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.
This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD edition of Fanny and Alexander.
Translated from Swedish by Birgit Hegewald.