- Fanny and Alexander (1982) movie review: Borrowing elements from his own life and from Charles Dickens’ novels, Ingmar Bergman’s big-screen swan song is one of the acclaimed filmmaker’s most remarkable efforts.
- It should be noted that the longer version of the story – presented as a television miniseries – is far superior to the one initially released in theaters.
- Fanny and Alexander won four Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design. In addition, it was nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay.
Fanny and Alexander movie vs. miniseries: Ingmar Bergman’s excellent family drama is most effective in its longer format
Why Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 drama Fanny and Alexander / Fanny och Alexander bears its appellation is a mystery – one of many in the director’s final “filmic film.”
Fanny and Alexander should have been called instead “Alexander and Fanny” – or simply “Alexander.” After all, it most closely follows two years – from 1907 to 1909 – in the life of young, handsome, brown-haired Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve), the original “boy who sees dead people.”
His sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), is at best a third- or fourth-level supporting character. In the three-hour theatrical version she is not even mentioned by name for nearly an hour into the film.
Better yet: Fanny and Alexander should have been called “The Ekdahls,” for that whole family is central to the film, especially the children’s beautiful blonde mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling, in place of original choice Liv Ullmann).
The Fanny and Alexander plot is basically as follows:
The three sons of the widowed Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wållgren) are involved in local businesses and in the theater.
They are: Oscar (Allan Edwall), Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt, who gained fame in Vilgot Sjöman’s controversial I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue)). Oscar is Fanny and Alexander’s father, and much older than his wife Emilie.
Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) is a Jewish family friend and Helena’s ex-lover. With his nephew Aron (Mats Bergman, the director’s son), Isak runs the local puppet and magic shop in town. Aron’s brother Ismael (Stina Ekblad) is locked away because he is dangerous, preternaturally gifted, or both.
When Oscar suddenly dies during a rehearsal for Hamlet – whose narrative provides this tale’s spine – everything changes for the worse. Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö, Erland Josephson’s friend Peter in Scenes from a Marriage) insinuates himself into the life and heart of Emilie, and a year after Oscar’s death, they marry, thus dooming the two children to life under the psychotic bishop’s thumb.
Feature film vs. television miniseries
Again, there are many things that don’t make sense in Fanny and Alexander – both in the internal narrative (of the movie version) and the external aspects of the tale.
That’s because the 188-minute theatrical version, which won four Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language Film, feels chopped up when compared to the 312-minute television miniseries that is unquestionably a great film, even though it lacks the unadorned greatness of earlier Ingmar Bergman classics like Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, and, most cogently, Scenes from a Marriage (a 1973 TV miniseries also released theatrically in truncated form).
For instance, it’s unclear why the big-screen version of Fanny and Alexander retains any of the stand-alone scenes of Carl Ekdahl and his marital woes, since they go nowhere and contribute nothing to the denouement.
In fact, that character’s most notable scene shows him farting out a burning candlestick to entertain the children – a clear example that leaving just bits of a plot thread does no good to the film.
On the other hand, there are a number of sequences from the longer version that should never have been removed, e.g., the one showing Alexander’s run-in with the tormenting ghosts of the daughters of the evil Bishop Vergerus. Or the dramatic showdown between Carl, Gustav Adolf, and the bishop after the brothers engineer the rescue of the children from the bishop’s home while revealing him as a philanderer with 110,000 kronor in unpaid debts.
Depths & joys
Additionally, in the feature film Emilie’s reasons for her obviously ill match with the bishop are never made clear, but in the miniseries we early on learn that the young and beautiful wife has had lovers behind Oscar’s back. Perhaps she feels she needs to atone for betraying her dead husband by either punishing or cleansing herself with a life of asceticism.
We also learn that the bishop’s first wife and two daughters had drowned 15 years earlier, possibly because of his wrongdoing. Indeed, Bishop Vergerus turns out to be one of the great portraits of pure evil in film history, making life hell for Alexander.
In all, it’s only in the TV version (later also released in theaters) that the depths and joys of the Ekdahls’ are plumbed fully. There are longer sequences at the opening Christmas Eve party; in addition to a deeper exploration of Carl Ekdahl and his put-upon German wife Lydia (Christina Schollin), their marriage, his rages, and his own business failings and debts, which mirror the flaws of the bishop; a deeper look at Emilie’s rationale and her later hatred of the bishop; more of life at the theater, especially a great stage sequence with Ingmar Bergman’s first film star, Gunnar Björnstrand; and more of Alexander’s imagination, especially in two key scenes deleted from the feature film.
Fanny and Alexander offers some interesting bits of symbolism as well, and were it not for the sheer depth and power of the larger tale being woven, some of it might feel a bit too heavy-handed, e.g., the bishop’s barren mausoleum-like household vs. the red and lush interior of the Ekdahl residence.
It’s clear that the families approach life differently, but in a film like this such sharp contrasts are not really necessary; the characters themselves are enough. Inanimata need not be employed to underline what Bergman’s dialogue and script so aptly do.
Despite its flaws, Fanny and Alexander deserves its place in the Ingmar Bergman canon, even if it does occasionally suffer from some of what can be labeled “old artists’ syndrome,” i.e., the tendency to over-sentimentalize the past. (Bergman was 64 when Fanny and Alexander was released.)
What makes it work, especially in the longer version, is that it leisurely sets up its characters without telling us any extraneous matter that isn’t important later in the film. There is no “fat,” so to speak.
That approach allows non-Bergmaniacs to be lulled into the tale’s initial, more traditional narrative – which is more emotional than intellectual – before Bergman wallops the viewer with his deep, angst-ridden themes that audiences either love or hate.
A key to this transition are the primal screams that Emilie hurls at the cosmos when she is alone in a room with Oscar’s corpse. From that moment on, we get the Bergman mainstays: Magic, hatred, sex, suffering, atheism, perversion, monstrousness – and it all works.
Rehashing the Bergman canon
In some ways, Fanny and Alexander takes the best of the earlier Ingmar Bergman canon and reworks it beautifully.
There is the period setting akin to Wild Strawberries. There is the stench of death as in The Seventh Seal. There is the agonized preacher as in Winter Light.
There is the supernatural as in Hour of the Wolf and Cries & Whispers. There is the hint of Alexander’s sexual abuse – first by family nursemaid Maj (Pernilla Wahlgren) and later by the freakishly androgynous Ismael – reminiscent of The Silence. And so on.
Fanny and Alexander even opens with a shot of Alexander looking out at the audience, as does the unnamed boy at the start of Persona.
Fanny and Alexander DVD set
The Criterion Collection’s marvelous five-disc Fanny and Alexander DVD set is one of the best jobs that company has done.
The television version comes on two discs. The second of these also includes a good 40-minute documentary called A Bergman Tapestry, featuring interviews with Fanny and Alexander producer Jörn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schildt, and actors Bertil Guve (who now looks like a balder, thinner Guy Pearce), Ewa Fröling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson.
Another disc features Ingmar Bergman’s acclaimed but rather tedious and uninsightful The Making of Fanny and Alexander. The documentary simply shows the filming process, with no real discussion or commentary by either Bergman or any of the participants. Especially in this DVD age, this “Making of” feels both self-indulgent and pointless.
On the same disc is a far more insightful hour-long 1984 Swedish television interview, “Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film.” There is also the near-requisite stills gallery, costume sketches, and a video of Anna Asp’s models for the sets.
Another disc is a little treasure, featuring 11 several-minute-long video snippets in which Bergman introduces many of his greatest films.
‘Great film,’ but…
Lastly, it should be noted that Fanny and Alexander, while a great film – especially in its longer version – is not all that its most ardent boosters claim.
First, it’s not in any real way autobiographical, unlike Federico Fellini’s Amarcord or François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Bergman’s life was not Alexander Ekdahl’s, even though Alexander’s despair, budding atheism, and pessimism are obviously parts of Bergman.
Additionally, Fanny and Alexander is not, as many bad critics claim, an “epic.” Length is not what defines an epic, but sweep. Despite the two versions running, respectively, just over three and five hours, Fanny and Alexander is a small and intimate drama set over a relatively brief time period.
The film is not filled with grand, sweeping vistas; instead, it explores the inner terrain of the frail human psyche, especially that of a gifted child coming to terms with religion, death, angst, hatred, and the life of the artist.
Despite its divergent themes, “the inexplicable” works – and works superbly – in Fanny and Alexander. Perhaps it’s because most of the film is told from a child’s point of view, which always warps reality to its own psychological needs.
Or maybe it’s all just a child’s dream, for early on Alexander falls asleep. Does he ever really wake up?
Whatever interpretation one wants to apply to Fanny and Alexander, the film is essential to Ingmar Bergman’s canon as it captures an equally essential bit of humanity’s past – much like other superb works, e.g., Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Fanny and Alexander, in fact, will remain relevant for as long as humanity exists. After all, despite its early 20th-century Swedish setting, we all know people like the Ekdahls and the Vergeruses.
That Fanny and Alexander lets us know a bit more about ourselves is merely icing on a delicious cake, one that remains tempting even as eaten and that gets tastier with each viewing. Having seen it thrice – both versions, with comments – this claim is no mystery. Swallow it now.
Fanny and Alexander / Fanny och Alexander (1982)
Direction & Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman.
Cast: Bertil Guve. Pernilla Allwin. Ewa Fröling. Jan Malmsjö. Börje Ahlstedt. Allan Edwall. Gunn Wållgren. Jarl Kulle. Erland Josephson. Pernilla August. Harriet Andersson. Stina Ekblad. Mats Bergman. Gunnar Björnstrand. Lena Olin. Christina Schollin. Per Mattson. Anna Bergman. Nils Brandt. Mona Malm. Axel Düberg. Carl Billquist. Siv Ericks. Kristina Adolphson. Kristian Almgren. Pernilla Wahlgren. Peter Stormare.
“Fanny and Alexander Movie vs. Miniseries: Wonderful Bergman Swan Song” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Fanny and Alexander Movie vs. Miniseries: Wonderful Bergman Swan Song” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Fanny and Alexander Movie vs. Miniseries” endnotes
Jan Malmsjö, Ewa Fröling, and Bertil Guve Fanny and Alexander movie images: The Criterion Collection.
“Fanny and Alexander Movie vs. Miniseries: Wonderful Bergman Swan Song” last updated in September 2021.