Fanny and Alexander is set in the Swedish town of Uppsala in the early 1900s and depicts the complex web of relationships connecting members of the wealthy Ekdahl family. Oscar Ekdahl is a theatre director, happily married to Emilie. The narrative is largely seen through the eyes of their two young children, Fanny and Alexander. Home life is warm and creative, until the idyll is shattered by Oscar’s death following a stroke. Emilie remarries to a widower, Bishop Vergérus, and moves with the children into his house. The contrast with their former life could hardly be starker, as the Bishop is puritanical, repressive and unbendingly severe. His relationship with Alexander develops into a battle of wills as the Bishop tries to crush the boy’s resistance. With help from a Jewish antiques dealer and friend of the family, Isak Jacobi, the children, and then their mother, are magically freed from the Bishop’s grasp and restored to the loving bosom of the evergrowing Ekdahl clan. However, the ghostly legacy of the Bishop is not so easily left behind.
Few national cinemas have been as dominated by a single filmmaker as Sweden’s has by Ingmar Bergman. He bestrides Swedish cinema, and European art cinema for that matter, like a creative colossus. His preoccupations with death, loss of religious faith, psychological and sexual breakdown, and fractured relationships, combined with the melancholy nature of many of his film narratives, and a famously austere visual style, have become synonymous with the popular image of his country. As Brian McIlroy put it, among all Swedish directors ‘if anyone is well known for his work outside of Sweden, it is Ingmar Bergman’ (McIlroy 1986: 44). One might also suggest that Bergman’s work has provided one of the mainstays for the whole tradition of film as art in Europe.
Ingmar Bergman was born on 14 July 1918 in Uppsala. Home life was shaped by two dominant influences which were to affect him long into his adult life, both of which are evident in Fanny and Alexander. The first was his relationship with his father, a severe Lutheran minister whose religious convictions created an atmosphere of fear and oppression. The second was his immediate love for the life of the imagination, expressed through a fascination with toys such as a magic lantern, a Chinese shadow theatre or the cinematograph. In his autobiography he describes the excitement of first making the cinematograph work: ‘Then I turned the handle! It is impossible to describe this. I can’t find words to express my excitement’ (Bergman 1989: 16). At university in Stockholm he was involved in theatrical productions, as well as devouring films. They became his twin passions and he moved between the two throughout his subsequent career, making more than 60 films for cinema release or television, as well directing as over 170 theatre productions.
Bergman’s early work from the late 1940s through to the mid-1950s is varied in approach, though often incorporates both realism and melodrama. A frankness in his handling of sexuality is already apparent in Summer with Monika (1953) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), but it was The Seventh Seal (1957) that brought him to international prominence. With its unforgettable images and story of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) delaying his inevitable demise by playing a protracted game of chess with the cloaked figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot), the film gave full voice to the director’s own crisis of faith. The knight isn’t afraid of dying but wants to be sure of God’s existence beforehand, something he has come to doubt as he experiences the pain and cruelty of human existence. But the film provides no answers and eventually Death leads him away in a sequence which would later be borrowed by one of Bergman’s many admirers, Woody Allen. The starkness of the visual style, as realised in Gunnar Fischer’s luminous black and white cinematography, and pessimistic themes were continued and intensified in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), which formed a loose trilogy and further cemented his critical reputation.
Bergman developed a repertory company of actors, many of them female, who worked with him repeatedly through the 1960s and 1970s including Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman (who appeared in nine of his films). He adopted an increasingly improvisational technique with his actors and shifted his concerns somewhat from the spiritual to the inner emotional and psychological lives of his characters. This is especially evident in Persona (1966), which is probably his most formally experimental work, as well as in Cries and Whispers (1973), which also returns to themes of mortality and faith. Following his arrest for tax evasion (the charges were eventually dropped) in 1976 he went into self-imposed exile, making a number of films as international co-productions. Fanny and Alexander marked his return to Sweden for what he intended to be his cinematic swansong, although he went on to write a number of screenplays after this and directed films for television. He finally retired from filmmaking in 2003.
One of the most striking aspects of Fanny and Alexander is its strongly autobiographical flavour. Alongside its position in Bergman’s canon as a kind of coda, this aspect gives the film the status of a summation of his concerns as a filmmaker, as well as expressing his feelings as he came towards the twilight of his creative life. In his memoirs Bergman wrote movingly of the pleasure the film afforded him: ‘Sometimes there is a special happiness in being a film director. A rehearsed expression is born, just like that, and the camera registers it’ (Bergman 1989: 66). This is probably embodied most in the depiction of the film’s two fathers. The first, Oscar Ekdahl, becomes the idealised symbol for a life steeped in creativity and familial concerns, while the Bishop seems closer to the reality of Bergman’s own relationship with his father. The film’s tangle of romantic and sexual relationships can also be read as a reflection of Bergman’s own personal life (five marriages, nine children, and several very public relationships with his leading actresses), as well as a plea for reconciliation. The director’s abiding obsessions with the lasting power of childhood, the shadow of death, and the presence (or absence) of God are embedded throughout the narrative of the film.
The story divides classically into three distinct sections. The first is a celebration of love, home and the imagination, as we see the wide circle of the Ekdahl family and their friends preparing for Christmas. The family home is warm and cosseted, but these qualities are also repeated among Oscar’s second ‘family’ at the theatre where he works as managing director. Bergman draws a direct link between the two worlds, cutting between them and mirroring the decor of the theatre with the theatricality of the Ekdahls’ Christmas celebrations. Fanny and Alexander soak up these influences and then express them through their own play with a model theatre and a magic lantern. The relationships within the family span the generations from the children to their grandmother, Helena, the matriarch of the clan, and takes in Oscar’s brothers and their wives and mistresses. Infidelity and sex are depicted with an air of indulgent acceptance, as all the relationships are underpinned by love, tenderness and tolerance. Both of Oscar’s ‘homes’ are depicted through a colour palette of reds and golds, created by cinematographer Sven Nykvist and designer Anna Asp, which has them appear bathed in warm light. Although Alexander’s world is not without its sexual tensions, the abiding impression is of security and love.
The film’s second section provides a total contrast. It begins when Oscar suffers a stroke during a production of Hamlet and subsequently passes away at the family home. The driving force which shapes this section is the introduction of Bishop Edvard Vergérus whom Oscar’s widow, Emilie, meets and subsequently marries, taking the children to live in his residence and breaking the family’s links both with the theatre and the wider Ekdahl family circle. The film makes it plain that the Bishop has preyed on Emilie’s vulnerable emotional state; his religiosity is often a mask for blatant self-interest in his motivations. The world of the Bishop’s residence is evoked by an entirely contrasting range of colours, through grey, blue and black, to evoke a cold, forbidding environment. His Lutheranism is equated with meanness of spirit and a denial of pleasure that is the absolute antithesis of the film’s first section where the joy of existence is always paramount. For the Bishop, pleasure is equated with sin, God is a severe judge rather than an indulgent father, and children are dangerous, anarchic forces which need to be kept tightly controlled. Increasingly Alexander becomes the focus of resistance to his stepfather, eventually drawing his mother back onto his side and through her reaching out to the distant Ekdahl family, and especially to Helena, for rescue from their virtual imprisonment.
This conflict between opposing forces is resolved in a most startling manner in the film’s final third as the children are able to flee from the Bishop’s home with the help of a Isak, a Jewish friend of the family, who seems to literally ‘magic’ them from the Bishop’s grasp. The film evokes the powers of a world beyond our own as Alexander sees his father’s ghost and then has a premonition of his stepfather’s death in a fire. These ‘visions’ can be given rational explanation as the subjective thoughts, or even wishes of Alexander. In this respect, the film’s blurring of reality and subjectivity echoes concerns previously examined by Bergman in films such as Persona. However, it is hard here to avoid the thought that Bergman’s work has come full circle, so that having abandoned the religious impulse of his early work for a doomy existentialism, he finally returns to a form of mysticism. An alternative dimension seems to exist here alongside the material world and some powerful, external forces are at work. As Egil Törnqvist observes, one of the more unusual aspects of the film is that this mysticism has a decidedly non-Christian dimension to it: ‘The Christian dualism of grace and punishment, heaven and hell, gives way to a Jewish, pantheistic monism, a belief that “everything is alive, everything is God and the thought of God, not only the good but also the cruellest things”’ (Törnqvist 1995: 177).
Fanny and Alexander was released in two versions. The full edition, running more than five hours, was initially screened on television in four episodes. A three-hour edit was screened theatrically to considerable acclaim, winning the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language film, although for connoisseurs the full-length version is definitive. The final scenes, with a double celebration for the birth of Emilie’s and Edvard’s child and of the child of Uncle Gustav Adolf and the family maid, Maj (happily accepted into the Ekdahl family by all) balanced by the chilling reappearance of Edvard’s malevolent ghost, brings to a memorable conclusion the twin streams running through this and all Bergman’s work. Fanny and Alexander is, as Peter Cowie suggests, ‘a kind of climax to Bergman’s career’, and a very fitting one (Cowie 1985: 335).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Sweden, France and West Germany. Production Company: Gaumont. Director: Ingmar Bergman. Producer: Jörn Donner. Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman. Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist. Music: Daniel Bell. Editor: Sylvia Ingemarsson. Art Director: Anna Asp. Cast: Pernilla Allwin (Fanny Ekdahl), Bertil Guve (Alexander Ekdahl), Ewa Fröling (Emilie Ekdahl), Allan Edwall (Oscar Ekdahl), Jan Malmjsö (Bishop Edvard Vergérus), Erland Josephson (Isak Jacobi).]
Ingmar Bergman, (1989) The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, trans. Joan Tate, London: Penguin.
Peter Cowie, (1982) Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, London: Secker and Warburg.
Peter Cowie, (1985) Swedish Cinema, From Ingeborg Holm to Fanny and Alexander, Stockholm: Swedish Institute.
Brian McIlroy, (1986) World Cinema 2: Sweden, London: Flicks Books.
Noel Simsolo, (2011) Masters of Cinema: Ingmar Bergman, Paris: Cahier du Cinema.
Egil Törnqvist, (1995) Between Stage and Screen: Ingmar Bergman Directs, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.