In the documentary ‘A Bergman Tapestry’ which accompanies the five-hour, four-part TV version of Fanny and Alexander Erland Josephson mentions that a normal Bergman film took 38 days to film but Fanny took seven months. It also needed one year of pre-production, an incredibly long time by Swedish standards. It was well worth it. All the extra time and effort come through in this gorgeous, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking epic.
The story begins with a short prologue in which Alexander, alone in his house, seems to have a premonition of death; it establishes a wonderfully magical, menacing atmosphere that we’ll return to for the last few hours of the film. Then the main action begins. It’s Sweden in 1907 and Alexander and his younger sister, Fanny, both of them less than 10 years old, are part of a large, wealthy family boisterously celebrating Christmas. This first hour or so is quite interesting but it is mainly scene-setting and one needs to be a little patient; it’s only in the second episode that the real drama begins. I defy anyone, however much they think they can live without a five-hour Swedish movie, to not be enthralled from that point on.
Initially a lot of time is spent on their father’s two brothers, Carl and Gustav Adolf, both of them pathetic buffoons in a way, the former a miserable one, the latter more cheerful. They both complain of over-exertion and show signs of having weak hearts, and we wonder if it is they who will keel over dead. But no, in the second episode it’s Alexander’s actor-father, the kindest and most decent of the brothers, who collapses whilst rehearsing Hamlet. And soon their naive widowed mother, Emilie (Ewa Froling) is re-married- to the creepiest clergyman you'll ever see on film, Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo).
This story is so powerful because it’s not just about young children losing their father, it’s about how a parent’s early death can be just the start of your troubles. Since the children have to go live with a cruel step-parent, it may remind you of fairy-tales like Snow White, but we are a very long way from any Disneyfied view of reality here. We see Alexander’s hatred of the bishop burning in his eyes even before their first verbal disagreements. At the marriage ceremony between his mother and this odious man his cheeks are red as if he’s been crying for hours. He can’t quite believe how awful his life has suddenly become. Meanwhile, the sad ghost of his dead father is roaming around the house, visible only to the two children at first; later he will also appear to their beloved grandmother.
When the bishop tells Emilie that she and the children must give up all their nice clothes, their toys, their creature comforts and come to his house without any possessions at all, his sinister nature is clear and you expect her to rebel. At first she does rebel just a little, but soon she’s acceding to his every wish for her own mysterious reasons and you want to scream, and maybe strangle her a little. The austerity of this new home - the rigid discipline, the lifeless meals, the constant kneeling down for prayers - is a nasty shock to the children, who have been used to a liberated and joyful family life. The bishop’s relatives and servants are all creepy and weird-looking, especially the bovine bed-ridden aunt, ‘that tub of lard that has to be fed’, as Alexander puts it. Back in the Ekdahl home, the kids’ grand-mother (Gunn Wallgren) and her boyfriend, Isak, a Jewish antiques dealer (Erland Josephson), who together form the warm beating heart of the film, are the first to realise that this new marriage is going to work out very badly for the kids.
Parts three and four are just one brilliant scene after another. In episode three we cross-cut between Fanny and Alexander’s horrific experiences in the bishop’s house and the Ekdahl summer retreat, where the décor and the costumes are uniformly white and the focus is on the grandmother sitting alone by the window, worried about the children. The two kids have by this point started literally praying for the bishop’s death and even Emilie has realised she’s made a mistake. We get a brutally chilling scene of the bishop caning Alexander and reducing him to tears, then the remorseful Emilie visiting the grand-mother, talking of how violently she hates ‘that man’, spitting the words out with such force that it’s bone-rattling, before we return to Alexander locked in the attic and some supernatural goings-on that scared the life out of me; a lot of horror directors could learn from this scene.
We go back to the summer house and the two remaining Ekdahl brothers and their wives arrive merrily back from their boat-trip. At first one can only think of how selfish and blasé these uncles and aunts seem; how can they laugh so vivaciously while at the same time their nephew is being imprisoned and savagely beaten? But when a little while later we see Gustav Adolf expounding on his feelings about the maid he has impregnated (the main sub-plot of the movie), it felt to me far more stirring and emotional than similar outbursts earlier in the film, and I think it’s just because the more intense tone of the movie was now getting to me, having collateral effects. This is what great works of art do after all; they pummel you and soften you up with a few great scenes so that you have a heightened reaction to everything afterwards, even passages that beforehand would have appeared ordinary.
Three stand-out scenes then follow. The first is Isak’s amazing abduction of the children. It's quite literally ‘astounding’ since it involves something that could not possibly be. This illogicality left some viewers demanding answers, though I’d imagine that many others were like me so caught up in the film by this point that it just seemed agreeably magical. The second is when we stop a while inside the house where Isak has secured the children. In their red womb of a bedroom - the colours here are striking and unnaturally deep - the old man regales them with a beautiful parable. Erland Josephson’ voice, always a pleasure to listen to, is here a thing of rare incantatory beauty. He tells of how the ‘hopes, fears and longings’ and the cries for deliverance of humans throughout thousands of years condense into a cloud over a high mountain, then come down again as rain to form the streams that will quench the thirst of the next generation. It will at least quench the thirst of those who can tear themselves away from the arid desert that is the standard pathway in life, where the mirage of an ‘ultimate destination’ tempts many to stay.
The third unmissable scene is the confrontation between the two uncles and the Bishop. I’m still trying to work out whether this is my favourite scene in any movie ever. It’s certainly a contender. During the course of a 'civilised' sit-down chat where the bishop demands the return of the children and the uncles demand the release of Emilie, the veiled threats passed between the two parties become less and less veiled (Swedish sounds like a good, earthy language to insult someone in) and you watch thinking how you didn't know you could have so much fun, in a foreign 'arthouse' movie, seeing a brutal bully get shouted at. You’re filled with rage and yet the way Gustav Adolf gets so worked up is hilarious, and you want to applaud him for ‘sticking it’ to this nasty old clergyman. The ‘buffoons’ (Carl looks composed and for the first time in the film isn’t sweating terribly) have finally redeemed themselves. It’s a cliché to talk about films that make you both ‘laugh and cry' but this scene really does make you laugh and cry (and cheer), all within the space of 15 minutes. Off the top of my head I can think of no other scene in cinema that twisted my emotions around in such a beautiful, exasperating, liberating way.
Two minor but very interesting characters add immeasurably to the final hour of the film: Isak’s nephew, Aron (Mats Bergman, the director's son), who charms and bamboozles Alexander with his puppet performances, and Ismael, his strange isolated brother (he’s a rather androgynous brother too since he’s played by an actress, Stina Ekblad). Ismael seems to act as Alexander’s psychic guide through the conflagration that is the film’s dramatic climax. This awe-inspiring, dream-like finale gives the necessary cathartic end to the tension built up from witnessing all the cruelty the children have gone through. And finally I should mention the wonderful dinner-party speech given by Gustav Adolf in the closing moments. He talks of how they have returned to safety, wisdom and order after a period of fear and confusion and of the warmth he feels for everyone around him. Many have taken this as a reference to Bergman’s return to Sweden after spending much of the 70’s in exile in Germany. He left after being falsely accused and arrested for tax evasion; he was so hurt by the incident that it took him a long time to forgive his homeland.
One shouldn’t forget to mention that this film is also incredibly beautiful to look at, the pinnacle of cinematographer Sven Nykvists’s career as well as Bergman’s, and a triumph too for production designer Anna Asp, who won an Oscar. The reds of the Ekdahl Christmas party, the whites of the summer house, the austerely beautiful greys of the bishop’s home, the warm, dark colours of the house full of puppets: all of them look amazing. Until Cries and Whispers Bergman films weren’t particularly known for their production design but with that film and The Serpent’s Egg (where he recreated Berlin in the 20’s) he started to show far more interest in creating rich, colourful sets that would complement his screenplays, and here that trend reaches its apotheosis. Originally he was planning to make Fanny and Alexander abroad because he didn’t think Sweden had all the craftsmen needed to do the job. In the end he thankfully relented and Swedish craftsmen more than proved their worth.
Above all else though, this film is a triumph of dramatic writing and acting. There are a few Bergman regulars in the cast of actors: Erland Josephson and Harriett Andersson have quite major roles, and Gunnar Bjornstrand has a small one. Jarl Kulle, who plays Gustav Adolf, had also been in a few Bergman movies of the 50’s and 60’s. But many of the faces will be new to the average Bergman fan. Stina Ekblad and Mats Bergman I have mentioned already. Also notable are the wonderful Gunn Wallgren who plays the grandmother, Pernilla August as the maid Maj, and Ewa Froling as Emilie.
And in the end this story rests on the conflict between two characters and the magnificent performances of two people, Jan Malmsjo as the Bishop and Bertil Guve as Alexander. I’d never seen either of them before: I’ve never forgotten either of them since. The Bishop is so obviously wrong in almost everything he does and yet so sure of himself, so self-righteous, that he’s one of the most maddening villains ever put on screen. And Bertil Guve handles every scene with aplomb - it’s surely one of the best child performances ever seen in a film - and what’s more he has a wonderfully innocent, sympathetic face. Alexander as a character has been an important part of my life ever since I first saw this film as a teenager. In the DVD extras when I saw the now-grown Bertil Guve discussing the film it was a bit of a shock because it was a reminder that Fanny and Alexander is just a film and that little boy was not actually real. Whilst I know this to be the rational truth, there’s a large part of me that still refuses to believe it.
Bertil Guve, then and now