Los Angeles — Ingmar Bergman spent five of his prime working years in Western Europe in a self-imposed exile from Sweden, the result of accusations of tax cheating at home. Eventually the charges were dropped and Bergman returned to the Swedish island of Faro where he was happiest and most productive. The film he made upon his return in 1981 was Fanny and Alexander, one of his best.
Set in 1907-08, in a Swedish cathedral town, it’s the story of the well to do Ekdahls, the owners of the local theatre. They’re a theatrical bunch, both bohemian and bourgeois – a delicious combination. Most of the story is seen through young Alexander Ekdahl’s eyes. His grandmother, Helena, is the other presiding voice and eye.
The story is full of love and magic, which are part of the quotidian life of this grand and singular family. Sven Nykvist who was almost as fundamental to Bergman’s films as the master’s own childhood, shot it in ravishing color.
The Ekdahl’s life is disrupted by the death of Alexander’s father. The Bishop comforts the widow and then marries her, making life miserable for everyone, certainly Alexander and his younger sister, Fanny. Ghosts of the dead mingle with the living in easy, accepted union. Spirits materialize, do their best, and fade away. The greatest of all directorial challenges is to make conflicting and complicated emotions and unlikely circumstances seem genuine and real. It has never been more difficult to pull off than in this movie. Bergman makes it seem effortless.
The movie is a Bildungsroman and it is Alexander who must navigate a treacherous childhood. Fanny and his own imagination are his companions. Bergman has credited the fiction of E.T.A. Hoffman as a source (we know his stories as The Tales of Hoffmann.) Fanny and Alexander is close in spirit to the 19th century European novel. Dickens’ influence is apparent. Strindberg is quoted and the name Ekdahl is a nod to Ibsen.
The psychological and emotional sources of the Ekdahl’s world, though not the specifics, are rooted in Bergman’s youth. In Images: My Life in Film he wrote, “(The Ekdahls’) existence reminds me of the good-natured passive life of my childhood.” It’s as if he thinks the connection is nothing more than a happy coincidence. Bergman often visited his childhood in his movies, though this was the only one with a child at the center.
Bergman’s father was a distinguished cleric and pastor to the Swedish royal family. He was autocratic, and young Ingmar fought with him. Little Alexander wishes for the Bishop’s death and a haunting epicene creature helps him achieve his goal in a heady brew of Oedipal rage, sexual exploration and the power of righteous hatred.
Erland Josephson, who appeared in many of Bergman’s movies, plays Isak Jacobi, a Jew with an antique shop that is also a cabinet of wonders for Alexander. Isak is a character right out of Dickens and a minor hero of the story. Mostly, as the Bishop points out, he’s a Jew.
When Bergman was 16, he spent six weeks in Germany as an exchange student living with a German family. He heard Hitler speak in Weimar and learned to make the Nazi salute. Later, that youthful behavior appalled him and he spent some time getting over the experience. He tells the story in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern.
Fanny and Alexander was shot over 250 days – an enormous schedule – in two versions, one for Swedish television (312 minutes) and the other for theatrical release (197 minutes.) In those daunting lengths is the sad story of this great movie. The theatrical version is cut awkwardly. It takes about 90 minutes for the story to come into proper focus and for Alexander to become the movie’s heart. When the movie finally settles, it holds your eye and won’t let go.
The television version is more nuanced. There’s no confusion about the story’s center. The focus on Alexander and secondarily on his grandmother arrives without strain. Bergman was well aware of the problem and regretted cutting the theatrical version the way he did. Movies are not a perfectible form. The joke in Hollywood is that a movie is a long narrative that has something wrong with it in the second act.
But a five-hour movie? I know, I know. It’s divided into five parts that can be watched at different times, much the way we might watch an American miniseries. Only at this full length, no matter how you watch it, do the web of stories and dreams thoroughly coalesce with the daily lives of the Ekdahls, their theatre and their church. It is a rich tale of great and yet subtle ambition and it just won’t be rushed. At just over 3 hours it’s good; at 5 hours it’s a masterpiece.
A %%AMAZON=B000305ZYS Criterion DVD%% of the various versions is available. It includes a long interview with Bergman. DVDs often contain this sort of thing and they usually reek of commercialism. Ingmar’s not selling anything, not trying to convince you he’s better or more humble than he is. It’s an hour or so of one of the great artists of the cinema of the last century doing his best to explain himself to himself and to anyone who cares to join him.
Bergman gives the lines that declare the movie’s framing theme to Gun Wallgren who plays Helena, the Ekdahl matriarch. Wallgren was quite ill during the production though there’s not a hint of distress in her performance. Helena has seen it all – errant children, pregnant housemaids, mean-spirited clerics, ghosts and spirits. She accepts it all with equanimity.
As the conclusion of this echoing story draws near, Helena is in her study looking through Strindberg’s Dream Play, considering it for production at the theatre. It’s a play that Bergman returned to several times during the years he was running the Swedish National Theatre.
Her grandson, Alexander, home at last and once again safe in the bosom of his family, the Bishop now among the ghosts, sits at her side and rests his head in her lap. He dozes and dreams as she reads aloud the Strindbergian thought that animates Fanny and Alexander and quite possibly Ingmar Bergman himself: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable… On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”