Fanny and Alexander
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Synopsis: Fanny and Alexander Ekdahl belong to a prosperous theatrical family in Uppsala at the beginning of the twentieth century. Oskar Ekdahl, their father, falls ill during Christmas season and passes away, leaving their mother Emilie devastated. Shortly afterwards she marries Edvard Vergerus, a rigid and demanding bishop. The two children are deeply unhappy in their cheerless new home--especially the imaginative and stubborn Alexander, who constantly butts heads with his new stepfather. Isak, a Jewish antique shop owner and longtime friend of the Ekdahl family, agrees to help with a risky scheme to rescue the children and return them to the Ekdahl family residence.
Ingmar Bergman, who started directing in 1945 with Crisis, announced that Fanny and Alexander (1982) would be his last feature film. He nonetheless continued to direct television films, some of which were shown theatrically outside of Sweden, most notably After the Rehearsal (1984), In the Presence of a Clown (1997), and Saraband (2003). However, Fanny and Alexander remains the capstone of his career: his most ambitious production (with a budget of six million dollars), one of his more accessible films, and, many feel, his most accomplished to date.
Consciously conceived as "the sum total of my life as a filmmaker," to quote Bergman himself, Fanny and Alexander balances the austere spiritual anguish of films such as Winter Light (1963) with the earthy, life-embracing humor of comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Although it is set in 1907, more than ten years before Bergman was born, the film has clear autobiographical overtones: the university town of Uppsala, where his grandmother lived, the elaborate Christmas festivities of a bygone era, real-life individuals such as the plump, lame, red-headed nursemaid, and Bergman's lifelong, dual fascination with theater and cinema as reflected in the Ekdahl family's professional association with the stage and Alexander's fascination with the magic lantern. Most importantly, the film reflects the director's complicated emotional relationship with his late parents--particularly the rituals of sin, confession and punishment that were part and parcel of life in a pastor's family. In the 1990s, Bergman would write a series of screenplays, adapted by other directors, that depicted the relationship of his real-life parents: The Best Intentions (Bille August, 1992), Sunday's Children (Daniel Bergman, 1992), and Private Confessions (Liv Ullmann, 1996).
However, this film is not merely a naked confession, and the magical, transformative power of art is far more than just one of many underlying themes. In a 1980 press conference, Bergman characterized Fanny and Alexander as a "huge tapestry filled with masses of color and people, houses and forests, mysterious haunts of caves and grottoes, secrets and night skies." Bergman thus has molded his life experiences and ideas into a precisely imagined fictional world that breathes an uncanny life of its own, animated by extraordinary performances and lushly evocative production and costume design. The film also has obvious literary roots in the plays of August Strindberg (whose introductory remarks to A Dream Play are quoted at the end of the film), E. T. A. Hoffmann's fantastic tales, and Charles Dickens' densely populated novels.
Bergman began the screenplay in the late Seventies while still residing in Munich due to ongoing conflicts with the Swedish tax authorities. (He would eventually be cleared of wrongdoing.) It quickly expanded to a book-length work that was later published separately and translated into several languages. Bergman initially conceived of the project as an international co-production to be financed primarily by producer Sir Lew Grade, who had previously backed Autumn Sonata (1978) and From the Life of the Marionettes (1980), but Grade balked at the proposed length of the film. Eventually Jorn Donner, the head of the Swedish Film Institute, managed to convince Bergman that the film would be viable using Swedish facilities. Donner was well aware that many colleagues in Sweden would object to him devoting so much of the Institute's resources on a single film project. Reflecting on this, he says: "It is quite clear that I overstepped my authority as head of the Swedish Film Institute. My reasoning was quite simple: if the Film Institute existed to support anything, then Swedish film was the obvious candidate. Its leading artist of modern times had written a screenplay which in many respects summed up his artistic career as an auteur and filmmaker. It would be a disgrace, I thought, if that film was never made." In more than one sense, then, the film marks his homecoming to Sweden.
The cast includes many longtime Bergman collaborators: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Erland Josephsson, Jarl Kulle. Max von Sydow, who was by now a major international star, was originally intended to play the role of Edvard Vergerus. However, due to a breakdown in negotiations Bergman ended up choosing Jan Malmsjo, an actor who had played a bit part in Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Considering how convincingly Malmsjo embodies the charismatic and cruel bishop, the choice seems perfect in retrospect. Gunn Wallgren, a grand dame of Swedish stage and cinema, plays the role of Helena Ekdahl, the grandmother. Tragically, she was suffering from cancer while the film was in production and passed away shortly afterwards. Borje Ahlstedt, who plays the Uncle Carl, is probably best known for his uninhibited performance as Lena's boyfriend in Vilgot Sjoman's notorious sex-and-revolution diptych I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). The film also includes younger actors such as Pernilla Wallgren, who plays Maj, and Ewa Froling, who plays Emilie and whom Bergman declared "has the look and presence of a queen." Fittingly, Froling later appeared as Regan in Bergman's stage production of King Lear.
In his 1990 memoir Images: My Life in Film, Bergman recalls that the production, which lasted some 250 days, was fraught with difficulties. He and the cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, were nearly killed by a falling crossbeam in the studio; other crew members were seriously injured in accidents, the head of the costume shop passed away, and the entire cast and crew fell ill with the flu, shutting down production for three weeks. Because Bergman was still too sick to work, the assistant director Peter Schildt filmed Oskar's funeral.
Fanny and Alexander received its premiere during the 1982 Christmas season as a 3-hour version for theatrical release; the following year, it was broadcast as a 5-hour miniseries on Swedish television. Of the approximately two hours of extra footage in the miniseries, the most striking sequence is no doubt the desert procession of flagellants that Alexander imagines while Isak reads him a story. Another significant addition is the brief scene in which Carl Ekdahl's German wife sings to her husband, a detail which more fully establishes their mutual affection before we see their bitter bedroom confrontation. We also catch a brief glimpse of the Bishop Vergerus and his family in the Christmas pageant audience, setting us up for his appearance at Oskar's funeral. Bergman himself regards the television version as "more important" and "the film I stand totally behind today," but in fact both versions have their advantages. The longer version indeed benefits from the richer characterization and more complex storyline possible in the miniseries format, but the theatrical version's relatively compact structure makes it more satisfying for a single evening's viewing without losing too much of its dramatic power. The film deservedly won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Sven Nykvist's cinematography, Anna Asp's art direction, and Marik Vos's costume design. Bergman was also nominated for Best Director, but he lost out to James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment (1983).
Executive Producer: Jorn Donner
Direction and Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Film Editor: Sylvia Ingemarsson
Art Director: Anna Asp
Set Decorator: Susanne Lingheim
Costume Designer: Marik Vos
Music: Daniel Bell, Frans Helmerson, Marianne Jacobs
Principal Cast: Bertil Guve (Alexander Ekdahl); Pernilla Allwin (Fanny Ekdahl); Allan Edwall (Oskar Ekdahl); Ewa Froling (Emilie Ekdahl); Gun Wallgren (Helena Ekdahl); Jarl Kulle (Gustav Adolf Ekdahl); Mona Malm (Alma Ekdahl); Borje Ahlstedt (Carl Ekdahl); Christina Schollin (Lydia Ekdahl); Pernilla Wallgren (Maj, the nursemaid); Jan Malmsjo (Bishop Edvard Vergerus); Marianne Aminoff (Blenda, the Bishop's Mother); Kerstin Tidelius (Henrietta, the Bishop's Sister); Harriet Andersson (Justina, the kitchen maid); Erland Josephson (Isak Jakobi); Stina Ekblad (Ismael); Mats Bergman (Aron).
by James Steffen