Christmastime is here!
Christmastime is here!
Soon it will be Easter!
That’s not true, of course,
That’s not true, of course.
For in between comes Lent and fasting.
Ingmar Bergman didn’t write this carol the Ekdahl family sings in the first episode of Fanny and Alexander, but it might as well be the thesis statement for the series. It begins with one feast celebrating the birth of Christ, and ends with another celebrating an earthlier birth; but there’s a lot of suffering in between.
These two opposites, feasting and fasting, self-indulgence and self-denial, end up providing the main conflict of the series. The first episode introduces us to Fanny, Alexander, and the Ekdahl family celebrating life in their opulent home, gorgeously decorated by designers Anna Asp and Susanne Lingheim and shot by Sven Nykvist in eye-popping shades of red, green, and gold. But after the death of Alexander’s father, his mother, Emilie, remarries to the local Bishop. He demands Emilie give up all her earthly possessions before she moves into his home. What we see of it (called, with plenty of irony I’m sure, a palace) proves he lives by his own commands. There is no color here, just blank, white stone. This is not a man who believes God is present in the world, or that it is a gift from Him. (And maybe it’s not a coincidence that we’re introduced to the earthy Ekdahls celebrating God’s incarnation in the material world.) He believes the only way to find spiritual joy is to deny all the pleasures of the flesh. But Jan Malmsjö’s wonderfully grim performance suggests he has found neither.
This conflict isn’t quite as simple as good vs. evil, though. Bergman understands why asceticism would appeal to a grieving woman like Emilie. She’s just seen how brief mortal life is; why not endure a little hardship for something that’s not only more lasting, but lasts longer than the human mind can even comprehend? “He spoke to me of another life,” Emilie says, “A life of demands, of purity, of joy in the performance of duty. I’d never heard such words. There seemed to be a light around him when he spoke to me.” It’s not a class conflict either; the primary circle of the Ekdahls are working actors, and a turn-of-the-century Bishop could probably live just as well as them if he chose to. And class relations are an essential part of Bergman’s sympathy for the Ekdahls over the Bishop. The household staff are well taken care of, and as much a part of the joyful Ekdahl life as the blood relatives. The Bishop’s staff are grim and beaten down: we first see them hunched over a table in their poor quarters. They immediately go silent when he appears, and they go through the series with heads bowed, apparently afraid to look him in the eye.
The struggle between the Bishop and the Ekdahls, minimalism and maximalism, almost seems like Bergman arguing with himself. He began his career making light comedies, and even his first mature works, like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries combined their heavy meditations on mortality with some of the most purely joyful filmmaking anyone has ever achieved. Something seems to have shifted sometime around the beginning of the sixties; perhaps it was in The Virgin Spring where the archetype of the free-spirited young woman who Bibi Andersson played in Strawberries, Seal, and Smiles of a Summer Night is raped and murdered. That spirit is conspicuously absent from his grim later films, shot with a Bishop-like stark simplicity. In what critics thought for years would be his swan song (he followed it up with a few smaller-scale TV movies, all the way up to Saraband in 2003), he returns to the side of life. This doesn’t mean averting his gaze from the suffering his other films focus on. He outlines his approach in the other carol his characters sing at the Christmas party: “Our time on earth is brief/Full of toil and grief/Hey, Christmas elves/Let’s raise our glasses and be merry!” The implied connection between those thoughts isn’t “but.” It’s “so.” As Uncle Gustav Adolf says at the celebration of Emilie’s new twins that closes the series, “Evil breaks free of its chains and runs wild like a mad dog. The taint affects us all, us Ekdahls and everyone else. No one escapes…not even Helena Viktoria, or little Aurora. So it shall be. Therefore, let us be happy while we are happy.”
Malmsjö’s performance as the Bishop is a masterwork in a film full of them. His voice, growling like a bear and croaking like a toad, fills any scene he’s in with menace. In one of the few moments of joy we see from him, he describes the punishments of his childhood with the sadistic glee of a Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s surprisingly tender when he seduces Emilie, but he’s horribly abusive to Alexander. There’s the beatings, of course, but even when he tries to embrace him it’s visibly, palpably painful. To paraphrase the Crystals, he kisses him, but it feels like a slap. And that climactic moment of physical abuse is even more visceral. We never actually see the whip fall: the camera only shows the reactions of the other characters. But I still jumped every time.
All the emotions in Fanny and Alexander are this visceral. It doesn’t fit our stereotypes of austere Scandinavian artwork; in its outsized sights and feelings, it seems more like the work of a hotblooded Italian like Fellini or Scorsese. I first saw it while I was visiting my family for the holidays, and Emilie’s wailing over her husband’s body disturbed the whole house. Before he dies, Alexander is so overcome with emotion he can barely stand to be in the same room with him, and we are too. When his mother prods him, he tentatively reaches for his father’s hand, then immediately recoils and huddles in the corner. When Uncle Carl is alone with his wife, Börje Ahlstedt plays him sobbing, violent, on the verge of melting in his hatred for himself and everyone around him.
Bergman’s concept of the supernatural’s presence in the material world makes it feel real in a way few other filmmakers have accomplished. (One of them was Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ.) On his deathbed, Alexander’s father Oskar promises, “Nothing separates me from you all. Not now, and not later. I know that. I see that….quite clearly. I think I’ll be closer to you now…than when I was alive.” And he is. Bergman shows this without any of the usual cinematic magic tricks. He’s simply there, without any smoke or mirrors or eerie music, solidly present, without any special effects to make him appear transparent. The other characters scarcely seem to notice or care he’s a ghost; his mother gets several minutes into a conversation with him before she even acknowledges it. And despite, or maybe because of that, when he steps into a bright shaft of light in his cream-colored suit, it’s more shocking than any effect Hollywood could come up with.
When Uncle Isak attempts to sneak Fanny and Alexander out in a chest, the Bishop rushes upstairs to make sure they’re still there. Isak screams, the screen goes white – and then, by magic, or a miracle, they reappear in their room. Later, they’re back in the chest, with no explanation. (But there is some foreshadowing: before opening the chest to assure the Bishop he’s not stealing anything, Isak hides the children under a cloth, just like a stage magician.) Isak keeps them in his junk shop, and Bergman seems to understand the magic of these places, as exquisitely cluttered as the Ekdahl home with strange objects that seem to have lives of their own.
Both Oskar and Carl Gustav refer to a “little world” as a metaphor for either their family or the found family of the theater. It’s a fitting image for a series that seems to contain a little world in and of itself. The first episode would be a masterpiece of filmmaking all on its own. It captures the feeling of a family Christmas better than any other movie I’ve yet seen, from its minute recreation of turn-of-the-century decorations and celebration to the feeling of staying up with the other children past your bedtime while the adults continued their own party above or below you. Within that framework, the first episode gives each family member their own little narrative, each seeming to contain a whole life. Even as the future episodes narrow their focus on the title characters and their mother, there’s still the feeling that a whole, lived-in world exists within and without the edges of the frame. Subplots introduced in the first episode continue to sort themselves out around the edges of the main plot. Some never do, and Bergman pushes back against the rules of conventional narrative that suggest everything can be solved by the time the credits roll. Life isn’t that easy. As the Bishop says, tormenting Alexander even after his fiery death, “You can’t escape me.”