Let’s start with a history lesson. In 1974, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was accused by the Swedish government of income tax evasion. Whether or not this was true is debatable, but in the disgrace of the accusation, Bergman fled Sweden, and suggested his career as a filmmaker had ended. He became severely depressed and spent the next several years in Munich. Over time his bitterness faded, until he announced that he would return to his homeland to make one last film – that film was 1983’s Fanny and Alexander.
Bergman’s final opus tells the story of the Ekdahl family, seen through the eyes of the titular siblings. The pair’s parents, Oscar and Emilie, are actors and operators of a small theatre company in Uppsala, Sweden. The extended Ekdahl family is a lively exuberant bunch. We are introduced to them at a lavish Christmas celebration, hosted by the family’s matriarch, Helena Ekdahl. We can soon see that Oscar is not a healthy man, and shortly afterwards he will die, leaving Emilie, Fanny, and Alexander to fend for themselves. Shortly after his death, Emilie falls under the spell of the stern bishop Edvard Vergerus, the very man who performed her husband’s funeral. The bishop courts and marries her, bringing the children into his home. His strict ascetic lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the world the children have previously known, and his cruelty fosters hatred in them. As the film progresses, their goal is to escape the bishop’s “palace,” and to become reunited with the rest of the Ekdahl family.
Fanny and Alexander is a rarity as a Bergman film, in that its primary characters are children. Perhaps then it is no wonder that it stands out as one of the director’s most joyful films. There is a darkness and angst to the scenes in the bishop’s palace, but the film spends a great deal of time focusing on happy moments. The thrashing, questioning Bergman is still here, but he has grown older, and in doing so, wishes to reflect on some of the beauty of life. There are poignant moments exploring the joy of family celebration, the beauty of theatre, and the wonder of childhood – all things that were close to Bergman’s heart, even if they previously took a back seat to his questions about God and identity.
Bergman was always notoriously obtuse as to the film’s autobiographical quality, but one can see several connections between the filmmaker and the character of Alexander. Like Alexander, the young Ingmar was fascinated by theatre and the “magic lantern,” a pre-cursor to film. Like Alexander, Bergman was raised in part by a strict Lutheran minister, one who would often lock him in the closet for hours as punishment. The contrast between the wealthy, genial Ekdahls and the harsh, demanding bishop is a contrast that the filmmaker experienced within his own childhood, and he explores it here both thematically and visually.
One of Bergman’s greatest strengths as a director is that his images are able to tell stories all on their own. This film is no exception; although as always, much of that praise must also go to cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Considering that this pair almost always made black and white films, it’s all the more astonishing to see the film’s lush, colorful tableaus. It is no exaggeration to say these are some of the most beautiful shots in cinematic history. Nykvist won an Oscar for his work on the film, as did art director Anna Asp and costume designer Marik Vos.
The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray of Fanny and Alexander is most notable in what it adds to the visuals of the film. Many Bergman films might not warrant a transfer to Blu-ray, as they are characterized by stark, simple black and white images. But as this films is one of the director’s most lush, it is rewarding to see it in a more cleaned up, detailed, and visually arresting format. There is clearly a deeper color contrast between the DVD and Blu-ray versions, making the vibrant reds of the Ekdahl home richer and fuller. Even more obvious is the contrast with the bishop’s black and white prison of a palace.
The box set contains both the TV and theatrical versions of the film. What is called the “TV” version is in fact the full version of the film; it is called so because the over 5 hour runtime required that the film be originally released for Swedish television. Bergman begrudgingly cut the film down to three hours for theatrical release, but only the TV version captures his complete vision.
The special features on the set mostly give insight into the creative process of this film specifically. There are costume sketches, set design models, interviews with cast, crew, and Bergman himself. These may be interesting to those who are interested in the “work” side of filmmaking, though there isn’t anything groundbreaking or fascinating here. A booklet insert contains three essays, the first two focusing on the film from a critical standpoint, and the third focusing on the box set’s included documentary, The Making of Fanny and Alexander.
The aforementioned documentary is interesting in that it is more of a film diary. It shows strictly the nuts and bolts of on-set filmmaking. There are no interviews, no narration, and only sparse intertitles (written by Bergman himself) to describe what we are going to see. It is scene after scene of cast and crew on set; we see them blocking, choreographing camera movements, setting up lights, and dealing with forgetful actors (most poignantly a sadly aging Gunnar Bjornstrand). It helps us to forget a little about Bergman the tortured genius, and gives us a glimpse of Bergman “at work.” As someone who works in film production, I found the documentary fascinating, but can understand how others might find it tedious. If you’re interested in how the on-set film process works, this is absolutely a special feature to watch.
Also of note is the commentary (only available for the TV version, sadly). Film scholar Peter Cowie expresses an uncommon breadth of knowledge regarding Bergman (both stylistically and biographically), and is able to both speak of the film in general, and address directly what is happening on screen. He’s full of focused insight, plus the trivia that makes a lot of us watch special features in the first place. You’ll feel in good hands with this commentary.
All of these features are available on the Criterion DVD set. The DVD set even contains trailers and introductions for other Bergman films, features that appear to be missing from the Blu-ray set. The only possible new content with the Blu-ray is that the listed running time for the TV version is 8 minutes longer than that on the DVD TV version. This may be a mistake, may be a correction, or there may actually be a full 8 minutes of additional footage – if anyone out there wants to take the time to watch the full film simultaneously on Blu-ray and DVD, good for you – let me know what you find.
Fanny and Alexander is a beautiful movie, and a fitting filmic farewell from one of cinema’s greats. It’s certainly one to own if you’re any fan of Bergman’s, and certainly one to see if you’re a movie lover. If you buy for special features, there’s no reason to buy the Blu-ray over the DVD. But the difference in visual quality between the two is worth noting, and will certainly reward those who are interested in the aesthetic quality of the film.