Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) is one of his finest works. Fanny and Alexander runs 312 minutes—more than five hours. Bergman cut it down to a 188-minute version for theatrical release. The full version was shown as a miniseries on Swedish television but was also released in theaters, making it one of the longest theatrical films in history.
Fanny and Alexander was Bergman’s most popular film. It was also highly praised by critics, winning four Academy awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, and three Guldbagge Awards from the Swedish Film Institute, including Best Film.
Bergmann originally intended Fanny and Alexander to be his cinematic swan song, thus he made it a summation of his life and work. The story is semi-autobiographical and reprises many of the themes explored in his other films. The end is a life-affirming benediction, a triumph over darkness.
Fanny and Alexander feels like an adaptation of one of those sprawling nineteenth-century novels that you’ve never read, but it was entirely Bergman’s work. The film is set in Uppsala, Sweden in 1907–1909. It depicts haute bourgeois life at the very peak of European civilization before the explosion of the Great War.
This is the story of the fabulously wealthy Ekdahl family, headed by the widowed grandmother Helena, a former actress. Helena speaks about how she loved to act, but her greatest happiness was playing the role of a mother, a role she continues to play as she looks out for her three grown sons, their wives, and a growing brood of grandchildren. The Ekdahls are a very close family. They live in vast and sumptuous apartments occupying two floors of the same building, as well as sharing a Swedish country house and a retreat in Provence.
The film begins and ends with lavish celebrations—a Christmas and a christening—that illustrate the customs, manners, and fashions of the time as well as the Ekdahls’ unconventional ethos. These sequences are visually dazzling, captured in blazing color. It is pure decorator porn from a director usually associated with austere settings captured in stark black and white.
The prologue and first act take place on the day before Christmas and Christmas morning of 1907. First, the family attends (and some of them act in) a Christmas pageant at a theater they own. Then there is Christmas dinner—which in Sweden takes place on Christmas Eve—followed the next morning by the family setting off in horse-drawn sleighs for an early Christmas service at the cathedral.
The Christmas sequence introduces most of the major characters and a host of minor ones, all beautifully realized. Helena presides benignly over the festivities but fears the passage of time is carrying her from her beautiful life into the “dirty life” of decrepitude and death.
Helena has three sons. The eldest, Oscar, is a sickly, quiet, and introverted actor and the manager of the family theater who is married to the tall and radiant blonde, Emilie, also an actress, who is the mother of their two children, Fanny and Alexander Carl, the middle son, is a professor. He is a mediocrity and a depressive. He’s also a tactless boor, drunkard, and gambler in an unhappy and childless marriage with a German woman, Lydia, whom he abuses. The youngest son, Gustav Adolf, is an ebullient restauranter married to Alma, the mother of his three children who good-naturedly encourages him in his extra-marital affairs.
Alexander is a wide-eyed boy of ten with a vivid imagination. Although he might not be imagining things when he sees ghosts. Fanny is his shy and quiet eight-year-old sister. Maj is their nursemaid and the object of Gustav Adolf’s current adulterous designs. Isak Jacobi, a Jewish antique dealer and moneylender, is an old family friend and former lover of Helena.
The Ekdahls are all highly intelligent and sensitive. With the exception of Carl, they have exquisite manners and tastes. But although they are pillars of the community and uphold most of the social forms, they are also quite unconventional.
When Gustav Adolf puts on a Christmas reception for the cast and crew of the family theater, he tells the waiters in his restaurant to not display the slightest snobbery. When the family sits down to Christmas dinner, they eat in the kitchen sharing a huge table with the family servants—which makes some of the older servants uncomfortable. These gestures are attempts at aristocratic magnanimity, which seeks to lessen the pains of social hierarchy to those on the lower rungs.
Then there is the matter of extra-marital affairs. Helena, Emilie, and Gustav Adolf are all philanderers, all apparently with the knowledge and the approval—or at least the acquiescence—of their spouses. Helena, Emilie, and Oscar are all theater people, so perhaps such bohemian morals come with the territory. It is, however, rather unrealistic to suggest that the Ekdahls never get burned while playing with the heart’s fire. Helena is also something of a feminist, dismissing Strindberg as “that nasty misogynist.”
Finally, the close friendship with Isak Jacobi strikes me as unconventional for the time. He is literally at every family function. Yes, they live close to one another. Yes, Isak and the Ekdahls are both in business. Isak’s nephew Aron is even in the theater business as a puppet maker. But would this really be enough to overcome the religious and social divides?
The first version of the script—which is very different from the final film—may throw some light on the connection, for Helena Ekdahl’s maiden name is given as Mandelbaum, a very Jewish name. This throws light on an odd conversation at the very beginning of the movie, when Helena’s maid Ester remarks on how odd it is that they have celebrated 43 Christmases together. Of course it would be odd if Helena had been born a Jew.
Ester, too, is a very Jewish name, but Ester worked as a Christian missionary in China, and, in the first version of the script is said to have warned Alexander that Isak kidnaps gentile children and drinks their blood.
However, if Bergman’s original intent was to make Helena Jewish, it seems unfulfilled, since there’s nothing particularly Jewish about how Helena is portrayed by the acclaimed Swedish actress Gunn Wållgren.
If any single word describes the Ekdahls, it is “pagan.” Although their Christmas celebrations are bookended by a nativity pageant and a church service, everything between is pure pagan revelry and carousing, without a wink of sleep.
Although the Ekdahls are fully aware of the dark and tragic dimensions of life, they flee those terrors by building up the ramparts of what both Oscar and Gustav Adolf call the “little world,” the hermetic microcosm, one of the first touches of the esoteric and paranormal that appear throughout film.
When Oscar makes a speech in the theater, he uses “little world” to refer to the theater. When Gustav Adolf uses the phrase at the end of the movie, the meaning is more expansive. The “little world” is the artificial world of beauty and culture that the Ekdahls inhabit with such zest. It is the human realm of meaning that we build to protect ourselves from the chaos and terrors of nature. The theater is thus a microcosm of the microcosm.
On this reading, the theater is not just a symbol and site for fakery, loose morals, and cultural decadence. On a deeper level, the theater is a symbol of the creation of culture in the first place.
The Ekdahls do not lack a feeling for the holy, but when Emilie describes her conception of God, it is a force that lies beyond good and evil and manifests itself in an infinite array of masks. Thus the world-whole in all of its manifestations, good and evil, is sacred. This is an essentially pagan conception of divinity.
The central drama of Fanny and Alexander springs from the clash of Christianity and paganism.
In the second act, which takes place in February of 1908, Oscar Ekdahl dies suddenly of a stroke. The whole sequence is deeply touching. A year later, Emilie announces that she is to marry Edvard Vergérus, the bishop of Uppsala.
The bishop’s house is starkly different from the Ekdahls’. It is grim and austere, with white walls. The bishop’s mother and sister are drab and neurotic. His aunt is a fat, vacant invalid played by a female impersonator. The servants are grotesques. Everyone is dressed in grays, blacks, and whites. Bergman is a master of this aesthetic.
Emilie feels unmoored since the death of Oscar, and she is attracted to the bishop (who isn’t bad-looking) and thinks that maybe his austere and purposeful life will provide her the stability she is longing for.
Fanny and Alexander take an instant dislike to the bishop. They were right. As soon as he has the family within his four walls, he reveals himself to be controlling, sadistic, and loathsomely smug. He’s an evil stepfather straight from a fairy tale.
The marriage becomes a hell. Emilie wants out but is trapped. She is pregnant, so she will always be tied to Edvard. Moreover, if she abandons him, the law would allow him to keep Fanny and Alexander.
Emilie appeals to Helena, who sets a plan in motion. At this point, the film veers into the bizarre. The bishop is hard up for money and has offered to sell an antique chest to Isak, who had declined. Isak, however, has a change of heart when he realizes that he can use the chest to smuggle out Fanny and Alexander. Isak’s visit is played very strangely. He’s obviously up to something. The bishop and his sister are both suspicious and rude. But, somehow, he manages to get the children into the chest and close the deal with the bishop.
Then the bishop suddenly explodes in anger, strikes Isak, calls him a “filthy hook-nosed swine,” and accuses him of trying to steal the children. Bizarrely, the bishop does not look in the chest but runs upstairs to the children’s bedroom. Isak, whom the bishop had thrown to the floor, looks to the sky and cries out. A light illuminates him from above. When the bishop enters the nursery, he sees the children apparently unconscious on the floor. Isak faints, then awakens and has the chest carried away by his workmen. When he opens it in his shop, Fanny and Alexander emerge. The only possible explanation is supernatural. Isak has somehow projected the illusion of the children into their nursery. At this point, Alexander’s encounters with ghosts no longer seem like figments of his imagination.
Once the children are out of the bishop’s clutches, Gustav Adolf and Carl sit down to negotiate a divorce for Emilie. It is an utterly hilarious scene, and Carl somewhat redeems himself with his cool-headed shrewdness, in stark contrast to Gustav Adolf’s typhonic tirades. The bishop, however, dresses up his vengeful priggishness in the garb of spirituality and high principle, so negotiations break down.
Meanwhile, Fanny and Alexander stay in Isak’s shop, an Escher-like labyrinth impossibly cluttered with exotic treasures. There Alexander meets Isak’s nephews Aron and Ismael.
Soon after their arrival, Isak reads a story to Fanny and Alexander. He says that it is written in Hebrew, and it will take some work to translate. But once the story begins, his eyes no longer look at the page at all, suggesting that he is simply making it up.
In the parable, a young man wanders a crowded and dusty road though a parched wilderness under a blazing sun. Nobody knows where they are going, but they are in a terrible hurry to get there. Suddenly the young man is in a verdant forest. Cool waters flow at his feet. But he is blind to it all and is soon swept back into the mob.
The youth asks an old man about the source of the water. He replies that it flows from a mountain whose top is hidden in clouds. This is supposed to bring to mind Sinai, from which Moses descended with the divine law. But the cloud is not caused by God. Its cause is entirely natural. Indeed, it is entirely human. It is created by the fears and prayers of men addressed to God or to the void. The fears and prayers become rain, which feed rivers that flow from the mountain.
But most men cannot slake their thirst from the mountain’s waters because they will not break from the pointless rat race on the road. At this point, Alexander envisions Christian pilgrims, penitents, and flagellants. The message is that religion springs from man, not God, but men are denied its solace, which can only be found in the solitude of nature, because they are caught up in the frantic rat race of organized religion.
This is not the sort of parable a believing Jew would tell.
Aron makes puppets, including an enormous and terrifying representation of the Hebrew God, something no believing Jew would do either. Aron says he is an atheist, because as a trained magician and puppet master, he has no need of supernatural explanations. He sees how things work. From his side, everything is rational. The magic lies only in the credulity of the audience.
He explains that uncle Isak, however, believes that there are multiple levels of reality, swarming with supernatural beings, and that all of reality, even the seemingly inanimate and profane, is infused with soul and divinity. This is essentially the same pagan outlook professed by Emilie.
Isak’s view of the world seems to be more correct than Aron’s, for when Aron uses some sort of puppeteer’s trick to turn the head of a mummy toward him, as if by sympathetic magic, the bishop’s bedridden, imbecilic aunt turns her vomit encrusted face toward the oil lamp by her bedside.
Ismael has a stratospherically high IQ, reads constantly, and remembers everything. But he is locked in his room because he is somehow dangerous. When Aron and Alexander bring him his breakfast, he asks Alexander to stay. Ismael is a sexually ambiguous figure. He is actually played by an actress.
Just as Ismael’s appearance straddles both sexes, his mind straddles two worlds. He claims that the barriers between souls are porous and he can cross them at will. He has the power to read people’s thoughts and to project his own thoughts into other people’s heads, which he demonstrates with Alexander.
Ismail reads Alexander’s desire to kill the bishop. Embracing Alexander and beginning to undress and caress him, Ismael describes the bishop and his dreams. Then the bishop’s aunt overturns her oil lamp. Then, engulfed in flames, she rushes into the bishop’s room, where she throws himself on him. Both die in agony. Problem solved.
The movie ends at the christening party for two baby girls. Emilie has given birth to Aurora. The father is the late bishop. Maj has given birth Helena-Viktoria. The father is Gustav Adolf. Both children are being welcomed into the Ekdahl clan’s dazzling little world, which is starting to look like a free-love commune of rich bohemians.
In the epilogue, Alexander, back in his grandmother’s apartment, is knocked to the floor by the ghost of the bishop, who tells him that he will never leave Alexander alone. Alexander then picks himself up, goes to his grandmother, and falls asleep in her lap while she reads from Strindberg’s A Dream Play, which provides the metaphysical explanation for what has happened: “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.”
Strindberg’s assertion that time and space are not real—particularly for the spirit—can explain the possibility of viewing and changing things across gulfs of space and time. The idea that space and time are not ultimately real, but merely guises by which non-spatiotemporal realities show themselves to us, comes from Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia. Immanuel Kant read the Arcana Coelestia after investigating stories of Swedenborg’s psychic powers and recognized that Swedenborg’s concept of space and time could help explain psychic phenomena. Later, Kant incorporated the “ideality of space and time” into his Critique of Pure Reason.
The dramatic conflict in Fanny and Alexander is between pagans and Christians. The pagans win when they ally themselves with the Jews. The Jews in question, however, are not believers in the God of the Bible, who is the Christian God as well. Instead, Isak and Ismael believe in the same pantheistic paganism as Emilie. This metaphysics makes possible Isak’s and Ismael’s magical interventions.
Bergman’s treatment of the Jews in Fanny and Alexander is interesting in light of his biography. The young Ingmar Bergman was an ardent National Socialist. The war and the Holocaust changed his thinking. It is tempting to read Fanny and Alexander as a Swedish pagan and former National Socialist’s attempt to envision a rapprochement with the Jews in the form of an alliance against Christianity.
But it doesn’t work out that neatly. For one thing, one has to ask if Isak’s homosexual and pedophilic attentions toward Alexander are part of Bergman’s vision of utopia or a lingering trace of his darker, youthful views of Jews.
Despite the unsettling elements in the last act, Fanny and Alexander is a deeply moving and life-affirming film. It will captivate you as a period drama, draw you in deeper with its complex studies of character, leave you awe-struck as the old gods awaken—with the help of two Jewish Lokis—to shatter the gothic cathedrals, then deposit you back in the flower garlanded little world of the Ekdahls for another pagan revelry.