I never thought I could actually see my passion and love for Ingmar Bergman’s work grow. But that’s because I had yet to see Fanny and Alexander.
The Blu-ray has sat on my shelf for a few months now, peering out at me from its beautiful Criterion Collection packaging, daring me to sit down for all five hours and 20 minutes the television version of the film takes to watch.
Last week I did just that. Bergman’s classic, and last film he directed for the theater, is watchable as a 188 minute movie or a five hour and 20 minute episodic feature more suitable for a couple of sit downs rather than just one.
But as I became engulfed in the life and story of the Ekdahl family, I couldn’t tear myself away. I’ve always said Bergman makes the best films about people. That is, after all, the focus at the root of most of Bergman’s films. Issues like religion, death, existentialism, sex and more simply propel these classic characters into well-rounded, developed people. People you begin to identify with and care for.
Bergman’s fantastically interesting and large Ekdahl family is anything but ordinary. It’s 1907 and they appear to be one of the wealthiest families in the Swedish town of Uppsala. Emilie and Oscar Ekdahl manage and act at the theater owned by the family. The entire family lives in extravagant, colorful surroundings with a heap of maids at their services. While most of us can’t relate to living like this, we can relate to their problems and family dynamics – especially because the film often moves along from the point of view of Emilie and Oscar’s two children Fanny and Alexander.
Fanny and Alexander are the curious, growing children who at a young age are forced to face the sudden death of their father Oscar. After a mostly joyous opening act that shows the Ekdahl family celebrating Christmas traditions in a luxurious fashion, the pain of losing Oscar early in the second episode directly contradicts the opening episode’s carefree, happy and loving feelings that seem to make us feel like those moments should last forever and be etched into eternity.
Oscar’s death changes the entire family. We leave the total scope of the enormous Ekdahl family – all of its brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and the maids the men have affairs with – for the microscopic relationship between Emilie, Fanny, Alexander and their father. With grandmother Helena as the rock that holds the entire Ekdahl family together also showing signs of weakness during her hidden moments, we’re forced to struggle along with the morose moments just like we’re allowed to celebrate the fantastic ones.
But watching Alexander and Fanny both handle the death of their father in their own ways is painful. Alexander, the older brother, is old enough to understand the severity of death but too young to completely grasp it. He chooses to hide from the pain by concocting stories of ghosts and the afterlife (which riffs off the fact that Oscar was preparing to play the ghost in Hamlet before dying). Alexander escapes pain by portraying visions of his late father. Fanny, on the other hand, silently goes about her business using her brother and mother as leaders for her emotions. The transition to this portion of the film is astounding and terrific. Bergman’s very natural portrayal of relationships that seem simple on the outside but are complex underneath is another example of the human touch he is able to apply to his narratives.
It’s worth talking about the high quality of production seen in this film. As successful as Bergman was during the black and white era of filmmaking (the haunting imagery of The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and others ringing a bell), he was equally successful in the color era. Films like Cries and Whispers showed Bergman taking advantage of a color palette by using an assortment of colors to indicate meaning. While I’ve not quite figured it out yet, Fanny and Alexander seems to employ a similar tactic. From the clothes worn to the colors of the wall, it all seems important and meaningful. Watch one documentary of Bergman making a film and you will realize that nothing in his films is a coincidence or by chance. He is meticulous and every single shot and frame has meaning in it. The sets and costumes elevate this to a world class production. There’s nothing else quite like it. Just look at the Ekdahl house or the scenes where the family is pulled around by horse-drawn carriages. It’s a majestic looking film.
There are a lot of moving parts and dynamics found in Bergman’s characters and their family relationships. It would be impossible to talk about all of them. Carl Ekdahl’s struggling, failing but still very real marriage to German immigrant Lydia and Gustav Adolf Ekdah’s open relationship with his wife Alma and the affair she doesn’t mind to happen with house servant Maj give us much to talk and think about. Perhaps that is what makes Bergman’s film so attractive to a mind curious about humans and their relationships. There’s a lot going on and a lot happening inside the walls of the Ekdahl family that it almost feels like you’re one of the family members stuck between the chaos of their relationship.
But given the film’s title, it’s important to continue talking about Fanny and Alexander after their father’s death. Their mother, Emilie, ends up marrying Bishop Edvard Vergérus. Edvard consoled Emilie during the sudden loss of her husband. He eventually gained the trust of Emilie, asked her for marriage and invited her to move out of the comfy, cozy and warm Ekdahl house and into his cold, bland palace. This is where Bergman’s big guns are brought out. His films with strong themes about religion have always been important to me. They’ve helped me realize, wonder and decide on a number of worthwhile questions related to religion. Fanny and Alexander continues the anti-religion statements found in films like The Seventh Seal and Winter Light that are said to be a direct result of Bergman’s upbringing by a strict and religious father.
Edvard, by the grace of God, is an evil man. His methods of punishment (locking the children in the attic, giving them violent lashings) are likely not that out of the ordinary for those days. But they were not the way the artistic type Emilie raised her children. There’s a distinct clashing between the vibrant, joyous nature of the film’s first episode showing the family celebrating the religious holiday of Christmas and the dark, disturbing nature of the film’s final half showing the family’s integration into the household and life of the religious Bishop Edvard.
The film takes on a less-than-optimistic attitude once Emilie and Edvard become a married couple and the children Fanny and Alexander leave their family and the warm care of their maids for the cold, empty walls of the bishop’s palace that only houses the bishop’s nasty mother and sister as well as less cheerful servants. It’s a complete opposite way of living for the children who are already struggling to adapt to life after their father. Bergman’s depiction of Edvard is honest and truthful, albeit exaggerated to punctuate his ongoing message about religion and its shortcomings.
As the film hit its stride halfway through I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time and does a fantastic job at engaging its viewer through dialogue, developed characters and relationships. It’s why I opted to keep watching rather than cut things off at one episode or another. I couldn’t have my eyes leave the television and leave my mind wondering about the well-being of the Ekdahls. The film’s conclusion is as raucous as dialogue gets for me.
Fanny and Alexander is a truly remarkable film and might be Bergman’s masterpiece. It certainly isn’t an easy viewing and isn’t a Bergman film I would at all recommend to a newcomer. The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are much more accessible and are the two films that gave me the Bergman itch. That said, this is the type of film that I would offer up at someone asking me why I love this medium of storytelling as much as I do. It’s rich, valuable and offers up a lot of worthwhile thoughts in its sharp themes and messages. Bergman’s epic family/human drama is one of cinema’s finest achievements.