismael seems he can actually 'see' inside the bishop's house and also is able to control events. Ismael asks Alexander for his hands and in a mystical scene of magic has Alexander wish for the bishop's demise. It shows the bishop's crippled aunt knocking over a lamp in the bishops home which causes an accidental fire. The bishop is highly sedated during all of this which causes his death.
The next morning Emilie is resting at Helena's home and she is told that the police have arrived. The officers tell Emilie, "Your husband, His Grace the bishop lost his life this morning under terrible circumstances." They inform her the crippled aunt accidentally caused a fire which killed her husband, and that the sedative Emilie have given the her husband probably worsened the situation, but was merely an unfortunate coincidence. Emilie and the children are again free and arrive to the theater and let everyone know that they are returning.
Emilie, Fanny and Alexander are now back living with Helena and are happy once again being with their family as they once were. There is another large family celebration with the Ekdahl family celebrating the christening of Gusten and Alma's child and Emilie's and the late bishop's daughter. Gusten makes a heartfelt speech at dinner: Dear friends. I am more moved than I can say. Dearest mama, my most beloved wife, Alma, my darling Emilie, more beautiful than ever. My children and little Miss Helena Viktoria lying so peacefully in their bed. And dear Maj, of whom I'm very fond. And not fogetting my incomparable brother Carl, and his sweet wife. My most honored friend, Isak Jacobe, who has rendered immeasurable service to this family. Dear Vega and Ester and you good friends who faithfully help us up the hill of life. Last but not least, dear and admired, greatly talented and brilliant artists, if I could I would encompass you all in one big embrace and plant a kiss on your brows. A kiss which more than words would tell you of my happiness and love. Cheers, everyone! Just imagine: were together again. Our little world has closed around us safety, wisdom and order. After a period of fear and confusion deaths shadows have been routed. winter has been put to flight and joy has returned to our hearts. Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good."
Helena tells Emilie: "Now were the ones in charge, aren't we?" During the festivities however in a disturbing scene the ghost of the bishop emerges from the shadows behind Alexander. (The first thing you see is his cross), and confronts Alexander by pushing him to the floor and saying, "You can't escape me." Alexander runs over to lay next to Helena while she reads the children a story: "Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality. the imagination spins, weaving new patterns."
With the very first shots of Fanny and Alexander (1982), director Ingmar Bergman announces his perspective and signals his intentions. Here, we find the ten-year-old Alexander gazing into a puppet theater, lifting layer after layer of skillfully painted backdrop. We have entered the world of a child, one who sees through and penetrates the protective props of the adult world.
Alexander soon sets off on an expedition through the drawing rooms of his grandmother’s apartment, where, as in the prologue, he passes through layer after layer of an extravagant and perfumed imaginary world, shortly to be populated by actors and animated by events, filled with the messengers and votaries of fantasy and experience.
It is this world of dreams and nightmares, visions and theatrical pranks, that Bergman sought to evoke in Fanny and Alexander and that he fully achieved in the sprawling, 320-minute Swedish television version. Only reluctantly did he cut his epic film down to 188 minutes for the theatrical release, saying farewell to much of the fantasy. “This was extremely troublesome,” Bergman has said, “as I had to cut into the nerves and lifeblood of the film.”
Bergman’s decision to tell his story from the perspective of a child set him free in the realm of fancy and imagination. Children appear only occasionally in Bergman’s films, and never in so central a position as in Fanny and Alexander. In his earlier work, when they are present, they often remain in the background as decorative but silent extras, or are relegated to unseen nurseries. Yet the ghost of childhood is strongly felt in all his films, present as a painful and haunting memory. Few cinema artists have extracted as much inspiration and material from their childhood experiences as Bergman. In Fanny and Alexander, these concerns finally take center stage.
“Making films has its roots deep down in the world of childhood, the lowest floor of my workshop,” Bergman wrote in 1954. It is there, in the landscape of childhood, that the first confrontation between authority and innocence occurs, a confrontation that takes place over and over again in Bergman’s films and provides one of the central themes of Fanny and Alexander.
Alexander becomes the director’s eyes as he embarks on a journey of discovery through the eccentric world of the film, a world not unlike the one that shaped the young Bergman. There’s the bourgeois security, perhaps not as overwhelming for the filmmaker as in the all-embracing family togetherness shown here. There’s the church, and the puritanical Lutheran father and strict, punishing upbringing. And there is the theater—playground of dreams, a refuge and an escape from the painful demands of reality and the crucial starting point of the creative self.
Bergman has for his entire career swung between theater and film. In 2003, the eighty-five-year-old director said good-bye to both, signing his last theater production, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and completing Saraband, his final film. “The theater is my wife, and the cinema is my mistress,” Bergman once declared. In Fanny and Alexander, he devotes himself lovingly to both, without raising thoughts of betrayal or faithlessness.
Fanny and Alexander is, without a doubt, Bergman’s most richly orchestrated work. With this, his valediction to the cinema, the director invites us to a banquet of seldom seen richness and splendor. It’s his most approachable creation, seemingly made in a state of euphoria and creative joy—a far cry from the Nordic gloom that so many have come to associate with Bergman and his work. Gone are the tortured confrontations with an absent God; gone are the penetrating analyses of the possibilities and impossibilities of romantic involvement. In a journal concerning the planning of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman wrote: “By playing, I can overcome the anguish, loosen the tension, and triumph over destruction. I want at last to show the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, joy that I have so seldom and so poorly given life to in my work. Being able to portray energy and drive, capability for living, kindness. That wouldn’t be so bad, for once.”
In the first episode of the television broadcast, Bergman intersperses scenes of a Christmas celebration at the theater with the holiday festivities in the Ekdahl home, from which Alexander and his younger sister Fanny’s grandmother—a celebrated actress and the family matriarch—coordinates both the sumptuous food and drink and the stage setting. Here, Bergman employs a light touch, revealing no signs of discord. The interweaving of these two environments illustrates one of the film’s fundamental ideas: that theater and life are intimately related and that each is the basis for the other. Happily, this part of the film remains largely intact in the theatrical release.
The real drama, however, begins in episode three, after the death of Fanny and Alexander’s father—the theater’s director and leading actor—and after his widow is remarried, to the local bishop. The whole film changes character. The warm colors and overstuffed and inviting interiors are exchanged for an inhospitable asceticism. The environment is stylized and marked by severity and coldness. The children and their mother are forced into a world of regulations and prohibitions. They must now subordinate themselves to a dominant and dictatorial will.
In the bishop’s residence, Alexander becomes an even stronger figure of identification for the director. Bergman’s father was a clergyman who eventually became chaplain to the king, and Bergman has described his home as a fortress of restriction and proscription, a cultivated prison of external elegance and internal chaos and frustration. The boy is a surrogate for the artist when, in response to the increasingly painful and humiliating confrontations with his stepfather, he finds strength in rebellion. Alexander uses his fantasies as a defense, and sometimes a provocation, against the bishop’s dominance. However, in the scene where he is locked in the attic as punishment, his imagination strikes back at him when the two drowned daughters of the bishop appear to torment him, a nightmare come alive.
Sadly, Bergman shortened or eliminated many such examples of fantasy and make-believe for the theatrical cut of the film, attenuating the Ekdahl family’s magnificent and perpetual merging of life and imagination, and mitigating the film’s themes. Only in the full-length version do we experience completely, for example, the scenes from the father’s theater, wherein a rehearsal of Hamlet is shown to be charmingly amateurish and histrionic. In his later skirmishes at the bishop’s residence, Alexander emerges as a younger version of Shakespeare’s pale youth, who is, in the words of Strindberg, “humanity, when it steps out from childhood into life and finds everything to be completely different from what had been expected.”
In Bergman’s complete film, anything becomes possible. The tale of the young journeyman—as told to Alexander by Isak, the children’s savior, in episode four—is turned into a sumptuous fantasia by the wide-eyed boy. With his spirited transformation of the worn nursery chair into the world’s most valuable armchair in episode one, Alexander’s father embodies the conjuring powers of theater and film, and exhibits the art of imagination that Bergman, like a magician, allows us all to share.
Bergman once summarized a basic theme in Fanny and Alexander in his book The Magic Lantern:
To be honest, I think back on my early years with delight and curiosity. My imagination and senses were given nourishment, and I remember nothing dull; in fact, the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights, and magical moments. I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and again experience lights, smells, people, rooms, moments, gestures, tones of voice, and objects. These memories seldom have any particular meaning but are like short or longer films with no point, shot at random.
The prerogative of childhood is to move unhindered between magic and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and explosive joy. There were no boundaries except prohibitions and regulations, which were shadowy, mostly incomprehensible . . .
It was difficult to differentiate between what was fantasy and what was considered real. If I made an effort, I was perhaps able to make reality stay real. But, for instance, there were ghosts and specters. What should I do with them? And the sagas, were they real?
Fanny and Alexander is a very real saga, to take in with pleasure and curiosity. You won’t be bored.
Upon its release in the U.S. in 1983, the theatrical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander generated a wealth of controversy. Bergman has always seemed to breed conflict among cineastes (Phillip Lopate, for example, has written recently about the polarized reactions to Bergman in the sixties), but Fanny and Alexander, which the director announced as his final theatrical release, seemed to bring the critics out in even greater force, as though there were just the one remaining chance to be quoted on the subject. You either loved the film or hated it, and strong voices from the reviewing community lined up on either side. John Simon, in the National Review: “Few things are sadder than the attempt of a great artist, hitherto fully appreciated only by a minority, to reach the masses.” Vincent Canby, in the New York Times: “Fanny and Alexander is still another triumph in the career of one of our greatest living filmmakers.”
Yet history frees us from preconceptions. The question for the contemporary viewer is how Bergman’s final theatrical film looks more than twenty years later. And for me, the matter is settled: Fanny and Alexander in the twenty-first century looks like what it was meant to be, a big, omnivorous bildungsroman about youthful imagination at the moment of modernism’s inception. Imagination is at the core of the film, central to both its story, in Alexander’s coming-of-age, and its method, in its opulent design and languid, confident pacing.
Even in the first seconds of the film, we find young Alexander Ekdahl, alone in his grandmother’s house, in an apparent dream, imagining that he sees a statue moving in the parlor. It’s a beautiful introit to the Christmas feast that follows, and in it, we begin to understand that the style of the film will combine both the stolid traditions of the nineteenth century (the century of Alexander’s birth) and the illusionist preoccupations of the twentieth. The family’s Christmas dinner, with its attention to detail, is full of visually dazzling moments, such as Gustav Adolf (Alexander’s restaurateur uncle) galumphing into a reception before the meal with a giant, flaming bowl of punch; Uncle Carl, the besotted professor, astounding the children in a stairwell with his omnipotence in the department of flatulence; and the beautiful pillow fight in the bedroom just after dinner.
Bergman grew up with a rather severe clergyman for a father. And if the first half of Fanny and Alexander represents an idealized origin for the director (in the character of Alexander), in which the young artist is raised in a household of actors and loveable cranks, the second half of the film––after the death of Alexander’s beloved father, Oscar––tells a much darker tale. Here is recounted his mother Emilie’s marriage to the minister who presides over Oscar’s funeral, Bishop Edvard Vergérus. Alexander’s sunny curiosity in the first half of the film now gives way to a headstrong cynicism, as he mumbles “Piss, cock, shit” and other scatologies throughout the funeral procession. He and his younger sister, Fanny, suffer their mother’s courtship with the frankly Calvinistic Vergérus impassively but with much foreboding. It’s into this darker narrative that the ghost of Oscar, perhaps conjured by Alexander himself, begins to intrude. Likewise, in the wake of his loss, Alexander’s invented accounts of life begin to proliferate: he is, he says, to be sold by his mother to a traveling circus; he is, he says, to be trained as an acrobat with a gypsy called Tamara. As does any good fiction writer, Alexander Ekdahl turns his bad circumstances into excellent material.
I won’t dwell overlong here on the bishop’s residence and its deprivations in order to avoid spoiling one of the most stunning portions of Bergman’s film, but suffice it to say that it’s no wonder that Alexander’s stories become even more baroque in this landscape. Bergman seems to be suggesting that to become the artist, to become the fully cognizant, storytelling adult, the boy may need to throw off the yoke of the father. Bergman enacts this liberation twice in the film, first with Oscar’s death and then with the fate of the autocratic stepfather (played with enormous brio by Jan Malmsjö). Fanny and Alexander depicts this second patricide in a sequence of tremendous invention that was, for me, when I first saw the film in 1983, the moment at which I knew I was in the presence of enduring art—art that would last as long as there were projectors to project it.
It’s Isak Jacobi, a former lover of Alexander’s grandmother, who comes to spirit the children away from the clutches of Bishop Vergérus, and he does so as if from the pages of a fairy tale––with Fanny and Alexander stowed away in a hope chest carried off to his apartment. His home itself is a dream landscape, crammed full of antiques and junk. The rooms seem to append themselves to other rooms, depending on the hour, so that the space stretches and grows. These apartments also contain the puppet theater of Isak’s nephew Aron, to which Alexander is inexorably drawn. Alexander’s Strindbergian “dream play” is even more in evidence in his rendezvous with Aron’s strange, violent brother Ismael, played with menace and allure by the female actor Stina Ekblad. This is Alexander’s initiation into the freedom of the imagination, where violence, coincidence, death, and sexuality all become regular parts of life. Meanwhile, in the Gothic parsonage, as if in answer to Alexander’s prayers, a spectacular accident frees him from the oppression of his stepfather once and for all.
Is such deliverance brought about by circumstance? Is it brought about by coincidence? Is it brought about by God, who makes an appearance to Alexander as a rather comic puppet among Aron’s creations? Or is deliverance from the bishop part of Alexander’s journey of the imagination? After Alexander falls asleep in the beginning of the film, is it not possible that he dreams this story in its entirety?
These are the sorts of questions that Bergman’s films have always generated, and so perhaps the answer in this, Bergman’s summa, is just to ask them as we have always done, and to realize that it is the interrogatives of which life is composed. Maybe Fanny and Alexander is simply an autobiographical yarn as Alexander would tell it, so that Bergman and Alexander now appear to us to be one and the same narrator of the tale. Maybe Alexander is Bergman refracted, in this instance in the convex mirror of art, where strange happenstances are routine and tidy answers are hard to come by. Or maybe Bergman is somehow Alexander’s own dream, from which the boy has yet to wake.
In this light, Fanny and Alexander sits alongside the great stories of Thomas Mann, Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and August Strindberg, the latter of whom is quoted wistfully at the close of the film. Fanny and Alexander combines the rigors of realism—in Sven Nykvist’s pellucid cinematography; in the scenic design and the elegant costumery; in the wonderful performances of Bertil Guve (as Alexander), Allan Edwall (as Oscar), and Malmsjö—with the register of dreams and fantasies that come to us from folkloric narratives, all in the service of revealing how a young boy comes of age. “Imagination,” as Bishop Vergérus remarks to Alexander, “is something splendid, a mighty force, a gift from God. It is held in trust for us by the great artists, writers, and musicians.” In the pursuit of this theme, Ingmar Bergman made one of his warmest and most memorable films, one that is even more arresting today than when it was first released.
Fanny and Alexander is a three hour film that contains many characters and chronically covers many different events, and when released in North American theatres it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. But its the five hour television cut which was originally made for Swedish television that is the version Bergman and many others personally prefer. Unfortunately when originally releasing Fanny and Alexander Bergman had to cut his 320 minute film down to 188 minutes, and had to say farewell to most of the fantasy. "This was extremely troublesome" Bergman had said, "as I had to cut into the nerves and lifeblood of the film." Fortunately both versions are now available on the Criterion Blu ray and its a beauty to behold. I've seen both versions of Fanny and Alexander but I wanted to see the 5 hour television version first and I didn't regret one minute of it. I was so entranced through this spiritual and engrossing story that I finished all 5 hours in one sitting (with the occasional bathroom breaks of course). The 3 hour version is a great film but with the extended TV cut you get much more richer character development, and you get a more in depth look on Alexander's experience with the spiritual world. The major loss in the theatrical cut is the eliminated sequences which involve the Edkdahl's passion for the theater and the families magnificent merging of life and the creative imagination of the arts.
Ingmar Bergman has been my absolute favorite director ever since I saw his masterpiece The Seventh Seal. The first time I witnessed the iconic scene of legendary actor Max Van Sydow playing chess with Death I knew I was in the hands of a great artist. But it was the bleak and painful film Cries and Whispers which told a story of the emotional abuse between three sisters, that had me become personally involved with his work. When I finally came upon his surreal masterpiece Persona, I knew I was watching an artist create something that was more than a just entertainment, he was creating an art form. Watching Ingmar Bergman films I felt a strong spiritual connection that I've only felt when watching a Andrei Tarkovsky film, a Carl Dreyer film or a Robert Bresson film. Up to that point I already knew that I loved Bergman's style, his Gothic themes, his destructive look at relationships and his overall bleak view on organized religion. It also was his existential questions on the absence of God and his obsession with death, that I greatly responded too. I have suffered through multiple health problems ever since I was a child so death was a thought that had haunted me ever since I was very young.
Surprisingly enough after watching several of Bergman's films like Wild Strawberries which tells the story of an elderly man who confronts his past mistakes and regrets, The Virgin Spring, which is a disturbing tale of rape, murder and revenge, and his Spiritual trilogy which includes Winter Light, about a priest questioning his faith, Through a Glass Darkly, about a woman who sees God in the form of a spider and The Silence about two sisters and the emotional distance that they give each other; I finally came upon his swan song Fanny and Alexander. When watching the 5 hour Fanny and Alexander for the first time I found it interesting that this was one of the few films except for The Silence, where the main character was a child. Shockingly Fanny and Alexander is less bleak than his earlier films as well and gone were the gloomy themes of the absence of God, or the impossibilities of romantic lasting relationships. Ingmar Bergman stated this was going to be the last of his films and even though he made a few more TV movies later in his life I believe this was his final swan song. This film is said to be a combination of all his thoughts, feelings, and love that he had with film and theatre over the years. He stated once that "Theatre was his wife, and film was his mistress." Which isn't too far from the truth since he had multiple marriages and affairs with many of the actresses that he'd worked with over the years and on many occasions in interviews he even stated he wasn't a very good father. Maybe that's why the masterpiece Scenes From a Marriage which was about the downfall of a marriage, was so mean, so full of anger, hate, pain and guilt that it sounded like a cry for help.
They're several despicable character's I have loathed over the years within the world of film, but its the bishop Edvard Vergerus who I find to be the most frightening. He's a sociopathic man who uses the church and the biblical teachings of God to give him the complete control and dominance on another human being; and what makes him even more frightening is that he truly believes he is morally right. In several interviews, Bergman has confessed that a great deal of Fanny and Alexander is autobiographical, and that he sees a little of himself in every male character. Many critics have suggested that the character of Alexander was a young Ingmar Bergman, but the one aspect of the story that does seem highly autobiographical is the ruthless character of the bishop and how he is a similar description of Bergman's own father. Bergman was raised in a very strict Lutheran household where his father was a conservative parish minister with strict parenting rules. Bergman's father was a clergyman who eventually became chaplain to the king and Bergman described his home as a fortress of restriction and a cultivated prison of control and internal chaos and frustration. Ingmar was locked up in dark closets for "infractions" like wetting the bed and several things were taboo subjects within the household including sex.
Bergman wrote in his autobiography: "While father preached away in the pulpit and the congregation prayed, sang, or listened, I devoted my interest to the church’s mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity, the colored sunlight quivering above the strangest vegetation of medieval paintings and carved figures on ceilings and walls. There was everything that one’s imagination could desire — angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans." As much as the bishop seems to represent characteristics of Begman's father, can't the character of the bishop also represent Bergman himself, who is looked at within his circle of collaborators as an authoritarian figure who tends to control and dominate his own films? The film doesn't start to really pick up steam until episode three, after the tragic death of Oscar. When Emilie is remarried to the local bishop and the family moves into the bishops home the whole film changes tone. The warm luscious colors that were obviously presented in the first part of the story involving the lively household of the Ekdahl's are suddenly drained out and replaced by sterile emptiness and coldness, as the children and their mother are forced into a world of regulations and prohibitions. Fanny and Alexander is an astonishingly beautiful film as its cinematography was shot by Bergman's longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist. When Alexander is faced with confronting his stepfather, he transcends into a much stronger character, as the two face off with one another, both of them too stubborn to want to back down and accept defeat. The fantasies that Alexander uses throughout the film are intended to be a way of escape from the realities of the real world. Over time they manifest themselves as a defense against the harsh cruelties of the bishop, however in the scene where he is locked in the attic as punishment, his imagination comes back to attack him.
Even in the television version of Fanny and Alexander, the supernatural events that occur in Fanny and Alexander are still left ambigious to the audience. Did Ismael really cause the death of the bishop through the use of Alexander; using magic powers, or was all of it merely a coincidence and Ismael is just someone who is clearly insane? How did Isak create the perception that the children were upstairs sleeping in the nursery, when we know he had hidden them already downstairs within the chest? I believe the sequences that involve the supernatural, ghosts, and magic spells, all have something to do with the magical family of the Jacobi's, which involve the wise and loving Isak, the playful prankster Aron, and the psychotic and unstable Ismael; who for some unusual reason is viewed as a male but is played by a female. Alexander likes to lie and make up fabricated imaginary stories, like the one of his mother selling him and his sister to a circus. He even admits to his sister Fanny that the story he told her and Justina about the bishop's dead daughter's coming back from the dead to inform him that the bishop had drowned them, was a made-up fabrication. Later that evening when Alexander is imprisoned in the attic, it is either his guilty conscience that fabricates the ghosts of the daughter's angrily attacking him for making up that horrific lie of their father, or Alexander clearly does has a sixth sense. But it's never quite set in stone if the ghosts he witnesses throughout the film are real or just a figment of his imagination. (Oddly enough, the first appearance of the dead Oscar seemed to be seen not only by Alexander but his sister Fanny as well.) The fact remains, Alexander is a confused and frustrated young child who had just lost his father, and these fantasies are a way for him to escape from the grim and harsh realities of the real world.
The enormous cast of Fanny and Alexander centers on the heart of the picture which is the character of Helena, the loving and emotional grandmother who tries her best to hold her loving family together. (Played by the legendary Swedish stage actress Gunn Wållgren, who Bergman believed was the best thing in the entire film.) She helplessly watches time quickly pass her by as she reminisces with her best friend and lover Isak Jacobi, on her much younger and happier days. Her three loving sons all have their distinct qualities and flaws which make them only human: Gustav is the most jolly and eccentric, married to Alma, a wife who is kind enough to permit her husband to have explicit affairs with their servant Maj. And yet this affair not only seems to be hurting Gustav's marriage, but Gustav seems to be taking over Maj's whole life, and she wants to be let free from Gustav's total control. Carlchen is the most troubled of the three sons, a failed professor who is deeply in debt to his mother, and emotionally abusive to his foreign wife, who is only trying to please the husband that she greatly loves. Oscar is the most loving of the three sons, a man who runs the local theater and has a great passion for the arts. Emilie is the most conflicted character in the story, as she marries the bishop not only for love, but for a fresh change within herself and in her children's lives. Of course she is tragically mistaken about what kind of man the bishop really is, and eventually does the best she can do to protect her children from him. The bishop is a tragic, narcisstic and evil man, a person who is strict and cruel because he is insecure and fearful. The bishop believes he is untouchable because he has both the power of the church and the power of the law on his side, and actually believes the harsh decisions he brings down on others are moral and holy. And yet near the end of the film he confesses to Emilie that he thought everyone admired him, and cannot accept the fact that he could actually be hated, which greatly frightens him. Fanny and Alexander was well-loved by critics when released and Xan Brooks, in The Guardian chose the film as his "No 8 best art house film of all time." He described it as Bergman's "self-styled farewell to cinema," and film critic Roger Ebert added it to his 'Great Movies' list. Vincent Canby in the New York Times begins by noting that the film "has that quality of enchantment that usually attaches only to the best movies in retrospect, long after you've seen them, when they've been absorbed into the memory to seem sweeter, wiser, more magical than anything ever does in its own time. This immediate resonance is the distinguishing feature of this superb film, which is both quintessential Bergman and unlike anything else he has ever done before." Fanny and Alexander won the 1982 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film that year, and was known to bring together many of Bergman's earlier star actors and a wide array of prominent Swedish film and stage actors of its era. It would of been fascinating to have wondered how differently the film would of turned out if Bergman had gotten the actors and actresses he originally wanted for its lead characters. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow who, as leading Bergman actors, were originally the intended stars for Emilie and Bishop Vergerus, but Ullmann was unable to join due to other work obligations, while Sydow didn't receive notification in time. Even legendary actress Ingrid Bergman was originally intended for the character of Helena, but the role later was given to Gunn Wållgren. Near the end of the film the ghost of the bishop emerges from the shadows (The first thing you see is his cross), and confronts Alexander by pushing him to the floor and saying, "You can't escape me." What does this ending mean? I believe what Bergman is trying to say is that no matter how hard you try to get away from your past demons...you will never be completely free of them. Fanny and Alexander is an extraordinary masterpiece of Dickens and Shakespearean like storytelling. It's an epic tragedy of large proportions that can be looked at as the autobiography of Bergman's career. Critic Roger Ebert states, "The warm humanism of the early scenes reflects Bergman's own beginnings in naturalism. The stern aestheticism of the middle scenes reflects his own middle period, with its obsession with both philosophical and stylistic black-and-white. The last third of the film, like the last third of his career, admits that there are more things in heaven and on Earth than dreamed of in his philosophy." Fanny and Alexander has over the years become more of an important film for me personally, and I consider it one of the greatest films I have ever seen. I'm not the only one who seems to truly love this film. When Sight and Sound, the British film magazine, asked the world's directors and critics to select the best films of the last 25 years, Fanny and Alexander was third, after Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. Perhaps the great director Krzysztof Kieslowski said it best when it came to Ingmar Bergman: "This man is one of the few film directors—perhaps the only one in the world to have said as much about human nature as Dostoevsky or Camus."