Fanny and Alexander: The Other Side

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

Fanny and Alexander: The Other Side

On Film / Essays — Nov 2, 2018

This month, the Criterion Collection will release Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a box set commemorating the Swedish master’s one hundredth birthday and including thirty-nine of his films, presented as a festival with opening and closing nights bookending double features and centerpieces. Here on the Current, we’re publishing a selection of the essays newly commissioned for the set.

In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman describes the apprehension with which he approached a certain delicate scene in Fanny and Alexander (1982) with his young star, Bertil Guve. It is primarily through the eyes of Guve’s ten-year-old character, Alexander Ekdahl—imaginative, angry, stubborn, credulous—that the film, with all its mysteries and terrors, unfolds. The scene takes place near the end, in the junk and curio shop of the antiques dealer and moneylender Isak, an Ekdahl family friend played by Erland Josephson. Isak lives in a dark, seductively cluttered hive with two grown nephews, the puppet master and magician Aron (Mats Bergman) and the “mad” Ismael, supposedly harmless but nevertheless confined to his room. Alexander and his sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), are also prisoners here, but happily so, having been abducted by Isak in a daring rescue mission from the house of the wicked and abusive bishop who is their stepfather, and they are soon to be restored to the bosom of their family. 

In the impenetrable darkness, Alexander stumbles upon Aron’s puppets, then the man himself, who shows him a glistening mummy and talks to him of ghosts—a subject to which Alexander himself brings a certain expertise. They then enter Ismael’s room, and it is here that the weird and fateful encounter occurs. For Ismael, both sensuous and ethereal, is clearly played by a woman (Stina Ekblad), yet no mention of that fact is made. The character who will embrace Alexander and help him realize his fantasy of destroying the bishop remains tantalizingly fluid, his androgyny the very emblem of the liminal space between dream and reality where so much of this film, or at least the mental wanderings of its characters, takes place. 

To Bergman’s relief, the brave little actor accepted the situation, reacting with “curiosity and fear.” Curiosity and fear might also describe Bergman’s own driving creative forces, not just singly but together, in the way that a child looks at the world and its strangeness with anxiety as well as acceptance—as a place that contains both the worldly and the otherworldly, and in which ghosts, spirits, and the palpably, sensually physical all coexist. 

One ghost that haunts the proceedings is August Strindberg, whose A Dream Play, written in 1901, six years before Fanny and Alexander begins, furnishes the talisman of the movie’s ending. Bergman eventually staged this difficult play four times—difficult because of its combination of intimate chamber drama and technically complicated spectacle, its mix of abstract and concrete characters, its passages of undigested Buddhism, and also (I would surmise) because of the problematic, anything-goes nature of dreams, always more meaningful to the dreamer than to the audience. Here are the words with which Strindberg introduces his play and Bergman ends the movie he intended to be his last: 

Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.

Bergman observes the principle without going so far into abstraction and unruliness. His characters are anchored in a concrete time and place, and “a flimsy framework” would not be the term for the film’s gliding choreography. Bergman envied Andrei Tarkovsky, “the greatest of them all,” for abandoning conventional realism and moving “with such naturalness in the room of dreams,” something he felt he had either not managed well or not managed at all. But one could argue that in movies like Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander, Bergman accomplishes the more difficult task of moving effortlessly between the worlds of the natural and the supernatural, between document and dream. With the great Sven Nykvist as cinematographer, the camera weaves its way, near the beginning of both the television and the theatrical versions of Fanny and Alexander, through a seemingly haphazard but in fact carefully controlled introduction to the characters in medias res, as they act out their habitual roles during their annual Christmas celebration. In the longer television version of Fanny and Alexander, the servants squabble and reminisce at greater length over dinner, and Helena, the Ekdahl matriarch (the magnificent Gunn Wållgren), delivers a mournful soliloquy that is a sort of coda absent from the shorter film version. But the latter contains all the essential scenes, and even gains something in the seamlessness of its transitions. The palette and emotional tone will shift from the sumptuous reds and burnished splendor of the Ekdahl apartment, setting for the antics of an extravagant ménage of revelers (one of the children’s uncles, Carl, treats them to fart fireworks; another, Gustav Adolf, pursues the nursemaid Maj, who in turn flirts with a furiously jealous Alexander), to the chilly blues and grays of the bishop’s castlelike residence, its stony facade lashed by an angry ocean, its cold interior home to a weird and no less histrionic assortment of witches and invalids. Stories bubble up concerning the death, at sea, of the bishop’s first wife—Fanny and Alexander’s mother, Emilie (Ewa Fröling), is his second—along with her two little girls. Alexander will resist the bishop’s authority (and get into more trouble) through the exercise of his imagination, lying whenever possible, drawing on those deaths to fill in the blanks with a murder plot. Toward the end of the film, the transitions between the two locales will occur with dizzying frequency, creating a sense of interpenetrating worlds, reality and illusion merging, the horror that takes place in the bishop’s residence lodging in our and Alexander’s minds as a nightmare memory.

We have seen other small boys in Bergman films who possess the bravery and curiosity of Alexander: the lonely child in The Silence, who wanders through the fusty old hotel where he is staying with his mother and aunt; and the child who may be the abandoned son of the actress in Persona, his fingers caressing the ghostly image of a mother he can’t reach or possess, in the dreamlike images that bookend the film. Alexander, too, presses his hand against a window, the snowy world outside suddenly transformed by its frame into a composition, an illusion.

Even as a child, Bergman was comfortable with death and decay, fascinated by the corpses at a mortuary on the grounds of the hospital where his father was the chaplain, and he described with a mixture of clinical detachment and sensuality sights from which most would have recoiled. As a director, he would preserve his sense of the uncanny, of Death as a hovering presence. Fanny and Alexander, celebratory and singular in its cheerful Dickensian plenitude, nevertheless contains its own reckoning with morbidity, and thus becomes a kind of culmination, a summing up of all the themes and conflicts that so indelibly mark Bergman’s earlier films. Alexander’s jagged journey of exploration is Bergman’s own, but, at the other end of it, so are the retrospective musings of Helena, who exudes a mellow appreciation of the shifting layers of reality and the endlessly unresolvable questions of identity. 

Bergman, by his own account, became less angst-ridden as he aged, was released from his strenuous questioning of God and death into a kind of acceptance of the essential aloneness that is being human—an aloneness that is nevertheless joyously relieved by the connections we make, the artistic illusions we treasure. It’s as if he had to go through the trials of the soul, the endless conflicts within the artist between asceticism and romanticism (as in The Silence), the encounters with death (Cries and Whispers), the selfishness of the artist (Persona), and the agonies of marital discord and betrayal (Scenes from a Marriage) to reach this exhilarating equipoise. 

Bergman is rightly known as a director of women, perhaps the greatest ever, having been both discoverer and artistic partner of his actresses, midwife to an array of performances from them as characters whose journeys and struggles seem inseparable from the filmmaker’s own. His is the sensibility of a man who has loved women fully enough to include in his portrayals of them the terrors they hold in all their flawed mortality. Over and over again, he has made us see them in all their infinite variety—rustic and intellectual, ravaged and incandescent, mulish and inspiring, virginal and ripe—has shown us their slack and ugly moments as well as their radiant and beatific ones. Any narrow idea of women as “mere” objects of desire or the raw material of a possessive Svengali simply doesn’t apply—they are muses, yes, but so much more. The criticism has been that they are almost too much more, earthy goddesses and enchanters, more at home in the world than the men, who are almost invariably portrayed as weak and ineffectual. 

But in Fanny and Alexander, the male characters are, if not hypereffectual, at least deeply human, people whose follies Bergman and we (and, more importantly, their wives) regard with humorous indulgence: the Ekdahl men are, by Helena’s reckoning, either oversexed or undersexed. In the former category, her philandering husband, now deceased, led the way; her billy-goat son Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) impregnates the luscious maid Maj (Pernilla Wallgren) while somehow remaining both true to and aroused by his buxom and good-humored wife, Alma (Mona Malm); Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), the least sympathetic and most uptight of the Ekdahl sons, is a cad, a boor, a gambler and drunk who uses and abuses his masochistically patient German wife (Christina Schollin). The undersexed are represented by Fanny and Alexander’s soon-to-be-departed father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), amateur actor and impresario of the theater the family runs. All three brothers experience piercing moments of self-awareness, the mask suddenly shed, only to quickly resume their respective roles. 

Theater is where we begin—or rather, the marriage of theater and cinema, Bergman’s twin passions. In the stunning opening of both versions of the film, we first see bright candles and a proscenium, scale unknown. Then, as we look on, through the back curtain emerges the face of Alexander, huge, his wide eyes transfixed. The stage becomes a miniature theater, and the boy gazes at the puppets inside, adding one, then retreating to wander through the apartment, calling out to family members, hiding in Grandmother’s bed and under a table, exploring the massive and opulent apartment where the Christmas party and much of Fanny and Alexander will take place. Later that night, he will entertain Fanny with a scene from his cinematograph in which a damsel in distress is imperiled and rescued.

In The Magic Lantern, Bergman writes of the searing experience of first going backstage at a theater. Night after night, the twelve-year-old watched magical transformations: a man staring down at his shoes one minute would then go onstage and become an officer. No wonder theater became not only a lifelong calling for the filmmaker but also a metaphor for existence. In this film, it is from Helena that we are given most pointedly the abiding sense—these are theater people, after all—that human beings are performers, always in flux, unresolved. In one of the loveliest scenes, at the end of the riotous Christmas dinner, she and Isak settle onto a more-than-metaphorical love seat. They earlier embraced each other with a kiss that was not just amatory but slyly, deliciously sexy. The two go back a long way, through flirtations, an affair, friendship, advice. But for Helena, this Christmas represents a kind of watershed, an end to something—her own youth and middle years, the possibility of a late-in-life passion. Her own children are aging, and poor Oscar is really quite sick. 

“I suppose I’m getting old,” she says ruefully, and Isak doesn’t contradict her. But she doesn’t look old, her mobile face so expressive, her honesty making her only more beautiful. She cries, then dries her eyes. “A weepy, lovesick woman turns into a self-possessed grandmother. We play our parts.” Later, she says, “I enjoyed being a mother. I enjoyed being an actress too, but I preferred being a mother . . . It’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, others not so nice. I played a mother. I played Juliet and Margareta. Then suddenly I played a widow or a grandmother. One role follows the other. The thing is not to shrink from them.”

But the role-playing that Helena accepts, even embraces, can torment others, as we soon see in the vexations of her beautiful daughter-in-law Emilie, the luminous blonde leading lady of the family theater. Emilie feels she has worn one mask after another, that there is nothing behind them. After her husband, Oscar, suddenly collapses during a dress rehearsal for Hamlet (as Alexander looks on) and dies later the same evening, she becomes a young widow, and allows herself to be led, following a brief courtship, into that disastrous marriage with the bishop because of the firm sense of identity and mission he gives her in her desperation. Jan Malmsjö gives one of the most mesmerizing performances in all of Bergman as this tortured, seethingly righteous clergyman. Emilie agrees not only to surrender completely to his will but also to allow him complete control of her children. 

This surrender is made a little more understandable in a passage in the television version in which Emilie summons cast and crew after a performance of a play. It is a year since Oscar, on his deathbed, asked her to run the theater. Now she confesses to the little group that she is tired of it; it has become a security blanket. She feels lost, because all her adult life she has been an actor, and playwrights “tell us what to say and think,” to the point that one doesn’t know who one is. “Are you tired of the theater?” someone asks. “You want to quit?” “Maybe,” she replies. At this point, she is, as she more or less acknowledges, a beautiful cipher, a little girl lost. 

Throughout Bergman’s work there are characters who struggle with identity, with feeling ill-defined, this sense of a void where the soul or the personality should be. In Scenes from a Marriage, Liv Ullmann’s Marianne is a divorce lawyer, and one of her clients has lost any sense of her own reality. As the woman talks in numbed tones of what her unfelt life is like, we can see fear on the face of the normally placid Marianne as well. In Persona, existential dread seems to be the catalyst for the actress played by Ullmann to simply stop speaking, presumably to reject the inauthenticity of role-playing both on and off the stage. Puncturing, or at least assailing, her metaphysical torment is the levelheaded doctor who suggests to her that her muteness is a role like any other, advising her to “play this part until it’s played out, until it’s no longer interesting.” 

Yet common sense can go only so far; doubts will continue as long as there is introspection, and Bergman’s films are fueled by such crises, dark nights of the soul. But when, near the end of Fanny and Alexander, Helena grasps the hand of the spectral Oscar, a kind of reconciliation has taken place, not only with the spirit world but also with uncertainty and irresolution. “Reality has remained broken,” she says, “and, oddly enough, it feels more real that way.” 

Religion is no longer a solace for most of these characters, and the ghosts who make their appearances seem themselves lost in a limbo with no promise of a pathway to heaven. Not the least of these is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the role Oscar is playing when he collapses. At the funeral, while others mourn, Alexander hisses profanities at God, with whom he carries on a running argument throughout the film, accusing him of being either cruel or brutally indifferent.

Meanwhile, poor Oscar, now in his own purgatory, will reappear in a white suit, hovering over his bereaved family until an exasperated Alexander wishes he would either go to heaven or disappear. The late-medieval concept of purgatory seems peculiarly apt for this movie. In his provocative book Hamlet in Purgatory, Stephen Greenblatt describes what became of the concept under the Reformation in sixteenth-century England, which rejected the Catholic doctrine of this liminal place as pure fantasy. That led to a cultural shift whereby purgatory became “a way of organizing, articulating, and making sense of a tangle of intense, intimate feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death: longing, regret, guilt, fear, anger, and grief.”

Shakespeare, Greenblatt goes on to say, deeply understood the inherent drama in ghosts, and his elaboration could quite remarkably be applied to Bergman: “They are good for thinking about theater’s capacity to fashion realities, to call realities into question, to tell compelling stories,  to puncture the illusions that these stories generate, and to salvage something on the other side  of disillusionment.”

“The other side of disillusionment” would be just the way to describe what in Fanny and Alexander seems a hard-won hope wrested from the very vitality of the struggle by the sorely tested survivors—chiefly Helena, Emilie, and Alexander—and based on almost nothing but an instinct for preservation, for exercising the imagination in a sea of uncertainties.

Not to know: this, after all, may be the difficult truth of the human condition, not to have answers and somehow make peace with uncertainty. In a long passage included only in the TV version, Isak reads a bedtime story to Alexander and Fanny, supposedly translated from Hebrew, which describes the journey of a young man that takes him through various landscapes, encounters, dreams, quests for answers, until finally—the story suggests—he forgets what he was seeking and even where he came from. In the end, it is the epiphanies he has beheld, both numinous and of the natural world, that will sustain him.

In a sense, Alexander’s journey is both religious (Christian and Jewish) and secular (Freudian and artistic). With stubborn tenacity, he faces and triumphs over the Oedipal figures of his father and stepfather, who are themselves antipodes. Oscar, a frustrated actor and inadequate husband, was weak but not without fervor, whereas the bishop’s strength is both terrifying and spurious. 

Bergman’s father, the minister, was a harsh and punitive perfectionist whom Bergman only later understood as a man who had himself been compelled to live up to an almost impossible standard. His parents were always in public, exemplars in a glass bowl watched day and night by parishioners—a place they never wanted to be. This discomfort finds its way into the bishop, embodied in Malmsjö’s complex magnetism. Handsome, with a blond severity, he, like so many sadistic bullies, is both repellent and strangely seductive. In one of the movie’s few laugh-out-loud scenes, which appears only in the television version, Gustav Adolf and Carl come to him in an attempt to negotiate the children’s release. Carl soon turns craven, beating his usual cowardly retreat, while Gustav Adolf hurls a volley of well-aimed and hilarious insults at the bishop—who, of course (but nevertheless infuriatingly), never loses his cool. His love is creepier than his hate, and we see in his treatment of Alexander how the two are insidiously entwined. (Incidentally, one of the nastiest inmates of the bishop’s household is a slovenly maid played by Harriet Andersson, who eggs Alexander on in his fantasy of the bishop as murderer, then informs on him . . . leading to a violent retribution.)

But the bishop, too, suffers, and in ways not unlike the film’s more sympathetic characters. If Oscar’s collapse is in the middle of a performance, beginning when he stops abruptly, saying, “I’ve forgotten what I am to do,” the bishop, too, plays a part that has long since taken over his life, made him its slave. “You once said you were always changing masks,” he says to Emilie as he is about to die (partially by her hand). “I have only one mask. But it’s branded into my flesh. If I tried to tear it off . . .” It’s as if “Hansel and Gretel” were being told from the witch’s point of view, and suddenly you pity the man you previously hated, if only for a moment. For he will later appear chez Ekdahl, a ghost in his own purgatory, wearing a large cross, promising to give Alexander no rest. 

And that is as it should be, for Alexander, like all sons, has killed off his fathers so that he may come into his own. The murderous fantasies are both natural and terrible, part of what the adult must bear, the stuff of nightmares but also the seedbed of artistic creation. 

Near the beginning of Fanny and Alexander, a nativity play is staged in the family theater, and the film ends with a real nativity, inspiring the christening party at the theater for two new Ekdahl babies, Maj’s by way of Gustav Adolf and Emilie’s by way of the bishop, with Gustav Adolf replacing Oscar as master of ceremonies. And so a new son or daughter will now challenge Alexander’s supremacy, as perhaps will Fanny, his first lieutenant, who may soon shed the role of follower. (Bergman said Fanny was based on his own sister. The complicated nature of that relationship—the two were very distant as adults; she had writerly ambitions—may explain the strange mixture of prominence in the title and sketchiness in the film itself that Fanny is afforded.) Gustav Adolf, as Oscar’s surrogate, makes an appropriate host, celebrating the theater as a refuge from the baffling miseries of the world, but his tenure is to be short-lived. In the very end, it is Emilie, now of stiffer spine and sense of purpose, who will fulfill Oscar’s request that she assume control. And in her hands is A Dream Play, with parts for both Helena and herself. Appropriately for Bergman, it is women who gather the reins into their hands. 

It is no surprise that the director should give these two women the triumphant last word in Fanny and Alexander, a multigenerational drama that leaps lightly over barriers of age, gender, and class. Throughout his career, with his characteristic spare-nothing close-ups, he has followed the emotional logic in his actresses’ faces, adjusted his cinematic vocabulary to their moods, dug deeper into their psyches than any other director. Robert Altman, whose 3 Women (1977) was inspired in part by Persona, said that human beings are so much alike that we have to struggle to make ourselves different. In both films, the merging of two women speaks to that terror, that sense of sameness that contains both voluptuous yearning and fear. In Fanny and Alexander, terrors, fears, and ghosts rise up . . . and are laid to rest. Or almost.