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Dhaka Tribune

Fanny and Alexander

A reflection of Bergman’s own life

Update : 23 Jun 2023, 11:24 PM

In the rich tapestry of Bergman's films, one cannot help but notice that his characters bear a striking resemblance to the depths of his own psyche. The intricate portrayal of these characters serves as a window into the inner workings of the director's mind. However, Bergman's characters break free from the confines of his personal limitations. Instead, the characters transcend their familial and societal roles and exhibit a strong sense of individuality that distinguishes them from one another in sharp contrast. 

All of the above is particularly true for Fanny and Alexander, as it's Bergman's most ambitious semi-biographical work. Bergman himself claimed Fanny and Alexander as the sum total of his life as a filmmaker. After reading “The Magic Lantern”, Bergman's autobiography, I felt that he had meticulously reconstructed the events of his own life, rearranging them and creating a dreamlike realm in Fanny and Alexander where reality and fantasy coexist harmoniously. The setting of the movie is illustrated by the director with a quote from Strindberg's “A Dream Play”, as read by Helena to Alexander in the last scene of the movie: “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.”

The young Alexander is based on Bergman himself; Fanny is based on Margareta Bergman, his sister; and the bishop is based on Bergman's strict Lutheran minister father. The events of the movie unfold through the eyes of Alexander. But the other male characters in the movie also bear the semblance of Bergman's inner world and convey the feelings and thoughts of the director when the director wants. The movie is divided into the events of three houses: the Ekdahl Home, the Bishop's Palace, and Jacobi's Home. It seems the Ekdahl house is what Bergman fantasized his childhood could have been, and the Bishop's house is based on Bergman's actual childhood. 

The Ekdahl house shines with bright red colors, adorned with sculptures, paintings, and meticulously furnished walls. The cinematographer Sven Nykvist gives the Ekdahl home a feeling of warmth and liveliness. The movie opens with the Christmas musings of the Ekdahl home, where we are immediately struck by the vitality and exuberance of this family. 

After the Christmas dinner, the family sings a Christmas hymn and runs around the massive house in unison. The characters are then slowly introduced to us. Helena Ekdahl, the matriarch of the household and Alexander's grandmother, serves as the family's beacon of unity. Helena has three children: Oscar, Alexander's father, who is a theater director; Gustav Adolf, a businessman who has a slight weakness for young women and indulges in occasional philandering with one of the young maids; and Carl, a retired professor, married to a pale-looking German woman. 

However, the members of the Ekdahl family have their conflicts and sorrows, as pain and agony are just as much a part of life as happiness and warmth. 

Helena Ekdahl is depressed about her old age and confides her pain in her partner, Isak Jacobi. The wives in the movie have to struggle a lot with their husbands, representing the eternal struggle in patriarchal households. The most heart-wrenching couple in the film is Carl Ekdahl and his German wife, Eva. Carl finds himself drowning in debt and believes he's a complete failure because he can't find a solution to pay it off. He takes out his frustration on Eva. In a painful conversation, Carl tells Eva that he despises her because of her ability to endure so much pain. Eva, on the other hand, has no escape from the misery. 

She is left with no choice but to yield to Carl's demands and remain faithful, despite the pain he inflicts on her. Eva looks so pale that it seems every ounce of life's energy has been drained from her being. Alma, the devoted wife of Gustav Ekdahl, has come to the understanding that tolerating her husband's infidelity is the key to preserving the sanctity of their marital happiness. Despite everything, Gustav displays a lot of affection for Alma, making it easier for her to cope. 

Shortly after Christmas, Oscar suffers a stroke while rehearsing for Hamlet, tragically passing away just two days later. Alexander is horrified to face his father in his dying moments and hides himself in the corner. After the passing of Oscar, Emilie's desperate yearning for companionship becomes overpowering, causing her to be consumed by a blinding infatuation for Edvard Vergerus, the bishop who officiated Oscar's funeral. Just before their marriage, Edvard tells Emilie that she and her children have to leave their former lives entirely- their belongings, friends, habits, and thoughts. Emilie does not realize that this is the start of the vice-like grip of the bishop over their lives, a grip that only grows stronger after they move into the bishop's house. 

The sharp contrast between the bishop's home and the Ekdahl home strikes the viewer immediately. In the bishop's home, everything—including life—is gray, and the windows are barred. Life in Edvard's home is too mechanistic and lacking in vibrancy, warmth, and vigor, despite his role as a spiritual preacher. Everyone in the household, including the maids, has become resentful and envious due to the bleak quality of life. At the very first dinner, Edvard's mother and sister try to exert control over Emilie and the kids, revealing their possessive and antagonistic natures. The bishop is a tyrant who is delusional enough to think that people love him. He finds all kinds of justification for his cruelty and abuse. Religion plays a vital role in providing moral justification for tyrannizing people who hold a subordinate position to the bishops of our society.

 As Emilie's infatuation fades, she begins to see Edvard and his family for who they really are and becomes aware of how thoroughly imprisoned she and her kids are in that place. Fanny and Alexander spend their days looking out through the barred windows in hopes of escaping this hell someday. Emilie's situation also portrays how difficult it was for women to break out of their marriages at that time. She couldn't flee with her children because even the laws were against women, and she would lose her children to Edvard. Finding no other way, Emilie seeks out help from Helena to save her children, even if she remains trapped in that prison of a house. 

Bergman, in his early years, sought solace from the abuse of his father by creating a realm of fantasy in his mind. Similarly, as life had become difficult for Alexander, he was seeing his father's ghost. But not all the magic in the movie is Alexander's illusion. Reality and fantasy are interwoven, depicting the world as it exists in a child's mind.

Helena sends Isak Jacobi to the rescue, who smuggles the children from that house by using magic. The Jacobi house is full of mysteries and a magical dreamworld for Fanny and Alexander. Isak Jacobi lives there with two of his nephews, Aron and Ismael. In a haunting sequence, Alexander gets lost in the house at night. Suddenly, a puppet of Jesus starts talking to him in an otherworldly voice, making Alexander terrified to his core. When Alexander is about to lose consciousness, Aron comes out and reveals it was him the whole time. Aron takes Alexander to meet his brother Ismael, who is locked up because the outside world “considers him dangerous”. Ismael possesses magical powers, and he shows Alexander the vision of the bishop and his aunt dying in a fire.

After the death of Edvard, they return to the Ekdahl family. In the final scene, everyone is sitting for dinner, and Gustav Adolf gives a monologue in celebration of the rejoicing of the whole family. Gustav says the Ekdahl family is not here to “see through the world”. They can only love each other and enjoy life. 

There are two versions of Fanny and Alexander: the movie edition, lasting 188 minutes, and the Swedish TV edition, spanning a longer duration of 312 minutes, which was preferred by Bergman.

When watching Fanny and Alexander, you will be subdued in Bergman's fantastic world. As the credits roll, a weighty melancholy descends upon you, accompanied by a profound sense of existential questioning that lingers in your heart. 

Samiul Ehsan Shafin is a freelance contributor.

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