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In spite of everything, joy
Ingmar Bergman's Fanny & Alexander

In 1982, Ingmar Bergman announced that his new film, Fanny & Alexander, would be his last. At a little over three hours, it was certainly a grand way for one of the cinema’s greatest masters to bow out. But the story isn’t quite that simple.

Bergman actually stayed active in film as a screenwriter and in television as a director for several more years. (It wasn’t the first time — or last — he prematurely announced his retirement; he recently announced his retirement again…for real.) And the film was actually a little over five hours long, at least in the version Bergman wanted it to be seen.

Unfortunately, to accommodate the film’s distributors, he had to trim it down from the length at which it was later shown on Swedish television, where it ran as a four-part miniseries. He had followed a similar course in 1973 with Scenes from a Marriage, to great success. But Bergman was never happy with the shortened theatrical version of Fanny & Alexander, and he later wrote in Images: My Life in Film that it required him “to cut into the vital parts of the film. I knew that with each cut I reduced the quality of my work."

With the Criterion Collection’s release of the full-length Swedish television version, American audiences are finally getting to see Fanny & Alexander as Bergman intended it to be seen.


Viewers familiar with the three-hour version will find the first half of the television version largely unchanged. Some scenes run longer and a couple entirely new scenes appear, but the overall tone is largely intact.

As the film opens, it is 1907, and the Ekdahl family celebrates Christmas Eve with its annual Christmas play and an elaborate Christmas dinner. The setting is enviably upper-middle class, and critics have rightly drawn parallels between it and Bergman’s own fond memories of his grandmother’s house in Uppsala.

The large Ekdahl family is introduced in turn: Helena, the title characters’ grandmother and the extended family’s materfamilias; her eldest son, Oscar, who runs the family’s theater with his actress wife, Emilie; her middle son, Carl, an unhappily married, alcoholic professor teetering on the edge of financial and psychological collapse; her youngest son, Gustav Adolf, a philandering restaurateur; and eight-year-old Fanny and ten-year-old Alexander, who view the adult world with an intriguing mix of childlike wonder and adult wariness.

Helena’s home, a large brick house across the square from the family’s theater, is subdivided into two apartments. Her apartment is dark-colored and furnished in the cluttered style of the nineteenth century, while Oscar’s modernized apartment, which he shares with his wife and Fanny and Alexander, is lighter and decorated with a mix of traditional, art nouveau and continental Arts and Crafts furnishings.

It’s certainly a happily indulgent, cozy world in which they revel (even the servants join in the festive Christmas dancing). But Fanny and Alexander’s lives are changed abruptly for the worse by their father’s untimely death after the holidays and their mother’s marriage to the morbidly restrictive local bishop a year later. Pointedly, the father collapses from a stroke while rehearsing Hamlet; after his death, he appears to Alexander in visions, just as the ghost of Hamlet’s father does, to ruminate — albeit silently, most often — over his neglected children and his wife’s poorly chosen second marriage.

Lifted from their family’s sprawling, sumptuously furnished apartments and set down in the bishop’s austere, whitewashed 15th century palace, Fanny and Alexander feel imprisoned and readily believe a servant’s grim tales about the preacher’s first wife and daughters, who drowned in the river below Fanny and Alexander’s barred bedroom windows. Alexander even claims to have seen their ghosts and heard the dead mother’s story of the suffering and neglect that led to their deaths.

Murder is implied, if not claimed outright, and in his dark, severe cassock and with his rigid, ominously looming presence, we can readily believe the bishop is guilty of dark secrets.


This is where the television version begins to diverge significantly from the theatrical one.

In the TV version, we actually see the dead girls from the bishop’s first marriage; they appear to Alexander, angry and vengeful after he has been punished for his scandalous claims about their father. It’s a harrowing scene that recalls an advertisement claiming Bergman’s film The Magician (1958) was the Thinking Man’s horror film (although the scene ends with a touch that recalls The Exorcist).

The girls’ appearance marks the rise of the artistic imagination as a dominant theme in opposition to the bishop’s rigidly controlled ‘truth.’ If, in some sense, the film is about Alexander’s struggle to assert (and accept) imagination and art against reason and ‘normality,’ we now get to see the scales tipped in his favor. The idea, which Bergman explored more explicitly (and didactically) in The Magician (among other films), is not without its dangers, as Alexander discovers once the children’s escape from the bishop’s clutches has been accomplished.

In an intriguing touch, their escape is aided by a gesture of bona fide magic, which Bergman refused to justify or explain. But then, this is, after all, a film that closes with lines from Strindberg’s A Dream Play: “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.”

Fanny and Alexander’s escape, which is like something out of a fairy tale, brings them into a strange world that is unlike either the bishop’s coldly ascetic, self-hating world or the Ekdahls’ artistic but upper-middle class circle. Ostensibly the antiques shop as well as the home of the Ekdahl family friend (and Helena Ekdahl’s former lover), Isak Jacobi, it’s a dark, mysterious labyrinth that is crammed with everything from antiques to oversized puppets and an Egyptian mummy that appears to breathe, along with a dangerous family member who is kept locked up and hidden.

Given how central dreams, imagination, artistic freedom and adult restrictions are in this film, it’s not a stretch to suggest Isak’s space, which often glows in a strangely luminous red light, is a metaphor for the unconscious, where we wander lost and unnerved but curious.

More visions appear to Alexander in Isak’s shop. In the TV version, for instance, Isak tells the children a beautiful parable about the nature of man’s search for meaning, and it propels Alexander into a vision unlike any other in the film.

This last section (it’s episode four in the TV version) is perhaps the most compelling stretch of the film. The visions we see in it echo some of the seemingly minor visions we witness in the beginning of the film, and they help internalize the drama and focus it more clearly on Alexander’s character. They also lend credence to Alexander’s other visions, thereby enriching the film’s spiritual and existential complexities.

Ultimately, the section works well for a simple reason: Bergman himself takes on the role of magician, and he seduces his audience into a startlingly receptive, if slightly frightened state of susceptibility. Or at least that is what it does to me. In fact, Isak’s home is the setting for one of the most riveting moments I’ve had watching films.

I was a college student (and a Bergman fanatic majoring in philosophy, no less), watching the film in an art house cinema during its original American release. And when a door in Isak’s shop began banging back and forth on the screen while a deep, somewhat ominous voice revealed itself as God, I was so taken by the moment that I actually wondered, briefly, how Bergman had convinced God to appear on celluloid.

It seemed manifestly absurd after I left the theater, but I’ve never shaken the feeling I had, watching the screen and waiting for Bergman to perform a miracle.


To cover all the bases, Criterion has released two separate editions of Fanny & Alexander — the shorter theatrical version alone, plus a box set with both versions.

The better choice is clearly the box set. While it won four Oscars (foreign language film, costumes, art direction / set decoration, and cinematography), the theatrical version doesn’t satisfactorily represent Bergman’s artistic intentions, and being able to compare them side by side shows why.

Admittedly, many viewers will find that the theatrical version possesses a stronger rhythm and more sustained narrative momentum (especially in the first half), and Bergman was right to trim it down for theatrical release. A miniseries is more forgiving of longer, slower exposition. Placed side by side, the theatrical version feels like a poem, while the TV version often feels like a more prosaic novel. (Still, there’s a special joy to be found in stumbling onto a new shot—to say nothing of a new scene—in a film you’ve admired for years.)

But the box set offers considerably more than simply the two versions. With five discs, it represents Criterion’s most thoroughly documented offering yet (which is saying a lot). The Making of Fanny & Alexander, the feature-length, Bergman-directed documentary included on the fourth disc, is an especially valuable tool because it shows how thoroughly rehearsed and precise Bergman’s blocking and subtly fluid camera movements are here. (“The movement of the camera should be imperceptible,” Bergman says in the documentary.)

Other extras in the box set include

  • “Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film,” an hour-long interview with Bergman that was made in 1984 for Swedish TV. Topics include the creative impetus for Fanny & Alexander; how Bergman relates to (and is reflected in) various characters from the film; how he draws performances out of his actors; and his reasons for retiring from film after making Fanny & Alexander.
  • “A Bergman Tapestry,” a forty-minute documentary that offers new interviews with cast and crew members from Fanny & Alexander. Topics include the decision to make the film in Sweden (despite Bergman’s protests that his home country lacked the craftsmen his epic film would require); the set and costume designs; and how Bergman directed the child actors in Fanny & Alexander.
  • Stills and costume galleries, along with a short presentation on the set models for Fanny & Alexander.
    Throw in a strong commentary for the theatrical version from Bergman biographer (and a Criterion perennial favorite) Peter Cowie, and you’ve got fifteen hours of intense immersion in one of cinema’s landmark experiences.

The box set’s fifth disc offers Bergman’s introductions to eleven of his films, which were recorded for Swedish TV in the summer of 2003. They’re brief (most of them are about four minutes long) and informal, with Bergman sitting in his own theater and chatting about the autobiographical details behind the films, which range from Summer with Monica (1952) to Autumn Sonata (1978). None of the discussion offers material that would cause Bergman scholars to re-think their interpretations, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable to watch Bergman reminisce.


Fanny & Alexander has been criticized for often being too happy for a Bergman film, and when set against chilly, earlier works like Winter Light, The Silence and Persona, its vibrancy certainly leaps out. By Bergman’s own reckoning, though, the film didn’t come from a change in his own mood but rather from a decision to explore emotions which he had felt but never managed to capture on film.

“I want at last to show the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, joy that I have so seldom and so poorly given life to in my work,” he wrote in a journal about Fanny & Alexander’s planning. “Being able to portray energy and drive, capability for living, kindness. That wouldn’t be so bad for once.”

The sheer size of Fanny & Alexander also singles it out from the rest of the Bergman oeuvre: with some sixty speaking parts and 1,200 extras, it’s simply enormous when set down next to his chamber films.

“It is, as I see it, a huge tapestry filled with masses of color and people, houses and forests, mysterious haunts of caves and grottoes, secrets and night skies,” Bergman said, in describing the work-in-progress at a 1980 press conference.

In fact, with its majestic structure and unhurried, confident pace, Fanny & Alexander has as much in common with, say, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain as it does with Bergman’s ‘typical’ films. And the fairy tale elements that recur throughout recall E.T.A. Hoffman’s tales, as Cowie points out in his commentary. This is especially evident in the children’s eventual return to the Ekdahl house: they sit around the large, round table enjoying another family feast, as if the whole movie had been merely an elaborate dream out of a fairy tale. (“Our little world has closed around us in safety, wisdom and order,” Gustav Adolf says, in a toast.)

Nonetheless, Fanny & Alexander neatly brings together several of the themes Bergman dwelled on for much of his film career — spirituality, mysticism and the supernatural as opposed to organized religion; rebellion against authority, parent versus child as well as husband versus wife; the self-inflicted misery posed by intolerance and posturing behind masks, etc. Even the fairy tale elements tie in to Bergman’s abiding interest in magic as both a legitimate phenomenon as well as a means of entertaining trickery. (Think, for example, of the mesmerizing title character in The Magician.)

Bergman himself said Fanny & Alexander was “the sum total of my life as a filmmaker.”

Any director would revel at the chance to end a career on such a powerful summation.

—Review by Doug Childers

Related WAG articles
“The Goal: Find Love or Inflict Humiliation (whichever comes first): Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night”
“Relevant Questions: Re-thinking Bergman in an Irreverent Age”

Posted December 1, 2004





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