For us Swedish-Americans, who too often celebrate an ancestral homeland conceived by Carl Larsson and celebrate the Swedish holidays as remembered by our grandparents, the beginning and end of “Fanny and Alexander” use those cherished images to celebrate the strength of the family. This movie does not contain many of the deeply symbolic and sometimes disturbing themes of other Ingmar Bergman movies; however, it does combine reality and symbolic fantasy.
The film is tightly structured, with a prologue before the first of five acts and concluding with an epilogue. Bergman begins “Fanny and Alexander” with a 10-year-old boy behind a portable toy theater — with its maxim atop the proscenium: “Not for pleasure alone.” He wanders through his grandmother’s momentarily empty house, but a female statue beckons to him and then a hooded figure with a scythe shuffles down the hall. This reveals two things: 1) We share the boy’s perspective; and 2) we realize the physical and fantastic are equally real and powerful for this boy.

The first act
We all feel right at home at the Ekdahl family’s Christmas celebration, which introduces us to most of the characters. Many family members are at the theatre performing the nativity play for the townspeople, after which the small cast and crew are invited to the home for the traditional Julbord. Don’t you begin your celebration with a line dance through all the rooms of your home, singing “Nu är det Jul igen”? Well then, you’ll feel right at home with the Ekdahls.
Before the family all arrives we see Helene, the matriarchal widow, making last minute arrangements with the family’s half dozen maids. Then she can excuse herself to welcome “Uncle” Isak, her lover before marrying, her dearest and oldest friend. They share a moment together before the family arrives, as they will after everyone leaves and she stays up for Julotta. But now, glancing out the window, she sees the family arriving.
Her three sons and their wives, aunts and children all come in. Oscar and Emilie are parents to Fanny and Alexander. Oscar runs the theater, Emilie is the star. The widow’s second son, Carl, is an unsuccessful professor and married to Lydia, a German woman whom he berates. The youngest son is the jovial Gustaf Adolf (a comment on the old king?) with his sexy wife, Alma, who allows Gustaf’s philandering with Alexander’s “nursemaid” Maj. That glorious night of feasting and revelry, including Oscar’s reading of the Gospel, is warm and joyous in color and activity. Each character is introduced, both their strengths and weaknesses.
The next day, while the cast is rehearsing “Hamlet,” Oscar has a stroke on stage, while Alexander is watching. Oscar is rushed home and dies after trying to say farewell to each of his immediate family and asking Emilie to take care of their theater.
Both children later awake in the night to see their father’s ghost tinkling the piano keys and looking sadly at them. At the funeral procession, Alexander is whispering a litany of swears that only Fanny beside him can hear; and he leaves the service when he sees his father’s ghost observing them. The minister returns and officiously consoles the widow.


Mounting desperation
During the summer we learn that Emilie, seeking spiritual relief for herself and her children, has agreed to marry Bishop Vergius. When she announces this, we - and they - sense doom in his strict piety. This is reinforced when he insists she and the children are to come to live in his bishop’s “palace” shorn of everything from their past. There, the children are treated as prisoners (locked doors, barred windows, poor and skimpy rations) by the bishop’s mother, aunts and maids, all of whom are sinister and adore the minister’s righteous rule.
Scene by scene the desperation of mother and children mounts as the bishop becomes ever more stern and cruel. Eventually he brutally canes the boy, and Emilie discovers her battered son in the attic. Shortly after this, Maj mentions to Helene that she’s worried because she has not received replies to her letters to Alexander. Emilie herself drops in on Helene to indicate how the bishop mistreats her and the children; how they all hate him and will do anything to escape; and that she is pregnant with the bishop’s child. Worst of all, she cannot leave him, for the law would give him custody of the children.

In the next act, Isak magically steals away the children. When he brings them to his home, the children feel safe, but the home, a labyrinth of used goods is also a magical mystery tour. Acts of magic and surreal mysticism fill these scenes as they do the entire movie, and Isak’s mysterious son Ismael seems to bond with Alexander. He mentors him, somehow “knowing” that Alexander hates someone, and “teaches” him to put a curse upon the bishop.
Sure enough, in the next scene the pregnant Emilie is sitting with a warm cup of broth when the bishop comes in. She is not drinking the broth, and he asks if he could have a sip. In time he drinks the whole cup and begins to feel tired. When he is woozy, Emilie says she wanted to commit suicide but thought better of it, having added a double dose of sedatives to his drink. She tells him she and the children will escape him while he dozes.
After she leaves we see an aunt reaching to turn down the gas lamp beside her bed, knocking it over and setting aflame her bedroom and herself. Both she and the bishop die in the fire and the police cannot blame anyone.
The conclusion finds the entire Ekdahl family re-united once again at a summer feast, celebrating Emilie and Maj’s two baby girls. What gives particular poignancy to this scene is the way Gustaf — loving both girls, sees the family future in all the children at the party and the bliss of the whole family, come what may. “Carpe Diem” is his benefice, may they enjoy the blessings of each day. Before the family he pronounces a “benediction” similar to Oscar’s “introit” to the cast after their nativity play at the beginning of the film. These initial and final speeches are Bergman’s messages to us.

Behind the scenes
It must be acknowledged that the level of acting by the entire cast is extraordinary. It is remarkable that though Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow and Ingrid Bergman had been considered for the roles of Emilie, Bishop Edvard Vergerus and Helene, they did not participate, which allowed us to savor the superb performances in those roles of Ewa Fröhlig, Jan Malmsjö and Gunn Wållgren, as well as Bertil Guve as Alexander. I am always amazed at how Bergman’s troupe took on such a variety of characters, but was astounded to discover that Harriet Andersson was the bishop’s mousy maid, Justine, along with other favorite Bergman actors: Jarl Kulle, Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson. All the characters are vital and therefore memorable; their collegial accomplishment is a master class in how the whole is greater than their collective efforts, in realizing Bergman’s creative vision.
The Criterion collection for “Fanny and Alexander” is really a collector’s item. It consists not only of this 118-minute film, but also of the 5-hour, 6-episode TV series (among the longest films in history) that this shorter film was excerpted from — which longer work, to the cognoscenti is even more remarkable — as well as the “Fanny and Alexander Document,” a documentary on the making of this miracle. All three of these creations are included in Criterion’s collection.
This excellence was appreciated at the time and even more so today. With a cast of 60 speaking parts (and 120 costumes for the principal actors) and more than a thousand extras (and as many costumes), this was the most costly ($7 million) Swedish film at the time and for many years thereafter, taking half a year to film, not counting editing.
“Fanny and Alexander” was one of Bergman’s most popular films in his own country and grossed $6,783,304 in North America. It won four Oscars — Best Foreign Language Film (Bergman); Best Cinematography (Sven Nykvist); Best Art Direction (Anna Asp and Susanne Lingheim); and Best Costume Design (Marik Vos-Lundh) — and was nominated for an additional two — Best Director (Bergman); and Best Original Screenplay (Bergman).

Finally at the end of the film, Emilie has returned to the theater and hands Helene the script to Strindberg’s “Dream Play.” She’s teased by the opportunity to return to the stage with Emilie and begins to read. Alexander comes to join her on the sofa, laying his head his farmor’s lap, and she reads aloud Strindberg’s wisdom: “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."

By Ted Olsson