Fanny and Alexander: Productive Imagination and Spectres
Indisputably, my all-time favorite film director is Sweden’s greatest export: Ingmar Bergman. His film The Seventh Seal really began a period of awakening for me on the power of arthouse cinema, of cinema as the product of an auteur’s vision wherein one can explore one’s own past experiences and present anxieties. That film hit me at a time when my own existential dread and fears of annihilation upon death were reaching a second fever peach (the first time was around the age of 8 or 9). But his meditations upon death, his laying bare all his compunctions and fears on the subjects as well as his basic lack of knowledge of what comes next after death, and his meditations upon death as a return into the nowhere state of Nothingness in interviews about the problem all disturbed me at the time, but eventually allowed me to become reconciled to death. Now, the fear is no longer present in an existential sense for me.
Bergman’s crisis of faith trilogy (The Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light) hit me at around the same time and helped me to mentally escape the claustrophobic christian sentiments and beliefs that had stifled me creatively and hindered my own sense of freedom in the world for so long till that point. His Summer films (Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika, and smiles of a Summer Night) ran the gamut whilst introducing and analyzing various relationships from tragic, idealistic, and comic vantage points that were realistic about the difficulties of relationality between human beings. They gave me hope for a future with another while also making me more realistic about how hard one must try to make things work and that some people are just incompatible and will hurt one another in the process of trying to bridge our built-in communicative gaps: the internality of our own minds.
This communicative gap or inability to communicate effectively between persons is made more drastically apparent by his late 60s films on identity, personality and communication: Persona, Shame, and The Passion of Anna. And this dark, pessimistic approach is heightened by 1978’s Autumn Sonata wherein one finds that- as Jean Renoir tragically quipped in The Rules of Game- that everyone has their reasons.
Bergman’s oeuvre has the had a powerful effect on me as I suspect it has had on almost all of those who have watched his films. So, when I endeavored to finally watch and analyze and study Fanny And Alexander both for my own edification and as preparation for this week’s film analysis here, for this blog, and for you, I expected nothing less than a powerful film with the capacity to change viewers and introduce new concepts and themes to their worlds. I was not disappointed in these hopes.
But first a bit of background. The 1982 film is not the final film by Ingmar Bergman, though it is his final theatrical release. It is not the final production of an Ingmar Bergman script for theatrical release as other directors adapted his screenplays in the following 35 years. And Bergman continued to work narratively at a brisk pace for the rest of his life within another medium, The Theatre, where he produced and directed more than 20 more plays over the course of his next twenty years. But Fanny and Alexander is certainly something like chef-d’oeuvre within his body of work that represents a definite end of an era.
The film had the highest budget of any Swedish film ever made at the time at a whopping $6 million. But it had one of the widest release internationally of any Swedish film and made back its money. It received six Oscar nods and four wins: Best Foreign Language Film to Ingmar Bergman, Best Cinematography to Sven Nykvist, as well as Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. It includes a Swedish all-star cast of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Gunn Walgren in their final roles for film, as well as Ewa Froling, Allan Edwall, Jan Malmsjo, Harriet Andersson, Pernilla August, Erland Josephson, and Stina Ekblad. It is set during the early 20th century, specifically during the 1910s in the home of a rich family, the Ekdahls, in Uppsala.
Imagination and Deception
The 320-minute film’s first segment recounts a Christmas in the family home of the Ekdahls. The matriarch of the family, Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Walgren), entertains her three sons Oscar (Allan Edwall), Gustav Adolf, and Carl, their wives Emilie (Ewa Froling), Alma, and Lydia, and their five children, most importantly the children of Oscar and Emilie, Fanny and Alexander. While most characters are admittedly akin to facets of Bergman’s personality or those of his sister, father and mother, Alexander is his true proxy within the film. We see the beginning of Alexander’s interest in the theatre and in film through his interactions with the family’s theatre company, Isak Jacobi’s puppet collections, and his father’s cinematographe machine with its Zoetropes and ghostly projections accompanying valued storybooks.
Alexander is a precocious youth whose imagination is leads him inevitably toward interest in these topics, but also toward a proclivity toward making up situations and convincing himself of their reality. He begins to act out in this way when his father dies and is replaced by his mother with a priest, one Bishop Edvard Vergerus, who practices a form of ascetic and domineering death-obsessed Christianity at odds with the more pagan, down to Earth, celebratory, wise Christianity of his Ekdahl relatives, especially as expressed in their Christmas festivities (by wise Christianity I mean a type that takes Wisdom literature like Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes as models for action). First, Alexander tells his fellow classmates that he his family has sold him to a travelling circus and that he will not be returning next semester to school in lieu of beginning his career. This white lie was fantastic and obviously made in good fun, but signifies Alexander’s dis-ease with his current life in the hallowed, claustrophobic halls of the parish. It also shows his intense interest in possibly one day entertaining a life as an entertainer and lays bare his desires to leave and stake out a life more akin to that of his late father who was a mediocre thespian, but enjoyed his craft.
Later, Alexander and Fanny are left alone in the parish without their mother, who has left to seek legal counsel on whether she can leave Vergerus and his authoritarian enclave. Alexander learns that Vergerus once had a wife and two daughters and that the girls died by drowning. He concocts a story, which he recounts to one of the caretakers in the parish (played oft-times sympathetic to children’s plight and other times as backstabbing and conniving, in thrall to the wishes of Vergerus, by Bergman regular Harriet Andersson). The tale goes that Vergerus locked his daughters and their mother up in a tower in the parish and that the two girls escaped and fell through a local river’s ice before drowning or freezing to death. The latter aspect of this story is true, but the former is quite false. It is an attempt to project Alexander and Fanny’s own current life conditions onto events in the past in a way that makes sense of them. After all, Vergerus is an SOB of the highest order. How could two young children not rebel against such a man and become locked in their quarters as Alexander and Fanny now have?
Alexander’s overactive imagination gets him into trouble with Vergerus on both occasions and he relishes the opportunity to teach Alexander a lesson about lying. Vergerus finds some sort of sadistic pleasure in punishing Alexander physically through pawing jabs and slaps against the head, and eventually through lashes by his switch. and on both occasions, Vergerus forces Alexander to concede his wrongdoing, apologize, accept punishment, and in the process, he humiliates the boy. Bergman himself had an overactive imagination and often provoked the ire of his own devout father who retaliated through physical and verbal punishment in a similar fashion. Although we can see the machinations of Alexander’s mind in the film and understand why he might make up such lies that get him into trouble, a quote about his childhood from Bergman problematizes the notion that the deceptions on his, and by proxy, Alexander, are wholly purposeful, however:
“It was difficult to differentiate between what was fantasy and what was considered real. If I made an effort, I was perhaps able to make reality stay real. But, there were ghosts and spectres. what should I do with them?”
Is it possible that Bergman wove webs of deception so dense and realistic in his own young life that he himself was unable to unravel them? We may never know for sure, but we can rest assured that if there are clues to this question, they lie within this film. Alexander’s first lie is relatively minor and manages to do little harm beyond making his mother upset that he would rather leave for a circus than stay at home, or worse, that he subconsciously believed that his own mother cared so little for him that she would be willing to sell him to a circus. We can tell that Alexander himself does not believe this deception and as such, he has little difficulty owning up to it and admitting his deceit.
During the second lie’s formation in the telling of the tale to the parish servant, Alexander’s face alights and he seems to find real joy in his creation. The servant knows better than to believe the story, but finds the power of the recounting so overwhelming as to slowly come to believe it herself. This power of enthralling a willing listener and viewer is what drives much of the exhibitionist personality to do what it does. But this is also the key to a great filmmaker or storyteller: that he or she finds joy in the process of spinning a yarn and entrapping their quarry (the spectator, viewer, reader, or listener). When the parish servant realizes she is being deceived, she recounts the deception to Vergerus who is not only hurt by the words, but enraged. He forces Alexander to admit his wrongdoing, beats him mercilessly, and forces him to sleep alone for the night in the parish’s cold, empty, secluded attic. But the admittance by Alexander is more difficult this time around because he hates Vergerus, wishes to hurt him whenever possible, and wants to win the battle of wills. Another potent reason for his reluctance is the realization that his story holds some relation to the truth insofar as it exposes the injustice of Vergerus toward Alexander and Fanny, as well as the moral decrepitude of the parish priest whose Christianity is little more than a bludgeon.
Creativity and Spectres
Alexander has a powerful imagination that goes beyond mere creation of lies of that reveal elements of the truth. His creative potential is, as we have seen, strong enough to enthrall the consumer of his deceptions through the force of their evocations, even if that consumer is himself, the one who consciously created the deceptions in the first place. His creativity also uncovers a realm between Being and Nothingness where spectres reside and move and mourn and contemplate.
The first such spectre that appears in the film is the ghost of Oscar Ekdahl: Alexander’s father. After Oscar’s death, Vergerus consoled his widowed wife Emilie. The two developed a bond and announced their intention to marry. during the proceedings, Alexander looks into the adjacent dining room of the house and locks eyes with the image of his deceased father staring back at him. The portent of doom proclaims aright the inevitable failure of union between two souls so unlike in manner and direction as Vergerus and Emilie. Alexander notes this as well and the vision of his unhappy father cements the doomed nature of this union within Alexander’s mind.
A later meeting with the spectre occurs during Alexander and Fanny’s difficult times in the parish house. A piano rings out dissonant notes and chords with a slow, tremulous, atmospheric attack. The children go to investigate the noises the sounds and find an unoccupied piano seat. Fanny seems unable to see the figure hunched over the keys while Alexander sees the spectre of his father once again vividly before him, not speaking, but offering consolation and sympathy through his gaze.
Finally, Alexander will see his father once more while he explores the house Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the man who was once Helena Ekdahl’s lover and is now a family friend who has kidnapped, and thereby saved, Alexander and Fanny from the household of Vergerus. The spectre of Oskar reclines upon a couch and stares into the very depths of his son’s heart. Alexander tells him that it would be better if he went into the light and stopped causing pain for him through his constant reminders of his physical absence and inability to help out. Oskar seems to challenge Alexander to work to save Emilie from her connections to Vergerus.
There are two more significant spectres in the film that present themselves to Alexander. The first spectre is the dual spectre of Vergerus’s two daughters who drowned. They appear to Alexander while he is trapped in the parish’s attic and they chide the boy for lying about how Vergerus treated them. They reveal that Vergerus was a loving father and that their deaths were mere accidents. As they played upon the ice, they hit a thin sheet and fell through. The current pulled them downstream and they were unable to resurface and therefore died of asphyxiation. They torment Alexander for his lies and reveal that Alexander’s creativity is a double-edged sword. He can conjure up or channel the spectre of his father who can offer consolation and potentially make the process of grieving more easy. However, Alexander can also unwittingly bring into focus the spirits of those who don’t have such positive regard for him and may in fact wish to do him harm, just as does the final apparition of the then-dead priest Vergerus at the film’s denouement that signals the inescapability of Alexander’s harsh upbringing in the parish and the effects of that experience that will likely follow and haunt him for the rest of his life. Just as the events of Bergman’s religious upbringing haunted him throughout his own life.
There are two approaches to analyzing the ontological state of these spectres. the first emphasizes their psychological role in the life, development, coping, and growing of Alexander as a young boy. In this view, the spectres are mere phantoms of the mind in the imagination of a particularly precocious and creative young man. Bergman’s own avowed atheism and long-held belief that life terminates in the void of Nothingness would seem to support to this version of events as spectres cannot exist under such metaphysical conditions. The spectres here are real, but only in the mind of Alexander. Carrying ontic presence not on the order of real human lives and physical objects, but on a secondary order of ontic presence as creations within the mind of an existing entity, much like States and the concept of Money exist.
This is problematic on a few serious counts, however. First, Bergman’s quote seems to assert that although he had trouble differentiating between reality and fantasy, that this was not due to a psychological problem on his part. The two were hard to differentiate because the spectres and ghosts were just as real as the reality around them. Second, in later life Bergman began to catalog experiences of supernatural, or otherwise normally unexplainable phenomena, he had witnessed through his life from his early memories as child through to his latest experiences as an old man. He felt that he and his late wife would surely find a way to bridge the gap between Being and Nothingness and that life does not truly terminate upon death, but may in fact carry on in some imperceptible manner. Third, the spectre of Oskar appears not only to Alexander, but to Helena Ekdahl, Oskar”s mother, as well. Helena may have an overactive imagination like Alexander (she is his grandmother after all), but the appearance of the spectre to two people on four separate occasions makes the claim for its existence much stronger.
Thus, Alexander’s creative imagination makes him more than a potential auteur. It makes him into a seer of sorts who can access memories of the In-Between Ones and dialogue with spectres before their final jumps into the Great Unknown, whether that be into Nothingness or into something else entirely.
Magic and Mystery
With the potentiality of a new framework for existence, metaphysics, ontology, and ghastly communication at play in the film’s text, Bergman introduced philosophical spirituality into his worldview and into his oeuvre as well. The notion that spectres remain behind for a time in the event of a death unforetold and unforeseen, or after a particularly violent death, and the connected notion that there are seers triggered by creative imaginations who can detect spectres and converse with them, is a system that seems to have virally infected the filmography of Guillermo del Toro to great effect (especially in The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak). But Bergman’s new approach to the world and his cinematic vision of that approach go far beyond just these concepts.
Bergman closes the film with a quote by August Strindberg from his play A Dream Play: “Anything can happen, all is possible and probably. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.”
If reality did indeed provide a significant foundation for life, human beings would not find themselves straining constantly to explain its inner working. The fields of knowledge like philosophy, alchemy, science, and physics would never have been developed and we would have few questions about the fundamental laws of the world and how things operate. Our imaginations work creatively to gather data to build new paradigms of knowledge and systematization, but we know that these paradigms are never exhaustive and always contain large faults that are only later momentarily fixed by a new paradigm’s arrival on the scene.
As these new paradigms grow larger and more complex to fit more and more complex data and patterns, the new theories and paradigms consistently violate Occam’s Razor, the simplicity criterion that states that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. At some point we may find that it is simplest to just accept certain mysteries and vagaries of Being as unexplainable, or so complex in their provisional explanation as to strain credulity and most of the razors within the scientific pantheon and the philosophy of science.
Isak Jacobi is a Jewish merchant who is friends of the Ekdahl family. He offers to buy an old chest from Vergerus, but surreptitiously. his real plan is sneak into Fanny and Alexander’s room and steal away the children right from under the nose of the priest. He does so pretty quickly and manages to hide the children within the chest. When Vergerus arrives with the deed of property for the chest that Jacobi has just paid for, Jacobi shows Vergerus the contents of the chest to ensure him that he is not being cheating in any way. Vergerus does not see the children within the chest because Jacobi has thrown a large black blanket over them and performed sleight of hand and a bit of magic trickery in the way of redirecting Vergerus’ gaze.
But Vergerus is no fool. He knows of the connection between the merchant and the Ekdahl family and suspects Jacobi immediately of trying to spirit away the children. Vergerus runs up the stairs and checks their room after calling out Jacobi and using a few choice demeaning slurs against this Jewish mystic. The jig seems up when all of a sudden, the unthinkable occurs. Jacobi yells at the top of his lungs and entreats the help of mystic powers through his laying bare of himself. An image of the two children is miraculously projected into their bedroom and Jacobi is able to take the children away with him to safety.
Jacobi’s warehouse is a veritable labyrinth of corridors, wardrobes, puppets, and all sorts of occult and Kabbalahic paraphernalia. His two nephews Aron (Mats Bergman, Ingmar’s son) and Ismael Retzinsky (Stina Ekblad) live with him in vastly different capacities: Aron as a free agent and magician who works for Isak and Ismael who lives under lock and key as a dangerous, but prescient idiot savant. While traversing the corridors of the warehouse labyrinth at night, Alexander happens upon a room filled with puppets. He asks questions about his suffering and receives answers from the other side of door that remains barely cracked open. The voice is ostensibly God’s voice. It doles out powerful messages and eventually reveals its hand and its face. A puppet controlled by Aron who is attempting to scare Alexander. Aron then shows Alexander a special room wherein a Mummy lies reclining upon a table. It breathes at a regular pace and its face turns toward Alexander, but all the while we know and Alexander knows that the event is no more than a performance of a magic trick.
What he experiences next, however, is no mere trick.
He and Aron continue their journey through the warehouse toward Ismael’s cell. Once inside, Aron gives Ismael his daily breakfast. Ismael rises and reveals his androgynous, pale, alluring (Stina Ekblad is a woman) features to the moonlight shining through his barred windows. He requests that Alexander be allowed to remain with him in the room, alone, for the next thirty minutes. Aron relents and the two are alone. Ismael is a free spirit who derives his name from the Old Testament figure Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, and the one whose “hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” He has a mystical connection to Alexander and views them as twin spirits, potentially even the same spirit occupying separate bodies. During their symbolic union, Ismael reveals Alexander’s deepest desire to destroy Vergerus. He asks Alexander to act upon it. As a result, Vergerus’ ailing sister, who is another idiot savant who is on the same channel wavelength as the two boys, purposefully knocks over the lamp on her bedside table. The fire explodes, she is lit afire, and immediately heads toward her brother’s room, where she grabs onto him and burns him to death.
Magic and enigmatic religion are elements missing from the hard, cold, and sterile Christianity of the Church. Meanwhile, the Ekdahl home that prides itself on a cheerful, wise Christianity and an affinity for the art of acting, lends itself to creative, productive modes of imagination that render their most precocious youths into seers who can channel the spectres of the In-Between Ones and manipulate events through psychic connections. The religion of mystery and questioning and the belief in the Kabbalah and its powers at the heart of the mystic Judaism of Jacobi and Ismael creates spaces of mystical power and instantiations of spiritual force. Bergman seems to be trying to condemn the directionality of the Church over the past hundred years by recourse to what a dark, reflective, and serious, albeit more life-affirming approach to spirituality may bring. In this way, his philosophical spirituality is a formulation of his own then-emerging worldviews into a non-systematized system wherein mystery and enigma remain valid and respected.
If you seek out the miraculous without a heart to do so, the journey will always be in vain.
Best Regards and Happy Holidays,