Ingmar Bergman’s Autobiographical Epic of Childhood


“Bergman is the only genius in cinema today”, said an exacerbated Woody Allen, acting in his 1979 gem Manhattan. Pronounced with an assurance that echoes Allen’s own well-documented thoughts on his cinema idol, he could not have known then that there would only be one more full-blown theatrical demonstration of such genius. Bergman would shortly announce to the world that he would soon be leaving his mistress, the cinema: The uncharacteristically opulent and semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander would be his final film.

Putting an expiration date on his celebrated film career might’ve been Bergman’s latest way of wrestling with “death” – something he’d spent significant creative energy doing in the past. But Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) is no dour Scandinavian march to the grave. Such notions do play into the lovingly woven fabric of this tremendous project, as do elements of every other avenue of Bergman’s life and career. But more than anything, this early twentieth century lavish omnibus is also a deeply personal salute to the life of the mind, namely, the imagination. Puppets, theater, performance, holidays, tradition, and mystery itself fuel the coming-of-age fire. Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist deservingly won an Oscar for capturing the mood of it all on film.

Reality matters greatly here, but it’s also a reality where seemingly anything can happen.

From the virtual outset, Bergman has been able to woo us with his deep yet approachable understandings about life. In 1958, in his review of Summer with Monika (1953), Jean-Luc Godard wrote, “Bergman is the film-maker of the instant. His camera seeks only one thing: to seize the present moment at its most fugitive, and to delve deep into it so as to give it the quality of eternity.” Monika, of course, is a youthfully charged film overtaken with grown-up concerns. Fanny and Alexander, on the other hand, is a tale experienced through the eyes of children informed by a creative life fully lived. But the “quality of eternity” persists – even as Bergman himself forever grappled with notions beyond the mortal.

Although I’d managed to let the essential Fanny and Alexander elude me until now (shame, shame indeed!), I’ve seen enough of Bergman’s work to know that he doesn’t deal in cerebral chump change.  His work is always unmistakably his, yet always also daringly adventurous, from the soul (if not always the heart), and packed with food for thought. “Life affirming”, however, is one phrase that up until now, I would’ve struggled to apply to his work. With this absorbing swan song, Bergman leaves no stone unturned. Reality matters greatly here, but it’s also a reality where seemingly anything can happen.

In his essay for the Criterion DVD set, author Rick Moody speculates intuitively that it’s possible the whole film is a dream, since in the opening minutes, we witness the lead character, the adolescent Alexander (Bertil Guve) gently fall asleep. (A moment later, bleary eyed, he witnesses a statue move.) But of course it’s a dream – Never mind that so much of timeless cinema is inexorably somehow tethered to dreaming. Bergman is the dreamer, and we are the dream voyeurs, invited to the party.

But the party must halt, as young brother and sister Fanny and Alexander are eventually whisked off to the home of their abusive new stepfather, Bishop Edvard Vergerus (played with simmering aplomb by Jan Malmsjö). He is a terrifying and fearful man who wears his oversized cross as intimidation; wields his religious authority as a weapon. This is the type of character Christian viewers are understandably sensitive about being identified with, but Bergman’s father was just such a man. Indeed, much of this film is lifted from the director’s own childhood.

(The ending discussed…) Youth escapes adult oppression by hiding in a giant enclosure, ultimately arriving in a better (if not perfect) place.  Coincidentally, that’s the exact same bit that occurs in Roald Dahl’s fanciful children’s book James and the Giant Peach.  It may not be obvious to equate Bergman with Dahl, but in the end, each is worthy of the other. Bergman, despite his unearned reputation to the contrary, knows how to entertain. Likewise, Dahl understands existential angst. So, it’s interesting that in the end, Bergman brings us to a place of promise amid the mortality. The hour of the wolf has passed, the Reaper’s gone on his way. (For now, anyhow.)  And although this really wouldn’t be Bergman’s final film, it stands nonetheless as one of the Greats.


A shorter version of this piece originally appeared at TwitchFilm in 2013.