Ingmar Bergman | 4 episodes (57min – 1hr 32min) or 3hr 8min (theatrical cut)
There is a whimsical horror threaded through Fanny and Alexander that only its ten-year-old protagonist grapples with – at least to begin with. He gazes at his toy paper theatre illuminated by nine flickering candles, before wandering around an exquisitely cluttered apartment draped in red, green, and gold fabrics, framing him like a lost child in a world of endless possibilities. He calls out to his family’s maids, but no one replies. The clock chimes three, a set of cherubs rotate on a music box, and a half-nude marble statue in the corner slowly begins to dance. Then, a soft scraping noise emerges beneath the eerie melody, and we catch a glimpse of a scythe being dragged across the carpet. The grim reaper has arrived, but not for young Alexander. Though this magical realist prologue might be the most undiluted manifestation of his vivid imagination that we witness, the heavy presence of death underlies all 5 hours of this Gothic family drama set in 1900s Sweden, marking his childhood with both merciless damnation and divine salvation.
In the haunted Christmastime setting of Fanny and Alexander’s opening, an air of Dickensian fantasy settles over the extended Ekdahl family, revelling in the warm festivities of their annual traditions. Religious celebrations and commemorations form the basis of these gatherings, and often mark key narrative beats through funerals, weddings, and christenings. Accompanying these occasions are large meals spread across expansive dining tables, though none are so magnificent as the spread on Christmas Eve night which dominates the first act of the film.
Here, Ingmar Bergman delights in splendidly designed sets of vivid crimson hues, weaved all through the patterned wallpaper, long candlesticks, velvet curtains, and holiday decorations. With such a dominant primary colour commanding the mise-en-scène, there are abundant opportunities for his regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to embellish it with small flourishes of emerald-green, popping out in festive wreaths, holly, and indoor plants that frequently hang in the foreground of his compositions, snugly crowding out the space.
Matching his rich use of colour is Bergman’s impeccable staging of his large ensemble, defining the status and identity of each character by their position within immaculately staged shots of family unity, habitually framed within those elegantly draped arches between rooms or around overflowing dining tables. The camera glides gracefully through crowded rooms, each one warmly illuminated by the yellow light of chandeliers and oil lamps. At times it simply soaks in the splendid décor and delectable meats, or it will otherwise latch onto family members as they make their way through the vast yet intimate apartment of their widowed matriarch, Helena.
Within their local community, the Ekdahl family are known for owning the local theatre and staging annual nativity plays, and for as long as they all remain out in open living areas, we continue to witness those dramatic sensibilities emerge in scenes of poetry recitations and musical performances late into the night. It is when they retreat behind closed doors that these larger-than-life characters begin to reveal personal troubles – Alexander’s uncle, Adolf Gustav, keeps a joyful, cheeky attitude right up until he finds his ego slighted, and Carl Ekdahl possesses significant contempt towards his German wife.
It is a lengthy setup which Bergman conducts here, insulating us in these family celebrations like a warm, protective barrier from the freezing snow that blankets the village outside. The touch of poignancy he brings to one conversation between a maid and Alexander’s cousin, Jenny, about Christmas being a difficult time for people with bad memories especially foreshadows the poor misfortune which is about to strike. These children may not understand that concept yet, but upon the death of Oskar, Alexander’s father, Bergman slowly sinks us into a despairing grief that dwarfs any of the issues which previously existed on the fringes of this family unit. He first collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, quite appropriately while playing the father’s ghost in the scene in which he visits his son. The narrative that follows is heavily Shakespearean in both structure and characterisation, though in place of an evil uncle swooping in and taking the crown, here it is a bishop marrying Alexander’s mother, Emilie, and whisking her small family away to his cold, bare home.
As the second act commences, Fanny and Alexander becomes an act of catharsis for Bergman, who, in playing to these archetypes of corruption and innocence, reflects large portions of his own childhood. The fond memories of a flawed but welcoming family exist in stark contrast to the oppressive dynamic that pervades the bishop’s home, and caught between the two is the overly active imagination of a boy who struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As such, there is also a distinctly fairy tale quality that takes hold of Fanny and Alexander, accompanying the introduction of the wicked stepfather with ghosts and demons who may very well be directly inspired by those religious tales which the children are raised on. Being deprived of a supportive father figure himself, Bergman carries great empathy for Alexander, understanding his immaturity as a natural stage in his own creative development.
Perhaps it is this lack of emotional inhibition which grants the young boy the means to deal with his grief, letting him lash out in ways which, while not entirely polite, are honest to his own thoughts and feelings. In one evocative scene after he and his sister, Fanny, hear their mother’s guttural cry erupt from somewhere in their grandmother’s apartment, they creep out of bed to peer through the crack of a door, where they see her wailing in private over her husband’s cold body. Unlike Alexander’s coping mechanisms that are freely expressed out into the world, the overwhelming feelings of adults must be repressed to those small, remote corners where no one else can see. This is a lesson that the bishop beats into him even harder, reframing the whimsical fabrications he uses to understand the world as sinister lies that will damn him to hell.
The move from Helena’s vibrant, festive home of expressionistic décor to the stark white halls of the bishop’s Spartan house lands with a quiet dread, and with it comes a shift in Bergman’s approach to blocking. Gone are the large family gathering of characters arranged in relaxed formations across plush couches and dining halls. These rooms are made of stone and wood, unembellished and projecting a cold hostility as the bishop exerts physical dominance over every communal space. His demand that Emilie and her children lose all their old possessions as if “newly born” is delivered with a faint chill, forcing them to conform to the image of sparse minimalism he prescribes to, though this attempt at rewriting their identities is only the start of a long line of abuses. Bergman goes on to capture the devastating isolation that is wreaked upon the young siblings with compositions that close them up inside bleak, angular frames, gazing out the windows of their depressing bedroom and, in one scene, crumpling Alexander on the grey, dusty floor of the attic beneath a fallen crucifix, as if slain by a domineering force of spiritual corruption.
Perhaps the single unifying stylistic device carried through all Bergman’s settings though is his staging of actors in still poses like subjects of a painting, particularly focusing on the thoughtful arrangements of their faces that reveal just as much as their expressions. As Oskar lays on his deathbed, his face turned to the side to face the camera, Emilie’s profile leans up against his cheek in pensive mourning, simultaneously revealing both the intimacy of their final days of marriage, and the tension that is pulling them apart. In contrast, a later shot at the bishop’s house which frames Fanny, Alexander, and Emilie lying on their sides in bed captures them all looking towards the camera, united in their melancholy. With each face slightly obscuring the one behind it, Emilie is set up at the back as the quiet protector of her children, shielding them from the bishop who stands alone and unfocused in the background.
Jan Malmsjö brings a sadistic venom to this role, though he takes care to only reveal his villainy gradually. His first handling of Alexander’s lies is stern but relatively fair, keeping us at a distance from the bitter, angry man who lies beneath his cool veneer. It is initially hard to get a good read of him, but by the time we arrive at his next chastisement of Alexander, his malevolence is exceedingly clear. In response to the bishop’s degradation and punishment, the young boy grows more obstinate in his disobedience, and yet even he can only stand so many beatings before being forced into submission. Watching on, Fanny silently recoils from the bishop’s touch, and Emilie’s contempt for her husband grows. With all paths of escape cut off, they become a broken, trapped family, suffering in an austere hellhole.
Across these early adolescent years of torment, Alexander catches visions of his father’s ghost walking through hallways, bearing witness to the depression left behind in his wake. These transcendent experiences are not limited to his son though, as late in the film Oskar also appears to Helena, his bereaved mother, and simply sits with her as she delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the process of accepting her grief.
“Life, it’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, other 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.”
And yet, even as an actress with a deeper understanding of the human condition than her grandson, Alexander, the pain is no less present.
“My feelings came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them, they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has remained broken ever since… and oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So, I don’t bother to mend it.”
Bergman’s screenplay flows like poetry through these thoughtful contemplations of life-changing events, and yet as this epic drama comes to a close and releases Alexander from the bishop’s tight, suffocating grip, only four words are used to punctuate its ending with a lingering thread of trauma. Though the bishop and his family have perished in the blaze of an incidental fire that obliterated their home like a hellish condemnation, his ghost lives on in Alexander’s mind, cruelly pushing him to the ground and taunting him.
“You can’t escape me.”
The fantastical imagination of Bergman’s young protagonist is evidently as dangerous as it is enchanting, filtering the world through a lens that distorts every intense emotional experience into a memory that will never fade away. Though it manifests primarily as supernatural creatures and visions, it is also baked right into those dazzling bursts of colour that decorate his mise-en-scène, leaping out like nostalgic recollections of a youth that was only partially lived in the real world. By simply dwelling within this perspective, Fanny and Alexander becomes a deeply sentimental work, and through its profound dreams Bergman crafts a magnificent distillation of childhood wonder and terror.
Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.