Fanny and Alexander (1982): Ingmar Bergman’s Most Accessible, Oscar-Winning Masteriece

“Fanny and Alexander” is arguably Ingmar Bergman’s most accessible and most spiritually positive work. The story of two children growing up in Sweden at the turn of the century, “Fanny and Alexander” is a charming, autobiographical film in the manner of Fellini’s “Amarcord” or Truffaut’s “400 Blows.”

This magical reverie tells the story of a year in the life of an extended Swedish family, seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old Alexander. After Alexander’s father, a famous actor, dies, his mother marries a harsh and sadistic clergyman. Alexander and his sister Fanny, who’s eight-years-old, are rescued from this household by their gentle and loving grandmother.

Plot doesn’t do justice to the richly textured, sumptuously produced film, which stars Bergman’s veterans Erland Josephson and Harriet Andersson. You can also spot the young Lena Olin, who would star in Bergman’s 1984 TV film “After the Rehearsal” (released theatrically in the U.S.), here playing a maid.

Bergman has said that when a friend asked him why a man of such vitality and sexuality had consistently turned out depressing fare, the idea for Fanny and Alexander was born in his mind. He also decided that his farewell to cinema should transcend the morbidity of his previous films, especially his most recent works. He wanted to end his big-screen career on an optimistic and upbeat note.

Once he had passed his sixtieth birthday, Bergman started to plan his retirement from filmmaking. He announced that filmmaking was a young man’s game. With this in mind, he finished the screenplay for “Fanny and Alexander” in July of 1979. Shooting began in 1981.

The film indeed ends happily, with Grandmother Ekdahl reading to Alexander. The last lines of the film are from the preface to Strindberg’s A Dream Play: “Anything can happen, all is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns… ” This passage continues on to suggest that the most important thing about dreams is the dreamer. Bergman’s four decades of films are sort of revelatory dreams, which tell us about his personal demons and anxieties.

Nominated for six Oscars, “Fanny and Alexander” won four: Best Foreign-Language Picture, Cinematography (Sven Nykvist), Art Direction-set Decoration (Anna Asp), and Costume Design (Marik Vos). Bergman was nominated for the directing and original screenwriting Oscars, but lost the former to James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) and the latter to Horton Foote (“Tender Mercies”).

Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. His father was a pastor, and ingrained in him concepts, which would later surface, in his films: sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace. Bergman became a student of art history and literature at the University of Stockholm, then an errand boy at the Royal Opera House, and finally a filmmaker.

Bergman’s films include “Wild Strawberries” (1957), “The Seventh Seal” (1957), “Persona” (1966), “Cries and Whispers” (1972), “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), and “Autumn Sonata” (1978). He recently wrote but didn’t direct “Best Intentions”(1992), which won major awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Note

These notes were written for a tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s work at Arizona State University.