In the Theater of Ghosts

In the Theater of Ghosts December 28, 2023

The title screen for the greatest film ever made.
Source: Flickr user Susanlenox
Public domain

Trying to write about Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) leaves me feeling a bit like Moses coming down from Horeb (or Sinai; take your pick). It blinds me, reduces me to ash and dirt and filth. The movie says what it says. Any attempt to reduce it to mere words is a betrayal, a bit of flim-flam best left to a monograph, if left to anything at all. Yet I’ve got this silly promise, an engine for self-improvement (or something) that requires me to write a “review” every week. I watch this TV series (later cut down from its five-hour length to three for a theatrical release) every Christmas. Mea culpa—it’s what I’ve got to work with.

Spread out over four episodes, the series follows two young siblings (you guessed it), Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), members of the wealthy bourgeois Eckdahl family in early twentieth-century Sweden. Their parents, Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emilie (Eva Fröling), run the local theater, and, at the beginning of the film, celebrate a warm, loving Christmas with other members of the clan like Oscar’s brothers, the petulant failed scientist Carl (Nils Börje Ahlstedt) and the sex-crazed businessman Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle). You can see the problem already: these are only a few characters among many.

During the jubilant, candle-abundant festivities of the first episode, signs crop up that Oscar is sick. He coughs, finds himself out of breath, yet still has time to entertain the children with a marvelously imaginative bedtime story about a dingy chair that, according to him, once belonged to an emperor of China. Not long into Episode Two he dies, leaving his widow to marry an austere bishop named Edvard (Jan Malmsjö). The family moves from their luscious, fabric-laden, family-compound mansion covered in reds and greens to the white-walled austerity of Edvard’s episcopal residence, which he shares with his humorless, even cruel, mother and sister.

Edvard disciplines Alexander for his imagination. Slowly, he begins to restrict the family’s freedoms: first, they must leave all their old possessions behind. Then they aren’t allowed to leave. Soon enough, Edvard is punishing Alexander for lying by spanking him with a rug beater and making him sleep in the drafty, lonely attic. Episode Four shows the family’s escape and the Eckdahls’ banning together to save Emilie and her kids. We end with a celebratory dinner, mirroring that first Christmas feast, happily toasting the birth of two new Eckdahl children, Emilie’s daughter with the now-deceased Edvard and Gustav Adolf’s lovechild.

Fair enough—here we have the plot of an early twentieth-century novel, perhaps engrossing but without anything overt to commend it. Bergman, however, is no hack. His use of the camera staggers me. I spend half the film crying every time I watch it. While he often defaults to highly composed wide shots to demonstrate relationships between characters (see, for example, how Edvard and Emilie sit at a bay window throughout the midsection of the movie), this raw emotional power comes from his consistent use of the close-up. The human face betrays so much: pain, joy, life, death. I think especially of the opening, in which Alexander wanders around the mansion before the festivities begin. He calls out to his family members, wandering around, playing king on the toilet. In reality, he’s probably alone for no more than a few minutes, but in his child’s mind this abject isolation feels like hours, culminating in his hiding under a table, glimpsing a statue move its arm and the grim reaper emerge menacingly from around a corner. Bergman ends the scene with a long, unbroken close-up of Alexander’s face, wide-eyed, horrified. We see wonder, dread, and all manner of seemingly contradictory emotions impressed upon his boyish face.

The camerawork is not incidental to one of the series’ primary themes: the big, scary world outside and the loving intimate world of private life. Call this bourgeois, as it probably is. But Bergman’s point is more complicated than mere escapism: we have our loves (the theater, family, holidays, bedtime stories) that bring us solace. As Oscar puts it early on when giving a speech to the theater company, plays offer not only a brief respite from the outside world but also a way of changing it, of reimbuing it with a sense of trust and hope. Close-ups become a way of tracking the successes and failures of such private moments. When living at the bishop’s palace, Fanny and Alexander often look out from their barred bedroom window, gazing at the river below as it gushes forth with terrifying force. Over and over, Bergman brings our focus to their faces as they look at the public world of freedom, the one to which they would escape, given the opportunity, held prisoner as they are by their stepfather. Their private lives are in shambles, and we see this bare fact in their sullen faces. They grimace, dead eyed, hoping for a return to the imperfect celebrations of only a year prior.

Such happy, localized existences are linked to imagination. Alexander’s is overactive. He constantly sees his dead father, lies about being sold to the circus, and tells a servant that the bishop murdered his two biological daughters (for this last offense, Alexander is visited by the girls’ ghosts, who, in a scene straight out of J-Horror, mock him and vomit next to his head—of course, we are focused on his terrified face). Toward the end, Alexander imagines that he kills Edvard through manifestation. Imagination, however, is not all bad. It makes possible the allure of his parents’ theater; it allows him an escape from the loneliness and drudgery of childhood. It offers songs to belt out at Christmas and wacky toasts to greet the Nativity. Again, the face testifies to so much.

I suppose that’s why Fanny and Alexander is my favorite film (and certainly the best Christmas movie): Bergman earns our belief in happiness, draws joy out of what largely seems a world of despair. Often I think about the song the Eckdahls sing during their Christmas feast:

Now it’s Christmas again,
And now it’s Christmas again.
And Christmas lasts well till Easter;
Now it’s Christmas again,
And now it’s Christmas again.
And Christmas lasts well till Easter.

But that was not true.
And that was not true.
Because in the middle there is Lent,
But that was not true.
And that was not true,
Because in the middle there is Lent.

Fanny and Alexander leaves me feeling hopeful, happy, even if the world remains desolate. It does so without feeling cheap. Sure, it’s no Hallmark movie. Really, it’s a mirror for the good life: you can’t eliminate the darkness. Bad things will happen. But we all have our part to play, and, with a little luck, we can get drunk, sing songs, and find reasons to hope. What better way can we see “Merry Christmas”?

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