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.
This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD edition of Fanny and Alexander.