“Traditionally, the Ekdahls give a party to the theatre staff down on the stage. The guests are what you’d call a rather mixed lot. Quite different from what we’re used to here in the theater restaurant. Nevertheless, I don’t want to see any supercilious glances, snootiness or raised eyebrows. I want to see generosity, warmth and kindness. Is that clear?”
Early on in Ingmar Bergman’s lavish family epic “Fanny and Alexander,” the speech above is given by a restaurateur to his staff – begging them to be welcoming to their special guests. To me it always feels that beckoning was from the director to himself – one of the most cerebral giants of cinema – reminding himself to create a work of art that would engage the mind – but be immensely accessible. This is a helluva crowd-pleasing arthouse masterpiece. It also makes for the perfect Christmas holiday movie for those who want more intellectual stimulation during this time of year. The first hour of the film takes place during one of the most opulent yuletide celebrations ever captured on film.
Bergman had intended this to be his last film – and in its ambition, introspection and biographical notes you can sense the artist looking back – not only at his life – but at his relationship with art. In its central conflict – an unforgivingly strict religious stepfather and the young dreamer who riles against him — and the rules — and who cherishes creativity, one can feel what a deeply personal statement this work is. “Imagination is a splendid thing, a mighty force, a gift from God. It’s held in trust for us by the great artists, writers and musicians,” says the bishop.
At the very top of the film, we see a stage – and it’s revealed that it is a miniature. The back wall will lift and we see young Alexander playing with the small figures in the proscenium as if they were puppets. We are about to experience the events the way this young artist remembers them. Above the theatre the words “Not for pleasure alone” are emblazoned. The theatrical aspect is important. Keep that in mind as you witness the proceedings. Bergman will present the scenes to you in a very formal fashion – using the confines of a playhouse as a frame.
It is 1907, and it’s Christmas Eve. Helen, the matriarch of a big and wealthy theatrical family is getting ready for the festivities. “This is the 43rd Christmas we’re celebrating together,” says Ester, one of the many servants who will also be included in the dinner and the merriment. The house is filled with gorgeous furnishings and everything is glowing in tones of red and gold. Helen has three grown sons. Oscar runs the family theatre and is married to Emile who is also an actress. Their two children are Fanny and Alexander. Oscar says of the theatre: “We give the people who come here a chance to forget for a few short moments….the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love.” Carl is his brother – a professor who suffers from “insomnia, poverty and humiliation.” Gustav Adolf is the youngest and the most lustful. He’s married to Alma, who indulges him in his extramarital affairs — including carrying on with one of the maids who’s carrying his child.
Alexander has inherited his family’s passion for the theatre and cherishes a gift he receives – a magic lantern with which he can project pictures on a wall and create stories – specifically ghost stories. Soon after the merriment of December ends, Helen says “the happy, splendid life is over, and the horrible, dirty life engulfs us. That’s the way it is.” Her son Oscar has a stroke while performing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and dies. Emile – left alone to raise her two children – marries a harsh bishop, Edvard Bergerus, who lives in an extremely ascetic household and imposes on Fanny and Alexander a very strict way of living. Edvard in particular opposes Alexander’s vivid storytelling propensities. “Can you tell me what a lie is and what the truth is?” challenges Edvard. Emile eventually has to choose between her children and her new husband. “Don’t play Hamlet my son,” she pleads with Alexander. “I’m not queen Gertrude, your kind stepfather isn’t the King of Denmark, and this is not Elsinore Castle, even if it does look rather gloomy.”
Sven Nykvist – the magician cinematographer – won an Academy Award for his work on this film – and it’s phenomenal. The lavishness of the Christmas sequence with candles flickering everywhere, giving so much warmth and beauty. And then he dramatically contrasts it with the austerity of the bishop’s world – culminating in this glimmeringly optimistic lighting for the dual baptism that closes the film. Marik Vos-Lundh’s costumes were also celebrated with an Oscar as was the elaborate art direction by Anna Asp.
This is a quintessential holiday movie that will tackle themes of mortality, religion, family, magic and life. It is a master work by a master filmmaker.
The enigmatic character of Isak pronounces: “We’re surrounded by different realities, one on top of the other. There are swarms of ghosts, spirits, phantoms, souls, poltergeists, angels and demons. He says the smallest pebble has a life of its own.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime and Apple TV.
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Jan Malmsjö, Börje Ahlstedt, Anna Bergman, Gunn Wållgren, Kristina Adolphson, Erland Josephson, Mats Bergman and Jarl Kulle
Bringing “Fanny and Alexander” to the Screen
Bergman began the screenplay in the late Seventies while still residing in Munich due to ongoing conflicts with the Swedish tax authorities. (He would eventually be cleared of wrongdoing.) It quickly expanded to a book-length work that was later published separately and translated into several languages. Bergman initially conceived of the project as an international co-production to be financed primarily by producer Sir Lew Grade, who had previously backed “Autumn Sonata” (1978) and “From the Life of the Marionettes” (1980), but Grade balked at the proposed length of the film. Eventually Jorn Donner, the head of the Swedish Film Institute, managed to convince Bergman that the film would be viable using Swedish facilities. Donner was well aware that many colleagues in Sweden would object to him devoting so much of the Institute’s resources on a single film project. Reflecting on this, he says: “It is quite clear that I overstepped my authority as head of the Swedish Film Institute. My reasoning was quite simple: if the Film Institute existed to support anything, then Swedish film was the obvious candidate. Its leading artist of modern times had written a screenplay which in many respects summed up his artistic career as an auteur and filmmaker. It would be a disgrace, I thought, if that film was never made.” In more than one sense, then, the film marks his homecoming to Sweden. (tcm.com)
About Cinematographer Sven Nykvist
Born Sven Vilhem Nykvist on 3 December 1922 in Moheda, Kronobergs län, the son of non-conformist missionaries to Africa. Nykvist spent his childhood in Sweden whilst his parents spent four-year stints in Africa. In their parents’ absence, the Nykvist children lived in a Christian children’s home in Stockholm. His parents moved back to Sweden for good when Sven was ten years old, settling in Rönninge just outside Stockholm. In secondary school he met a number of people who would later make a name for themselves in Swedish theatre and cinema, including Keve Hjelm, Kenne Fant and Torsten Lilliecrona. Having developed an interest in filming at an early age, Nykvist was just 15 years old when he bought his first 8mm camera. His father shared his interest, allowing his son to study the subject despite its somewhat suspect reputation in the nonconformist circles in which the family moved. Prior to his 20th birthday, Nykvist got a job in 1941 with Sandrews as an assistant cameraman. Thus from an early age he came into contact with many of the leading names of Swedish cinema of the day: Hasse Ekman, Alf Sjöberg (a major influence on picture composition, according to Nykvist himself), Viveca Lindfors, Lorens Marmstedt and Julius Jaenzon (the cameraman for Victor Sjöström’s silent films). Nykvist made his debut as principal cinematographer with the hugely popular “Barnen från Frostmofjället” in 1945. During the 1940s and 50s he made some 30 or so features with directors including Ivar Johansson, Arne Mattsson (known by Nykvist as ‘the dolly’ for his love of lengthy takes) and Alf Sjöberg. He also made documentaries, including one celebrated film about Albert Schweitzer that required him to spend a considerable time in the Congo, in the footsteps of his parents. In 1953 Nykvist shot the interiors for “Sawdust and Tinsel,” pulling off an amazing 180-degree pan of Åke Grönberg holding a pistol. This shot made such an impression on Bergman that he is reputed to have said that he wanted Nykvist for all his films going forward. However, when Bergman was about to make Dreams, Nykvist was on Iceland working with Mattsson on “Salka Valka.” And by the time he came back, Bergman had left Sandrews for Svensk Filmindustri, thereby resuming his partnership with Gunnar Fischer. Nykvist resumed his work with Bergman on “The Virgin Spring” in 1960, when Gunnar Fischer was on secondment to Walt Disney Pictures. Sandrews had released Nykvist to make the film on condition that they could borrow Bibi Andersson, contracted at the time to Svensk Filmindustri.
From “Through a Glass Darkly” onwards, Nykvist replaced Gunnar Fischer as Bergman’s cinematographer of choice. Their pioneering work concentrated on the emotional impact of lighting and colour levels, “Winter Light” and “Cries and Whispers” being perhaps the most obvious examples of this approach. Having won an Oscar for best cinematography with the latter film, Nykvist, who had worked abroad only sporadically since the 1950s, found himself in increasing demand outside Sweden. The many celebrated directors with whom he worked include Louis Malle, Roman Polanski, Paul Mazursky, Volker Schlöndorff, Peter Brook and Woody Allen. However, working in Hollywood was not so straightforward as might be expected, requiring membership of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). Following an interview he became the first European to be accepted into the society. Furthermore, working in America, regulations did not permit him to operate the camera himself, i.e. to sit at the camera and see the image in the viewfinder. This required a major adjustment for Nykvist, who in almost 80 films had always operated the camera himself. His work with Bergman continued parallel to his international career, and it was another Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander, that won him his second Oscar. Nykvist’s ability to work quickly and efficiently with natural lighting, his simple yet intensely expressive images, and his humble, reflective personality made him one of the most sought-after cameramen in the world. During the 1990s he worked with directors including Lasse Hallström in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and Liv Ullmann in Kristin Lavransdatter and “Private Confessions.” He was the cameraman for the directorial debuts of both Erland Josephson and Max von Sydow, and he also directed a film together with Josephson and Ingrid Thulin. Nykvist has also directed features entirely by himself, most notably the Oscar-nominated “Oxen” in 1991, in which Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann both acted. In 1998 Sven Nykvist was diagnosed with aphasia and retired from the cinema. The year before he had made Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” his 123rd and final film. For 30 of his 55 years in the business, Sven Nykvist was one of the most celebrated and influential cinematographers in the world. His son, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist, is himself a filmmaker who has made a documentary about his father, “Light Keeps Me Company,” in which several colleagues from Nykvist’s films with Bergman also took part. Sven Nykvist passed away 20 September 2006 in Stockholm. (ingmarbergman.se)
About Costume Designer Marik Vos-Lundh
Marik Vos knew by the age of twelve that she wanted to be a set designer. But for want of any formal training course for the profession she put together her own. She attended the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm where she studies “decorative painting”, perspective theory and watercolour. At the same time she studied at Otte Sköld’s School of Painting and became a pupil of the artist and ceramist Sven Erik Skawonius at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in order to immerse herself in genuine set design. In 1944 she was asked to join the Royal Dramatic Theatre and remained its faithful servant for 40 years. From 1947 onwards she alternated as costume designer/costume maker and set designer for more that 120 productions. Her debut as a theatrical set designer came with Olof Molander’s production of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” which was followed by many years of collaboration with directors such as Alf Sjöberg, Mimi Pollak, Rune Carlsten, Per-Axel Branner, Bengt Ekeroth and not least Ingmar Bergman. Their first production together was another Chekov play, “The Seagull” in 1961, for which Vos was responsible for both the sets and the costumes. Bergman soon drew Vos over to film, and it is mainly for their fruitful partnership that she became best known. As a novice in the film business Vos forgot some costume items on the first day of the shoot for “The Virgin Spring” (Jungfrukällan, 1961) she was given some sound advice by Bergman. From then onwards their partnership was characterised by a shared philosophy of the costume as an actor’s second skin, and Vos was always keen to make sure that her actors were comfortable in the clothes she created for them.
They also saw eye-to-eye on set design, in which the dominant and pervasive colour created the atmosphere. The blood red rooms in “Cries and Whispers” (“Viskningar och rop,” 1973), in which the women of the film are in stark contrast in their white and black turn-of-the-century clothes, made visual film history. Vos was equally at home creating barrenness, as in her set designs for Bergman’s “The Hour of the Wolf” (“Vargtimmen,” 1968), and character, as in Gunnel Lindblom’s Eastern European-tinged role in “The Silence” (“Tystnaden,” Bergman, 1963). In 1984 her career was crowned with an Oscar for the costume design of “Fanny and Alexander” (“Fanny och Alexander,” Bergman, 1982). For her, the film was an arduous, exciting and enjoyable task, which she colourfully describes in her book “Dräkterna i dramat – mitt år med Fanny och Alexander” (“Costumes in the Drama – My Year with Fanny and Alexander”). Her guiding principle while working on this mammoth project, requiring 250 costumes in everything from homespun to silk, was Bergman’s directive to imagine things from a child’s perspective. In contrast with Anna Asp’s detail-rich set designs, Vos allowed the clothes to appear pared-down and not slavishly typical of their historical period. She wanted to create the film’s own reality, not to recreate an authentic version of the past. Vos regarded costume design and set design both as an autonomous art form and something that should work in symbiosis with the script and the actors. Her contribution to the film was to make concrete the director’s visions and to integrate her own vision into it. Just like Bergman she had a longstanding love of the island of Gotland, and in the 1980s she left Stockholm and moved to Vamlingbo, where she became involved with Suderlamm, an ecological project that included wool production and environmental protection and which created employment opportunities for local women. For her own part, she designed sweaters. As a film and theatre worker in the wings, Marik Vos rarely put herself centre stage, maintaining her humility even after her major artistic triumphs. She put her Oscar statuette on a shelf of her corner stove. But she made sure it was well turned out in a knitted woollen jumper and hat! (nordicwomeninfilm.com)
About Writer and Director Ingmar Bergman
Ernst Ingmar Bergman, born on the 14th of July, 1918 in Uppsala…Bergman was a Swedish film and theatre director, writer, theatre manager, dramatist and author. Ingmar Bergman wrote or directed more than 60 films and 170 theatrical productions, and authored over a hundred books and articles. Among his best-known works are the films “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “Persona,” as well as his autobiography “The Magic Lantern.” Throughout Bergman’s many works, one finds variations on a central theme: dysfunctional families, blood-sucking failed artists and an absent Almighty all become manifestations of our collective inability to communicate with each other. Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, and Strindberg were all enormously important influences on Bergman, not only in his theatrical work, but indeed the entirety of his artistic career. Bergman’s films are set almost exclusively in Sweden, and starting with 1961’s “Through a Glass Darkly,” they were filmed primarily on the small island of Fårö, northeast of Gotland. The international reception of Bergman’s films reflects a not inconsiderable fascination with a Scandinavian exoticism: inscrutable language, primeval nature and flaxen-haired women. The depiction of nudity and a “natural” sexuality in Bergman’s films contributed to their success. Looking over Bergman’s career, another hallmark of both his work for stage and film is the recurrent company of loyal collaborators. Some notable examples from this ensemble include the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the actors Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, and the costume designer Mago. The relationship between the life and works of the artist (despite the tendency of biographical analyses to fall victim to the cult of genius) is in the case of Ingmar Bergman as inextricably tangled as it is compelling. In countless interviews and artistic representations, and especially in “The Magic Lantern,” Bergman repeatedly referred to his childhood and its importance for his artistic vision. A number of his relatives were also creative colleagues. (ingmarbergman.se)