The All-Time Favourites #2: Fanny and Alexander

Audiences had been waiting more than 35 years for this. They had sat through some revolutionary cinematic advances, amazing features helmed by the superb Swede Ingmar Bergman. Then it came time for him to retire; he said in the first years of the 80s that his next film would be his last. It wasn’t technically, but it was his last big cinema release, and it earned him his third Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Fanny and Alexander was a tremendous achievement, a beautiful swan song, and a masterpiece of cinema. It did not matter who you were, what age you were, where you were… Fanny and Alexander was a film made with love, for you.

There are two versions available: one is the full five-hour version, and the other is the three-hour trimmed version made for cinemas. If you have access to both films, and choose the three-hour one over the five-hour, I believe there is something seriously wrong with you. The full, uncut 312 minute release made for television is, quite simply, one of the finest cinematic achievements of all time.

The story unfolds gradually, with a timely, leisurely pace, as we meet the members of the Ekdahl family. There is the matriarch Helena, who gravely observes how her family are falling apart, but is nevertheless happy to have them together for an amazing Christmas celebration, which lasts the whole first hour of the film, and is not boring for a second. Helena has three grown children, the knowledgable Oscar, the lively Gustav and the sombre Carl. Oscar runs the local theatre and has two children, Fanny and Alexander, with his wife Emilie. Gustav cheats on his wife with one of the family’s maids, Maj, promising to give her full ownership of a cafe but gradually losing track of his priorities as he descends into alcoholism. Carl is the worst one. He is bitter, sad, and treats his German wife with contempt, to put it lightly. He hates her, rejecting her attempts to be a friend to him, and pathetically dreaming of a better life without her, where he will find wealth and happiness, the two things which are tragically absent in his life. Gustav and Carl have no children (or if they do, they don’t play an important part), but Oscar does, and it is his two, the titular characters, who lead the story. Things really kick into gear when Oscar dies, and Emilie marries a hardened, cruel bishop whose stony face remains emotionless during all his scenes. He’s too ignorant to realize how evil he is, and inflicts his brutal goodness on his new wife and step-children, who regard him with contempt, and pray each night that he will die horribly.

The absence of Bergman regulars here does not mean the film will alienate fans of his previous casting choices. Sure, there is no Liv Ullmann or Max von Sydow or Bibi Andersson, but there is Gunnar Björnstrand, Harriet Andersson and Erland Josephson, who all give great performances in their supporting roles. For the lead roles, Bergman has chosen some new faces, but all of them give raw, powerful performances, especially Jan Malmsjo, an actor previously familiar with comedy films, who plays the evil bishop Edvard Vergerus brilliantly. Also notable for their roles are Gun Wallgren as Helena and Jarl Kulle as Gustav, two complex roles that are absolutely knocked out of the park by the actors.

However, there is one Bergman regular here, but he’s not a cast member. He’s played a key role in all of Bergman’s films since the early sixties, and has gained popularity for his work on films across the world since. Can you guess who he is? That’s right, it’s Sven Nykvist, a man who I’m proud to proclaim the best cinematographer who ever lived. Nykvist, who shot some of Bergman’s greatest pictures, including Persona and Cries and Whispers, makes Fanny and Alexander one of the most marvellous films to watch. Every frame is pure beauty; Nykvist makes it so by carefully positioning his camera to monitor all the action, and sweep majestically through magical moments and scenes, helping to make a film which is already stunning to watch even more beautiful.

In the full version of the film, the story unfolds in five acts, beginning with the Christmas celebration, then moving to Oscar’s final days, as we see him perform in his beloved theatre, then his funeral and Emilie’s marriage, to the film’s startling shift from the stunning Ekdahl reference, to the cold prison environment of the bishop’s house, before the children are rescued and taken to a place more magical than any Bergman fan could ever dream of.

The scenes in the theatre during the first and second acts are fantastic. They are especially notable for the presence of Gunnar Björnstrand, the actor who appeared in more Bergman films than any other. Sadly, this would be the last time he would work with Bergman, as he died only a few years after the film was finished. In the astonishing 110-minute behind the scenes documentary featured in the Criterion box set, we see first hand how Björnstrand’s illness had affected his performance. He struggles many times to get one scene right – an incredibly moving scene shows him messing up his lines but being told by a saddened Bergman that he was doing a good job. Everyone seemed aware that Björnstrand’s illness was mentally crippling him, and there is an immense sadness in some of these making-of scenes that feature him. Sadly, most of his scenes are cut from the three-hour version.

But it seems only right that Bergman would include his good friend Gunnar Björnstrand in these theatre chapters, as these scenes are the ones that were closest to Bergman. As aficionados of the director will know, Bergman worked in theatre before he became a filmmaker, and looks back on his experiences with fondness and love. However, the surreal beauty of the stage is cut short when Oscar dies, and Emilie is forced to shut the theatre down. This moment is cut from the three-hour film, which I don’t understand, because I see it is a truly momentous, important, grave moment; when the theatre closes, a part of the film’s liveliness dies. And the arrival of the bishop threatens to completely eradicate any more fun; Bergman uses tactics like this to signal to the audience how truly despicable he (the bishop) is, and they work. As the film progresses, the bishop gets stronger, and more powerful. If you’ve seen either version of the film, you’ll remember the haunting scene in which he canes Alexander repeatedly; the sickening snap of flesh as the stick of wood strikes the boy is a sound I’ll certainly be unable to forget. But an even more important scene for the bishop is yet another moment cut from the three-hour version. It sees him being confronted by Gustav and Carl, as they attempt to convince him to let the children and Emilie go. The methods to which the bishop goes to shut them up, I’ll leave for you to discover.

And that brings me to another critical thing about the film’s brilliance: it only goes to show what a genius Bergman is that he could craft one of the most joyous, exciting and fun celebrations with lively and beautiful characters in the same movie that features some of those characters being locked up and mistreated by a man who is arguably one of cinema’s most chilling villains.

Yes, Bergman’s five-hour film has it all. It is an amazing, thrilling look at the life of not just two children, but three generations of one of cinema’s most beloved, delightful families. In one single film, we experience the triumphant moments of success and joy that life brings, as well as the ugly, violent encounters all of us experience at some point. It is a film which doesn’t lie, doesn’t dramatise, but simply exists to tell, like a children’s storybook, a fairytale of one family’s gentle dance through the casualties of life, the beauties of existence, and the magic of childhood.

That’s this week’s All-Time Favourites review. Remember, there’s a new one of these each week, of one of my favourite films, so stick around for more! Next week’s film: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Posted on November 22, 2011, in All-Time Favourites, Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Really nice write-up as usual. One note is that Jan Malmsjö by this time was more known as a singer than an actor. It of course changed after this fantastic performance.

    I really hope Criterion put out the 5 hour version on blu-ray unfortunately their blu-rays are region restricted which sucks.

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    I should never have told you about my fondness för the shorter version… ;-)

    Well written, Tyler!

    • Thanks Christian. The shorter version’s fine, I have no problem with it, but it just pales in comparison to the full-length one. Both are excellent, though.

  3. Christian Hallbeck

    I don’t really disagree with you.

    We might have a disagreement regarding von Triers “Melancholia”, though. I watched it the other day, and was disappointed. I found it completely empty. Not one tiny bit of emotion or intellectual shiver got hold of me during the 2 h and 15 min it lasted! And before the spectacular ending I only felt unconcern and a slight boredom… I suspect that yor view on the film is going to be quite different than mine. I’m looking forward to your review – which I suspect will be published sometime in the middle of next year.

  4. Christian Hallbeck

    I mean in the middle of january next year!

  5. Fantastic piece as always my friend….I do like to learn new stuff, and this is the place to do it for sure

  6. Excellent review Tyler. I can definitely feel how much you appreciate this movie (which I haven’t seen yet) and it made all the more interested in checking it out :D

  7. I just bought the criterion release of this and was wondering which version to watch. Thanks for making that decision easy for me. Has Criterion ever had a better month? (12 Angry Men, Rushmore, Rules of the Game, Three Colors Trilogy, Fanny & Alexander)

  8. When you told me that watching the three hour version of this film was like “watching Pulp Fiction without Bruce Willis’ scenes,” I was sold. And damn if you were right.

    Thanks for pointing out some scenes that weren’t in the three hour version. The confrontation between The Bishop, Gustav and Carl, was one of my favorite scenes in the movie, can’t believe they had to cut that out.

    Interesting bits of trivia I’ve learned from reading Bergman’s memoir: The Bishop role was initially intended for Max von Sydow and Emilie’s role for Liv Ullmann. Also, the way in which Alexander is beaten by The Bishop (the dialouge before, the choices of abuse, etc.) is EXACTLY how Bergman’s father used to beat him.

    Fabulous write up of a flawless film.

    • Now that I’ve seen the five hour version, I don’t think I could ever go back to the three hour cut. The full version is just too much brilliance. I don’t want a second less than 312 minutes.

      I would’ve loved to have seen von Sydow and Ullmann in those roles. It would have been brilliant! But I don’t think von Sydow is anywhere near as intimidating as Malmsjo was.

  9. Outstanding post, you picked out the smallest details of the film to create a great post. I still need to watch this one, the only part I’ve seen is the opening.

  10. Carlos Claro

    I just didn’t like the first act that much… All that opulence and the glossed over distinction between social classes is kind of revolting to me (if the film supports or condemns that state of things is an open question, though…). Where I really started enjoying the film was in the 3rd act. And the 5th one is absolutely amazing!

  1. Pingback: The All-Time Favourites #8: Napoleon (1927) « Southern Vision

  2. Pingback: Introducing… The ALL-TIME FAVOURITES SERIES! « Southern Vision

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