To those not overly familiar with his work, the name of director Ingmar Bergman can be a bit off-putting when selecting a film to watch of an evening; isn’t he the dour Swede whose films are about existential isolation, death and religious guilt? Well, yes. A cheery viewing of the likes of Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963), or Persona (1966) is not likely to uplift one’s spirits on a cold evening with a bag of Doritos and bottle of Chardonnay, but not all of his output should be considered to be so gloomy. His breakthrough film, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was a light farce and comedy of sexual manners, and his two early masterpieces, The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957) are notable for their moments of bawdy humour as much as their more philosophical passages. No such guffaws with those other two ‘heavy’ religious directors, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson.
So for those looking to penetrate his oeuvre, there is perhaps no better starting point than what is easily his most accessible film, Fanny and Alexander. Firstly, it is important to point out that the 188-minunte film is actually a condensed version of a four-part five-hour-plus TV movie made for Swedish television, later shortened for theatrical release. This, i suppose, in part explains its relative ease of viewing in comparison to his strictly cinematic output, though detractors may well accuse it of being Bergman-lite because of this.
Bergman’s more sombre pieces centre on adults in very adult situations, so what makes Fanny and Alexander different is that the two eponymous protagonists of the film are children. They are members of the Ekdahl family, well-to-do aristocrats in an anonymous Swedish town at the turn of the twentieth century. The film takes its time introducing us to the main components of this extended family at their large Christmas gathering, and we quickly warm to their quirky idiosyncrasies: Helena the charismatic matriarch, Gustav Adolf the flirtatious uncle whose wife Alma serendipitously turns a blind eye to his mistress-taking, Maj the nursemaid whom Gustav is eyeing up, another uncle Carl who farts on the staircase for the childrens’ (and his own) amusement. The children’s father Oscar is an emotional man, early on seen tearfully giving a speech to the staff at the family theatre he runs, more from enthusiasm than talent. Their lavish surroundings, in the opulence of their large family house, are so warmly captured on film by Bergman’s long-time DP Sven Nykvist.
It is over an hour into the film before the first major plot point; in a production of Hamlet several days later, Oscar is taken ill and soon dies. His wife Emilie can be heard at night howling with sorrow at his coffin-side, Alexander listening on in fear and incomprehension. In grief, she soon accepts the hand in marriage of the local Lutheran bishop, Edvard Vergerus, a stern-looking but handsome figure who seems to be kindly enough to take on the lonely widow and her two young children. But the regime in the bishop’s house is a strict, puritan one. Where the Ekdahl house was bathed in colour and lavish decor, the Vergerus household is cold, sparse, ascetic. Alexander feels opressed by this environment, his imaginative flights of fancy brutally punished by his remorselessly violent new step-father.
The film offers up the interpretation of it being at least semi-autobiographical; Bergman himself grew up in a Lutheran household, his father Erik a minister whose strict disciplinarianism meant the young Ingmar was frequently subject to terrible punishments for seemingly minor infractions. In the film, Edvard is shown to act less from a dogmatic standpoint, but out of fear and insecurity, clearly reflecting Bergman’s own views about his father – a man he sees as more despised than respected. But autobiography only explains so much; the Hamlet leitmotif is unmistakeable, explicitly referenced by Emilie at one stage, and the various visual references and allusions to the artifice, the theatre, puppetry and tricks of the light are enough to discourage too literal a reading of the story. Bergman, after all, was a man of the stage, interested not so much in realism but in dramatics.
The film opens with a piece of pure magic: Alexander, hiding underneath a table in one of the Ekdahl mansion’s spacious and well-filled rooms, spies a large statue in the corner of the room, which seems to somehow come to life, albeit briefly. Later, shortly after Oscar dies, the children are playing with a slide projector, magically displaying its colourful images on a white screen, when they see their dead father playing on the family piano in the next room. They stand agape, and the scene ends, unresolved, unexplained. Oscar’s ghost will reappear, and his presence will be felt throughout through the film’s clever repetition of his piano playing in the subtle, low-key score. Magic and mystery, as an escape both literal and metaphorical from repression, comes to be the key theme of the film. If the scenes in the film’s final third, which show the childrens’ flight from their captor, confuses the viewer, then perhaps they too, like bishop Edvard, are lacking in the ability to believe in the supernatural, and the importance of imagination.
The final scenes appear to tie everything up neatly, but as is only fitting for such a richly complex film we finish on more of a question mark than a full stop. Fanny and Alexander may be physically free from their religious captivity, but one sinister scene makes clear that they, like Bergman himself, will never be able to shake off mentally those shackles. If there is hope, though, it is in the closing lines read to him by his grandmother, from August Strindberg, summing up not only this beautiful film but much of Bergman’s attitude towards life, and his chosen craft:
“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.”