Just a Director: The Making of “Fanny and Alexander”

On Film / Essays — Nov 9, 2011

A flurry of publicity around Fanny and Alexander began well before the start of production. Ingmar Bergman said it would be his final film, and he allowed unusual media access to the set, even welcoming a pair of journalists who kept a diary of the seven-month shoot. The director added to the clamor by enlisting Arne Carlsson, a crew member on several earlier films, to record spontaneous impressions of the creative labors, footage that Bergman later arranged into a feature-length chronicle punctuated by candid, first-person intertitles. Documentary was not a totally alien genre to the director—he is credited with two nonfiction studies of the landscape and social makeup of his beloved island of Fårö—but in most respects, The Making of “Fanny and Alexander” is a singular entry in Bergman’s filmography. Where conventional movie supplements are driven by purely commercial considerations, here, a self-conscious treatment of the relationship between cast and crew reflects the valedictory nature of the original fiction, becoming an occasion not only to document an artist’s last fling behind the camera but also to meditate on core aesthetic principles.

It is therefore ironic that the fictional parent, intended as an autobiographical summation fueled by childhood memory, immediately spawned this subsequent work, a postscript that is seemingly casual in tone and visual execution but that clearly bears the master’s stamp. At once intimate self-portrait and rigorous primer on the art of direction, The Making of far exceeds its narrow purview by recasting and expanding on key thematic issues present in Fanny and Alexander: the entwined ontology of theater and life (and, inevitably, theater and film); the mysteries and hierarchies of domesticity, as reembodied in the “family” dynamics of movie production; the personal reckoning of mortality; perseverance in the face of mental and physical anguish; the inexplicable eruption of the uncanny in daily existence. In other words, individual documentary scenes do not simply present how narrative moments were achieved—they add new layers of meaning to the text. For example, Bergman is repeatedly shown instructing the actor who plays a thinly veiled version of his childhood self, fostering a truly creepy duality that brings to mind Helena Ekdahl’s enigmatic comment “That’s how it is. One is old and a child at the same time.” Similarly, a vignette in which Bergman amusingly faults his actors for their lack of theatrical vulgarity during a rehearsal of Hamlet deepens the significance of several fictional dialogues concerned with role-playing and masks of identity.

Interestingly, The Making of has a structure and formal vocabulary that simultaneously echo and diverge from its source. To be sure, its chronology is out of sync with the fictional narrative—the order of scenes was presumably determined by the shooting schedule—and there is a surfeit of both handheld camera movement and long takes, traits largely absent from the original. Nonetheless, there is a clear dramatic arc framed by two large social gatherings, an emotionally draining climax followed by a lighter denouement, and an emphasis on repeated or inverted situations—all of which are fundamental to the dramatic development of Fanny and Alexander. Without question, the tipping point is an eighteen-minute sequence in which an ailing Gunnar Björnstrand, frequently hailed as Bergman’s alter ego, voices the wistfully sad “Fool’s Song” from Twelfth Night. Through a dozen agonizing takes of different verses, Björnstrand, who died the year the documentary was released, is given gentle correction by Bergman and appears frustrated by unwonted lapses in mind and body. In relation to surrounding scenes involving the imaginative power of children, this ditty from the edge of the grave closes an existential circle as it registers farewell to a cherished collaborator and, in context, perhaps to Bergman’s own career (the finished scene was deleted from the theatrical version of the film). It is an indelible and thoroughly Bergmanesque moment, among the most gripping in the director’s oeuvre.

An opening intertitle downplays the film’s potential for revelation, stating that elusive qualities of “magic” and “violent spiritual and physical exertion” are only occasionally visible. Without disputing the accuracy of that claim, what we are privy to is a virtually unprecedented glimpse into the innards of a highly evolved vocational passion. We see Bergman’s fluid camaraderie with Sven Nykvist, his obsessive attention to details of setting and costume, his surprisingly genial rapport with young performers. Most striking, however, is the chiseled focus brought to bear on the choreography of actors and camera. For instance, there are four separate takes, from varied angles, of a tricky segment in Oscar Ekdahl’s death scene. Between takes, the director guides players through subtle alterations in gesture or speed of movement, then consults with Nykvist on framing. Then, as in several later sequences, we watch Bergman as he watches the fruits of his labor: he remains still as a stone, yet there is something in the triangulation of gazes—viewer’s, director’s, and actors’—that bespeaks a secret knowledge lurking at the intersection of theater, cinema, and oneiric experience. During the preproduction party for cast and crew that initiates the action, Bergman tells an actress that he has gratefully forgotten his script, so that once shooting begins he will be “just a director.” The Making of “Fanny and Alexander” provides ample evidence of the many shades of significance embraced by that one modest phrase.