Ingmar Bergman would have been 100 years old next year, so in his honor Stockholm’s leading department store dedicated their annual Christmas window display to Fanny and Alexander. I can certainly see why; the opulent portrait of turn-of-the-century bourgeois Christmas festivities has captured the imagination of anyone who’s ever seen the film. In Sweden, ”a Fanny and Alexander Christmas” has become a familiar concept.
But that’s all about aesthetic values – the overwhelming buffet of food, a perfect Christmas tree, dozens of family and relatives, dancing and singing Christmas carols… In fact, Fanny and Alexander is a very dark film and its themes far from festive.
Preparing to celebrate Christmas
In 1907, the Ekdahls, an affluent family in a small Swedish town, are preparing to celebrate Christmas. All the relatives are coming home to the matriarch, Helena (Gunn Wållgren). Among them are Fanny and Alexander (Pernilla Alwin, Bertil Guwe), two young siblings whose father Oscar (Allan Edwall) is an actor at a local theater. Christmas passes without any incidents, but one day Oscar has a stroke and dies. His wife Emelie (Ewa Fröling) eventually remarries the bishop, Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), and moves together with Fanny and Alexander to his home, a forbidding place where the bishop’s strict rules dominate life. As he tries to impose his will on the children, Alexander keeps seeing the ghost of his father…
Bergman’s last feature
Bergman’s plan was to end his career with this film; it’s his last feature, but he went on to direct a few TV movies and wrote screenplays. Bergman based the story on his childhood and it’s obvious that he has good and bad things to say about it. Essentially, the two children who are the focus of the story enjoy a privileged and safe upbringing in their home; there’s money and loving relatives, especially the inspiring, dear father who’s the ideal adult role model for a child. Perhaps this was someone Bergman didn’t have in his life, because it’s his real-life dad, Lutheran minister Erik Bergman, who inspired the ”villain” of the piece. Singer Jan Malmsjö is tremendously good in a dramatic performance as the bishop who’s become sort of an iconic horror figure in Swedish cinema (similar to the sadistic teacher in Torment (1944), another film Bergman wrote).
Anna Asp’s production design emphasizes the difference between the siblings’ lives before and after Oscar’s death; Christmas is celebrated in a warm, richly furnished home with lots of colors, but the bishop’s house is cold and in stark white. The story becomes increasingly disturbing as it goes along and Alexander is haunted by visions. At the same time, Bergman offers hope in the shape of good relatives and friends, and a mother who gains the courage to change and act. Erland Josephson is fun to watch as a Jewish suitor to Wållgren who becomes a key conspirator in a plot to liberate Fanny and Alexander from the clutches of their stepfather.
The film is packed with prominent actors from Swedish stage and screen, most of whom get at least one or two memorable scenes (especially in the miniseries version), including Börje Ahlstedt who takes a break from the Christmas dinner table to treat the children to an impressive farting contest. Bergman also puts his love for the theater on display; there are several references to plays, thematically ”Hamlet” in particular.
To watch Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s final masterpiece, is a haunting experience, showing a filmmaker in complete control of story, performances and visuals. It is also an example of where Bergman has managed to reach a mass audience in Sweden and created something lasting that now even inspires window displays.
Fanny and Alexander 1982-Sweden-France-West Germany. 188 min. Color. Produced by Jörn Donner. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Production Design: Anna Asp. Costume Design: Marik Vos. Cast: Pernilla Alwin (Fanny Ekdahl), Bertil Guwe (Alexander Ekdahl), Gunn Wållgren (Helena Ekdahl), Allan Edwall, Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö… Erland Josephson, Harriet Andersson, Börje Ahlstedt, Gunnar Björnstrand, Mats Bergman, Stina Ekblad, Jarl Kulle, Mona Malm, Christina Schollin, Pernilla August, Sonya Hedenbratt, Käbi Laretei, Gösta Prüzelius, Pernilla Wahlgren, Peter Stormare, Sune Mangs, Ernst Günther, Lena Olin.
Trivia: Original title: Fanny och Alexander. Alternative running time: 197 min. Also shown as a 312-minute miniseries. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann were considered for roles. Ahlstedt also played his role in Sunday’s Children (1992) and In the Presence of a Clown (1997).
Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Film. BAFTA: Best Cinematography.
Last word: “‘Fanny and Alexander’ has two ‘godfathers’. There is […] an illustration by E. T. A. Hoffman’s stories that had haunted me time and time again, a picture from ‘The Nutcracker’. Two children are quivering close together in the twilight of Christmas Eve, waiting impatiently for the candles on the tree to be lighted and the doors to the living room to be opened. It is that scene that gave me the idea of beginning ‘Fanny and Alexander’ with a Christmas celebration. The second godfather is Dickens: the bishop and his home, the Jew in his boutique of fantasies, the children as victims; the contrast between flourishing outside life and a closed world in black and white.” (Bergman, “Images”)