Widgets Magazine

Throwback Thursday: Bergman ended his career on a high note with ‘Fanny and Alexander’

Welcome to “Throwback Thursdays,” a new film feature at the Stanford Daily. Every Thursday (hopefully), the Arts & Life section will publish reviews highlighting older or more obscure works — sometimes both — that are currently not playing in traditional theaters. This week, we’ll be focusing on Ingmar Bergman’s final theatrical release, 1982’s “Fanny and Alexander.” A captivating tale about childhood and the power of fiction, it delighted our critic Elaine Kim.

“Fanny and Alexander”

“Ei blot til lyst,” or “not just for pleasure,” are the first words that appear in Ingmar Bergman’s last theatrical film “Fanny and Alexander.” They come to us as a candle-lit inscription etched upon a puppet theatre, emblazoned on the screen. And they are immediately followed by Alexander’s cherubic, prepubescent face — which appears on screen framed by the mini stage, while trembling notes from a violin follow his every movement. It’s a magical, fantastical opening sequence to a movie that Bergman intended as his swan song and a reflection on his own life and art.

The film begins with a large family Christmas party, and as with any patrician gathering, this party is laden with inebriety, loneliness, alienation and looming death. But all this is oblivious to Alexander and his younger sister Fanny. Though they may occupy the same physical space as the adults, they live in a private world of their own, drawn into this artificial existence by the protective walls of their own innocence. The children do not bother themselves with the rest of the family’s problems. Instead, they keep themselves busy with the lovely trinkets and toys that abound throughout their house, some of which seem to come to life under the spell of Alexander’s vivid imagination.

Though the title of Bergman’s work indicates that this will be a tale of two siblings, the camera especially dotes on Alexander Ekdahl and his wide calf eyes. And it is his journey that will power the overall plot of the film. Still, Bergman’s camera is not ungenerous. The story spares time to probe the lives of Alexander and Fanny’s grandmother, an aging matriarch; their bankrupt uncle; their philandering uncle and his cherubic mistress and the family chambermaid Maj in this sprawling, 3-hour masterpiece about the power of fantasy and make-believe.

Because as disparate as these characters are, they are all united in their struggle to preserve this “little world” of make-believe. As a unit, the Ekdahl family finds this microcosm in the theatre. The gorgeous drapes they hang from every wall in their familial abode resemble stage curtains, making every shot look like the characters are onstage. Oscar, Alexander’s father, touts the theatre as “a chance to forget, for a while, the harsh world outside.” And he spends his days working as an actor for the family-owned playhouse.

But soon, tragically, life invades on the little world of Ekdahl family. While playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Oscar looks out at the audience, heartbroken, and he spouts the following words, poisoned with incredulity: “What am I doing here? Why am I acting?”

He is not merely bewildered. He is terminally ill.

And soon, he will die.

After which, nothing will be the same. In an attempt to preserve the family unit — and her own sanity — Emelie, the mother of the two children, remarries a bishop who derives his tight-lipped authority from the Bible. Religion, then, gives the bishop a justification to create his own microcosm, one that keeps the Emelie and her children locked in. In this world, minimalist living is coupled with severity, and the idea that the bishop and his lifestyle might be resented by others is unfathomable. His world is a world without color. The walls of his home seem to be bled of all life, and tall tales are severely punished with a cane.

And yet, Bergman understands that these two microcosms share more in common than one would think. The more interesting moment of the film emerges when religion spills into mysticism. In classic Bergman style, Alexander has an encounter with God, who only reveals himself in the form of oversized puppet that crumples to the floor.

This is all revealed to be a prank pulled on the poor Alexander. But this prank does not kill the desire for the fantastic in Alexander. In fact, he justifies it. After the encounter, Alexander is led to an enchanted mummy and an androgynous psychic/madman named Ismael, who gives Alexander the gift of foresight. The entire scene is eerily executed and utterly rapturous.

But it’s hard to put a finger on where it belongs in an otherwise sober family drama.

It’s only towards the end that the story showcases the supernatural, in contrast with the stark realism of the first two thirds. This spins a web of skepticism over the veracity of these supernatural events. It possibly even spins a web over the little worlds we all envelop ourselves in.

And yet, even if these fantastical encounters that Alexander undergoes are not real, they are still important. This is a movie that understands that fantasy is “not just for pleasure” after all. As the Ekdahl grandmother reads in the last lines of the movie, “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.”

“Fanny and Alexander” can be purchased online or rented for free at Stanford’s own Media & Microtext Center, located in the basement of Green Library. Its call number is ZDVD 8777.


Contact Elaine Kim at elainekm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Elaine Kim

Elaine Kim is a frosh who hopes to decide on a high-returns, low-effort major. Her classmates often tell her, “I could never have guessed you were NOT American!” As a South Korean native, she has ambiguous feelings about this. In her free time, she wishes that she were reading Foucault, but she sleeps instead.