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Issue 213

Fifteen Moments of Lightness in Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’

The weightlessness of the iconic film helps alleviate the oppressive pull of reality

BY Chloe Aridjis in Film , Opinion , Thematic Essays | 01 JUN 20

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander, 1982. Courtesy: Gaumont

This essay is the third in a series of memos by artists, writers, curators and scientists written to the world after the COVID-19 crisis. In homage to Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), they are divided into six categories: 'lightness', 'quickness', 'exactitude', 'visibility', 'multiplicity' and 'consistency'. '15 Moments of Lightness' was written in response to 'lightness'.

It’s hard to ignore the paradox we’re currently living: our world brought to a standstill, daily life grounded to a halt, by a virus that leaps about with an agility we’re denied. The more the virus travels, the more we must stay in place, succumbing in more ways than one to the gravity of the moment. At the beginning of lockdown, I began thinking about works that featured characters who suffered some form of entrapment and found release through their imagination. Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), one of my favourite films since adolescence, soon rose to mind. Set in the Swedish town of Uppsala in the early 20th century, it centers around the Ekdahl family and specifically sister and brother Fanny and Alexander, who live through a series of ever-darkening tribulations. It’s not a film one would associate with lightness any more than Bergman’s other work, yet in it I found many moments that captured a striving towards physical or existential weightlessness, a weightlessness that threw into question, or helped alleviate, the oppressive ground pull of reality. 

1. Prologue. Alexander gazes into his toy paper theatre, his head resting on a hand. Nine little flames dance in the foreground. The puppets and cardboard backdrops lack material density and can easily be rearranged; nothing is immutable. 

2. Alexander wanders the empty rooms of his grandmother’s sumptuous apartment, calling out. No one replies. The clock chimes three, cherubs revolve on a pedestal. In a corner, the marble statue of a semi-nude woman is suddenly bathed in otherworldly light. She begins to move her arms to the ethereal tune of a music box.

3. The presence of his sister Fanny. Blue-eyed and moon-faced, always in her flaxen braids and pinafore, she is imbued with a lightness that eludes her raven-haired brother. Despite living through the same traumas, she seems less haunted and moves gracefully through the film, a silent witness.

4. The presence of his luminous grandmother Helena Ekdahl, née Mandelbaum. The matriarch, a repository of wisdom. She tends to her family’s suffering, listens to their woes in her light-filled conservatory.

5. Christmas revels. Dinner, followed by the extended family and servants dancing spiritedly through the rooms in single file. This is the only moment of total levity in the film, when earthly worries are shed.

6. The children are put to bed. Alexander’s eye falls on a magic lantern beckoning from a table. He treats the other children to a show, casting a beam across the darkened room. A ghostly figure floats into the frame, an uncanny intrusion into the domestic space. Like the characters in the film, the lantern is poised between the solid traditions of the 19th century and the atomised sorcery of the 20th.

7. Shortly after Christmas their father, a struggling theatre manager, collapses onstage while playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and dies. The father becomes a ghost, one that will exist beyond any theatre or magic lantern show.

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander, 1982. Courtesy: Gaumont

Then follows a chapter from which all forms of lightness are absent. Fanny and Alexander’s mother, Emilie, marries Edvard Vergérus, the stern Lutheran bishop who presided over their father’s funeral. The children move with her to his home and are put in a tower. Edvard insists they leave behind their books, toys and dolls. The rich palette shifts to heavy greys and black. Their imprisonment is further embodied in Elsa, the bishop’s obese, toadlike aunt who is mute and immobile. Edvard feels threatened by Alexander’s flights of imagination, the one sphere over which he has no control, and beats him when he tells a lie. The only movement is that of the river below, flowing through the town, rushing and fugitive. Alexander gazes down at it through barred windows. Emilie has not found the spiritual lightness she desperately sought; she realizes her grave error.

8. It is Uncle Isak Jacobi, the grandmother’s lover, who rescues the children from the crushing weight of the bishop’s rule. He appears in a black hat and overcoat in a horse-driven cart and says he has come to purchase a wooden chest. While Edvard goes to sign a paper Isak finds the children and has them remove their shoes and quickly crawl inside.

9. Suspecting a ruse, the bishop and his sister rush up to the nursery. In a moment of divine intervention - Isak implores the heavens - they see a simulacrum: Fanny and Alexander lie curled on the floor asleep, at the center of the room. ‘Don’t touch them!’ Emilie cries out.

10. Inspired by a Jewish antiques shop Bergman visited as a child, Isak’s dimly lit home quivers with magic and possibility. Rows of puppets with carved faces hang from the ceiling, nodding as the children walk past. Unlit chandeliers emit a numinous tinkling. Isak lives with his two nephews, Aron the puppeteer and Ishmael his brother, who is apparently mad and dangerous and must be kept in a locked room. Everything forms part of a mysterious ecosystem in a state of suspension, its residents endowed with a certain agility acquired through mystical thought.

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander, 1982. Courtesy: Gaumont

That night, Alexander loses his way back to his bed after visiting the bathroom and has three significant encounters.

11. In a room full of crystal vessels and chandeliers, he holds a conversation with his father’s ghost. His father apologizes for his powerlessness. In Hebrew the word for respect is kavod, which also means weight; you impart weight to your parents in order to find your own lightness. Yet Alexander doesn’t seem ready to do so. 

12. Alexander then holds a conversation with God, who admonishes him from behind a door. The door opens and a giant marionette tumbles out. Aron leaps from behind. He reminds Alexander that nothing is what it seems. ‘Uncle Isak says we are surrounded by realities, one outside the other.’

13. They hear a distant song. It is Ishmael, singing. Aron leads Alexander to his room. Ishmael is androgynous, seerlike, and menacing. In his diary, published later in his autobiographical Images: My Life in Film (1994), Bergman described Ishmael as ‘an idiot with the face of an angel, a thin, fragile body and colorless eyes that see all. He is able to do evil. He is like a membrane for wishes that quivers with the slightest touch.’

14. Ishmael can read Alexander’s wishes. More importantly, he can set them in motion. He speaks softly, running his hands over Alexander’s face and chest. The scene cuts to the bishop’s home, where Elsa knocks over her bedside lamp and begins a fire. Writhing in flames, she bursts into the bishop’s room and clutches him. ‘The burning woman [annihilates] the bishop,’ wrote Bergman, as if describing a concluding chess move.

15. Epilogue. Alexander nestles beside his grandmother. She reads to him from August Strindberg’s Dream Play (1901): ‘Time and space do not exist. Only a flimsy framework of reality. The Imagination spins, weaving new patterns.’ The ticking of a clock. Alexander drifts off.

Bergman’s mother was ill with Spanish influenza when he was born in 1918 and he was sickly as a child. That early existential dread courses through all of his work (most overtly in The Seventh Seal, 1957, set in plague-ravished medieval Europe) and often there exists little to offset it. In Fanny and Alexander he emphasizes the importance of creating one’s little world within the larger one beyond, to escape into spaces where the stifling concreteness of reality temporarily dissolves, or at least wears a different face. At a time when so much of life feels petrified, it’s easy to forget the vitalizing function of lightness, in this case a lightness attained through reverie. And though our reverie may never be entirely free of gravity or menace, it grants us agility, a movement free of gravitational laws and limitations. We should allow ourselves to be borne aloft.   

Chloe Aridjis is a writer who lives in London, UK. Her latest novel is Sea Monsters (2019).