A Brief Analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander
Fanny and Alexander is an important Ingmar Bergman film not only because he announced that it would be his last feature, but also because of its differences from his previous works. In addition, this movie marks Bergman’s return to his native Sweden, after spending several years in Munich because of a tax evasion charge, of which he was later cleared. It was originally created as a TV movie spanning 312 minutes, broken into four episodes, and was later cut down for theatrical release to 188 minutes. The following essay will discuss the former because of what Bergman had to say about the theatrical version when asked about cutting it down: “This was extremely troublesome, as I had to cut into the nerves and lifeblood of the film.” This analysis will focus on the film’s autobiographical aspects, Bergman’s influences, how it is dissimilar to his previous films, set design, and color tones.
On the topic of influences and inspiration, Bergman is somewhat reluctant to admit that Alexander, from whose perspective the story unfolds, is Bergman himself at a young age. It seems clear to anyone who is familiar with his background that many elements in the film are reminiscent of his childhood; and that this is where much of the story comes from. Set in his “grandmother’s world” in the mid twenties, Bergman was fist inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story Nutcracker and Mouse King, stating in an interview with Nils Petter Sundgren “That (story) always fascinated me. That’s how it started. I began by recreating the Christmas spirit and then one thing led to another.” He focused on his hometown of Uppsala, Sweden, and his grandmother’s apartment which he remembers very well. Later in the interview he states: “It was fun to recreate my Christmases, because they really happened that way. My mother was a very prominent director and we lived practically in the country side.” “It was a huge vicarage with lots of relatives.” Also in relation to the Fanny and Alexander story: Bergman’s grandmother lived in a luxurious apartment, his father was a strict religious leader whom he often challenged, some of his father’s punishments are identical to the ones in the film – ex: being locked in a cupboard, his parent’s house was rather ordinary, his mother was a theater director, he obtained a magic lantern Christmas present, his parents sent mixed messages, and the list continues. It is obvious that Bergman brought out many of his childhood memories for this story but these were not his only influence.
The storyline is also loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which happens to be the play the theater is working on when Oscar, Fanny and Alexander’s father, becomes ill and passes away. As far as the audience knows, the bishop, Edvard Vergerus, doesn’t literally kill Oscar. However, Edvard does kill what’s left of him in Emilie while she is recuperating from his death. In Emilie’s confession to Helena at the summer home she says “…but I thirsted for (religious) truth and felt I’d been living a lie.” Not only does Emilie leave the theater, of which it seems the Ekdahl family has been a part of for generations, but she completely stays away from it and all of her friends; leaving her creativity and close bonds with family and friends in the ground with Oscar. Alexander obviously plays the role of Prince Hamlet, deeply upset with his mother’s decision to marry Edvard. Similar to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Oscar’s ghost appears to Alexander multiple times throughout the film, and during the “second encounter” Oscar addresses his concern for the family to him. In the climax, Emilie nearly drinks the broth that contains three sleeping pills, but unlike Hamlet, she increases the dosage and gives it to Edvard instead; leading to his death. In addition to this influence, Bergman named the Ekdahl family after the family in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Lastly, Fanny and Alexander ends with a quote from Johan August 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.” Bergman has looked up to Strindberg nearly all of his life. Though he was punished for purchasing Strindberg’s collected works at age twelve, he was able to keep them and acted out several productions in his toy theater. Both Ibsen and Strindberg were important Scandinavian authors and most definitely played a role in several of Bergman’s works, including this one.
There are several things about Fanny and Alexander that are different from Bergman’s previous films. First off, Bergman had never used children to play primary roles and didn’t think they would be easy to work with. Contrary to his beliefs, he found that working with the actors who play Fanny and Alexander was both fun and exciting, and their energy gave him a boost. Bergman also uses the imagination of Alexander to enhance feelings and create several moments where there is a bit of tension and horror. Many of these imagination scenes, such as the dead sisters appearing in Edvard’s attic, the strange ritual scene during Isak’s story, and in the beginning when Alexander becomes frightened of the things around him, bring out Alexander’s fear of being alone. The other main thing that’s different is the apparent happiness, family values, and warmer feeling that the film expresses. Though much of the film is very serious and contains existentialist aspects, both the beginning and ending are relatively happy celebrations. Similarities to his past films can be seen in Helena’s character, who is upset before and after the Christmas party, because she is aware that she is aging and realizes that she doesn’t have many Christmases left. Alexander questions the existence of God several times throughout the movie, wishing He’d strike down Edvard and kill him so that the family would be free from the bishop’s torturous lifestyle and bitterness. Even though Bergman seems to stress the importance of family, one can’t help but notice the open affairs that take place in the film. Gustav, one of Oscar’s brothers, has a relationship with the maid named Maj, and they later have a child together in plain view of his wife Alma. Helena also has a relationship with Isak, which began when her husband was still alive. It’s difficult not to wonder if this is Bergman’s personal view, seeing that he has been married to five different women. Even though there some very serious elements, the lighter and happier themes seem to outweigh them. This film doesn’t come off feeling as harsh as Bergman’s previous films. However, the term auteur is still definitely applicable.
One of the most unforgettable aspects of this film is the visuals. Sets and wardrobes are incredibly detailed and Bergman also seems to use color tones to help set the mood. While it may contain some basic Hollywood editing techniques and a conclusion that ties several things together that is “happy,” this is clearly an art film that is complex, contains themes of existentialism, questions morals, etc. The Christmas décor and deep green and red colors in Helena’s large apartment create such a warm and inviting atmosphere. Isak’s home–full of puppets, furniture, chandeliers, and other various collections–is both mysterious yet enchanting. The lightly colored summer home gives off the feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. Edvard’s gray and barren home is cold and sterile – which greatly enhances his character and the feeling Emilie and the kids have when they move in. The celebration near the end, that is almost completely pink and white with flowers and foliage everywhere, gives off the most delightful feeling of the entire film.
In regard to color tone, which Bergman was very involved with, another conclusion might be made: he seems to use the color red to symbolize the feeling of comfort and safety. During the Christmas celebration, red it often used and it is a time when the Ekdahl family seems complete and at a very happy point in the story. Another notable appearance during this scene is the fact that nearly every adult female other than the maids are wearing red dresses, which may play into Bergman’s matriarchal viewpoint. This color is also prominently displayed as the color of the speaker of the record player at the summer house, where everything else is white, light yellow and light green. Later on, when Isak rescues Fanny and Alexander from the implied prison that Edvard has locked them in, he brings the kids to his home. Not only does Aron pull a red shade across the front door, after the kids come inside, but also in the room where they will stay; which is also almost entirely red. When Alexander asks Isak if he and Fanny will be safe, Isak responds by stating “You can put your mind at ease.” After Emilie finally escapes the vicious Edvard and is waiting for the police to come and get her for poisoning him, we see Emilie resting in Helena’s red bedroom, which was designed to represent a mother’s womb; the ultimate form of comfort and security. She is also displayed once again wearing her red robe after the celebration at the beginning of the Epilog; versus the plain white robe she wore at Edvard’s.
In conclusion, Fanny and Alexander is Bergman’s farewell to cinema. It’s an extremely rich masterpiece that contains a multitude of elements. He created a story that was influenced by several different figures and memories and the quality of the final product is something that is rarely seen. Every shot is beautiful enough to serve as a portrait, the acting is superb, the score is incredible, the mix of theater into the film gives it a wonderful feeling, the detail of the sets and wardrobes seems perfect, and the color tones greatly enhance the film. It seems appropriate to end this analysis with a quote from Bergman, again taken from the Sundgren interview. “Film has always been for me, a fantastic opportunity to knock down walls and ceiling – to stick my hand right through the membrane of reality. To reach out for other worlds. To heighten events and decisions. I think film is an incredible medium, and that perhaps we may just be standing on the threshold of its development.”
Blackwell, Marilyn. Film Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005 (pp 529-546)
Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film. 2004. DVD. The Criterion Collection under exclusive license from Swedish Film Institute.
A Bergman Tapestray. 2004.DVD. The Criterion Collection under exclusive license from Swedish Film Institute.
Björkman, Stig. In The World of Childhood. 2004.
Ten years late, but then I’ve only just had the pleasure of seeing this film for the first time. Thank you for your analysis. There is so much in this film still for me to digest.
I watch this lovely film whenever it is on Turner Classic Movies. A masterpiece in my opinion. Magical.