2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’

There is often a tendency to look at a director’s final film and to analyze it as an abridgment of their fulfilled career, a compendium of what they had previously considered in terms of narrative, themes and formal presentation. Rare, though, is the director who knows in advance that a given film will be his or her last, that what they are working on will be their concluding contribution to cinema and will therefore contain a conscious collection of these recurrent traits.

Ingmar Bergman is an exception. By his own admission, Fanny and Alexander (1982) was to be his final feature, and it was, to a certain extent, prepared in accordance to this decree. Though he continued to work for more than two decades, solely in television and concluding with 2003’s Saraband, Fanny and Alexander was nevertheless released — theatrically and in a longer cut on TV — as Bergman’s last motion picture. And deliberately or not, he assembled an inventory of the cinematic and personal attributes that had since 1946 worked so magnificently and proficiently from his reflective psyche into his astonishing filmography.

First and foremost, as a veritable scrapbook of childhood remembrances, Fanny and Alexander captures the world, the wonder and the precise disposition of young Alexander (Bertil Guve) and, to a lesser degree, his even younger sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Hardly regarded as a distinguished director of children (only Jörgen Lindström’s Johan, in 1963’s The Silence, is given prominent screen time), Bergman had proved rather adept at depicting the vitalities and difficulties of a slightly older teenager or young adult: see Crisis (1946), Port of Call (1948), Summer Interlude (1951) or Summer with Monika (1953). Having therefore little prior experience in realizing a child’s vantage point, he reverts to his own childhood and infuses Fanny and Alexander with a youthful portrait that is profoundly intimate and affectionately genuine. Raised in a home similar to the film’s dominant Ekdahl family, Bergman appreciated the locations and the atmosphere of such a milieu — bourgeois Sweden of the early twentieth century — as well as the individuals who inhabit this setting. In the subsequent transference of subjective memory into outward reality, the opening of Fanny and Alexander is exemplary. 

Alexander is initially seen exploring his grandmother’s lavish apartment with equal parts trepidation and amusement, crawling around on the floor, running from room to room, hiding under tables and imagining, always imagining. He imagines he sees statues move, and he imagines he sees Death, scythe in hand. Aside from the obvious allusion to Bergman’s most famous dealing with Death, The Seventh Seal (1957), these early moments with Alexander convey a sense of child-like wonderment and assessment, evoking young Johan, who had similarly wandered the labyrinthine halls of an ominous hotel where he stays with his mother and aunt. Perhaps out of his own enjoyment, perhaps out of sheer boredom, Alexander scours his surroundings in a synthesis of fantasy and certainty, foreshadowing the magical-mystical fusion of the film to come. Seldom reluctant to discuss his upbringing and the way he felt about it (frequently in contradictory terms), Bergman’s troubled relationship with his father, an evangelical Lutheran parson, and his professed love for his mother, a nurse, are manifest in the authoritarian Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö) and the sympathetic maternal figures embodied by the elder Ekdahl matriarch, Helena (Gunn Wållgren), and Fanny and Alexander’s own mother, Emilie (Ewa Fröling). It is as if the boy that was Ingmar Bergman is trying to find his way through a world created by his adult evolution, and as Fanny and Alexander deals so deeply with his typically solemn concerns, the child will represent a way of amiably confronting these austere dilemmas.

As a renowned man of the theater, Bergman likewise imbues Fanny and Alexander with an effusive fondness for the theatrical form. Films like The Rite (1969), Thirst (1949), To Joy (1950), The Magician (1958), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and even The Seventh Seal had variously examined the worlds of art and entertainment before, from ballet dancers and circus performers to actors and illusionists (1984’s After the Rehearsal continued the trend), and Bergman’s understanding of these endeavors — the unique psychology of the artist and their sovereign struggles and passions — were related with superior mastery. But if ever there was a film that acted as a testament to a lifetime’s dramaturgical devotion, it would be Fanny and Alexander. Through the Ekdahl family, specifically husband and wife Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emilie, Bergman gives voice to his reflections on a vocation of entrenched importance. Furthermore, when Oscar passes away, aside from the emotion evinced by Emilie and their children, the most wrenching acts of responsive outpouring come from their theatrical collective. Conversely, while presenting a unified humanity and a perhaps professionally-inclined capacity for empathy, Bergman also indicates an associated artistic temperament that is at once creative and delicately problematic (terrain previously traversed to disturbing ends in 1968’s Hour of the Wolf). Oscar’s blind commitment to his art, for instance, compounds the devastation of the theater’s closure, as Bergman draws parallels between domestic, occupational and existential calamity.

In his depiction of related familial friction, then, Bergman repeatedly probed the affecting depths of family misfortune, from his first film as director, Crisis, to such films as Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Autumn Sonata (1978). Most explicitly, he excelled in laying bare the severe rawness of a marriage in turmoil, a caustic and unpleasant psychological/ethical evaluation. Again, from the beginning of his career (1954’s A Lesson in Love) to the end (the repeated characters of 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, 1980’s From the Life of the Marionettes and Saraband), Bergman — himself a four-time divorcé — understood and presented, as few filmmakers have, the tumultuous nature of marital discord. Sibling rivalry, only slightly scarcer in Bergman’s work, also received an unflinchingly realistic treatment, most obviously, most brilliantly and most overwhelmingly in Cries and Whispers (1972). It should therefore come as no surprise that these areas of ancestral unrest are closely observed in Fanny and Alexander, predominantly in the behavior of Oscar’s brothers, Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) and Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle). 

Carl, unhappily but lazily married to Lydia (Christina Schollin), is constantly at odds with his wife: for her incessant doting, for speaking her native German, or for being, in his venomous opinion, “ugly, poor, and barren.” He asks to her face why he ever married her in the first place and, recalling the brutal confrontations of Shame (1968) and Scenes from a Marriage, seems to almost delight in humiliating and degrading her. On the other hand, with Gustav (Jarl Kulle), there is a much lighter handling of marriage, whatever its standing. He is unashamed of his philandering ways, so much so that after he has a child with the servant Maj (Pernilla August), he boasts and gushes in front of his wife, other children, his mother and the rest of the family. His affairs, seemingly symptomatic of a troubled relationship, are treated with a casual grace that is quite remarkable, summoning features like Waiting Women (1952) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), where infidelity is an incidental triviality. While nowhere near the acerbity of Cries and Whispers, these brothers also figure in Bergman’s conveyance of sibling dissent. More than once, Carl expresses jealously toward Oscar, and he and Gustav, when trying to bargain with/threaten Edvard, end up looking like fools as a result of their bickering (Carl’s perpetual debt also triggers some ancillary conflict). 

As it habitually does in reality, death is what spurs much of the contention in Fanny and Alexander. A subject almost comically characteristic of Bergman’s work, a topic parodied and pointed to as elemental and perhaps even overdone, his preoccupation with death, the process of dying and what does or doesn’t come afterward, has been incarnate, as in The Seventh Seal, while the idea of death in the abstract is correspondingly central to films like Wild Strawberries (1957) and Summer Interlude. Death can be swift or, as in Cries and Whispers and The Silence, it can be slow and painful, lingering to the point of heightened discomfort and rage. With Fanny and Alexander, created as he grew increasingly aware of his own mortality, Bergman broaches the subject more as a pivot point for the film’s fundamental drama. When Oscar dies, everything changes, in the story as well as the tonal and visual alignment of the picture. His demise shows how immediately devastating a death can be, but it also reverberates in a range of far-reaching, multifaceted after-effects. 

Yet while the treatment of Oscar’s death is one of sorrow and reverence, Bergman presents an alternative view in the dissolution of pitiless Edvard. Not only do Fanny and Alexander wish for his demise (understandably so, perhaps), but when he does die, thus freeing Emilie and the children from the torturous life in his daunting abode, the characters in the film can’t help but feel an associated levity, which can also impel the like-minded viewer. Such mortal/moral complexity — sadness at times, relief and acceptance at others, encouragement on occasion — recalls The Virgin Spring (1960), Bergman’s most harrowing treatise on death and revenge. And with death comes the inevitable questions of God, religion and faith in general, comprising what are arguably the most enduring and deliberated of Bergman’s persistent refrains. The contentious nature of God’s debatable existence, and how one relates to such a concept either way, had shaped the primary impasse of Winter Light (1962), Bergman’s blatant and stirring exploration of the issue, and in Fanny and Alexander, it is a similarly constant source of conflict, uncertainty and obscurity. Although it may not be a pure and simple denunciation of religious belief in the main, Bergman does correlate Edvard’s irrationally cruel behavior with that of his own strict religious rearing — Emilie’s remarriage to a reverend is by no means an arbitrarily chosen profession. In this malevolent and unfamiliar situation, the Ekdahl family (and Bergman as storyteller) equates the distressing circumstance with a theological disparity; with no preceding religious insecurity (indeed, the Ekdahls seem to place little significance on religion aside from mere ritual), even Emilie undergoes a formidable spiritual crisis, questioning the bishop’s conception of a higher power, saying God is “amorphous and intangible,” and that for her, “God wears a thousand masks. He’s never shown me His real face…”

These extraordinarily anxious moments are illustrated in subdued shades of gray, black and an insipid whiteness, draining the ebullient color of Fanny and Alexander’s opening sequence, where the Ekdahl family gathers to celebrate Christmas and the imagery is vibrant and full of life, with rich reds, golds and greens reflecting the warm hues of the holiday, evoking corresponding moods of comfort and joy. Bergman had begun working with color photography in the mid-1960s, but it was not until Cries and Whispers that he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist began to implement color with any sort of emotional or narrative resonance, a practice comparably seen in the melancholy seasonal palette of Autumn Sonata. Certainly, Fanny and Alexander reflects a noticeable, somewhat subtler scale of signifying shades, which complement the film’s other, equally evocative aesthetic features. In particular, this includes Bergman’s use of penetrating close-ups, compositions of proximate magnetism seen earlier in the weathered, contemplative face of Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries, in Harriet Andersson’s daring sensuality in Summer with Monika and in the conceptual merging of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in 1966’s Persona. In Fanny and Alexander, discernment is effectively achieved in the interpretations of fear on Alexander’s fare, as he is scolded by the stern and wicked Edvard, or, on the opposite end of the emotive spectrum, when grandmother Helena and Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the family’s Jewish friend and ally, rest in a loving expression of shared sentiments and experiences endured, a history, in other words, etched on their aged faces. 

Written while Bergman was in Germany, embroiled in a convoluted tax dispute that left him essentially in exile, Fanny and Alexander represented, in his own words, the “sum total” of his life as a filmmaker. Accordingly, one sees several facets of his astonishingly consistent filmography alongside multiple memories and personal pursuits. One sees his proficient processing of symbolic weather and seasonal flux, tactile elements like snow and ice and the reinvigorating warmth of the summer sun; one sees a comic and tragic tale, ending on satisfying notes of happiness and amity, affirmation and endurance; and one sees, and hears, a feast of food and drink, stories and songs, and a detailed nostalgia for the Uppsala of years gone by. Though it comes near the end, Fanny and Alexander is an easily entertaining (albeit lengthy) primer to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, with little ambiguity and a charming orchestration of lovingly realized friends and family personified by a roster of the director’s most treasured collaborators. It is a vigorous and violent film, epic and enchanting, probing and revelatory and voluminous in its ornate, cohesive and exhaustive production design — in addition to receiving Oscars for best foreign language film and cinematography, the picture was awarded for Anna Asp’s art and set decoration and Marik Vos’ costumes. That Fanny and Alexander would not actually be Bergman’s last movie is ultimately immaterial, for what remains crucial is the fact it was planned and announced to be so, that Bergman was cognizant of a production that might stand as a consummation of his creative efforts and private bearings and that, in the end, it became one of his finest achievements.

Watch ‘Fanny and Alexander’ on FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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