Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When Fanny and Alexander was new, its director Ingmar Bergman announced that it would
be his last film. Perhaps the overwhelming international success of this fascinating family
portrait changed his mind; the last thing one would wish the maker of a great picture like
this one, is to stop working.
No longer tied to the dour, pessimistic vision of his middle years, Bergman infuses his story
of a well-to-do theatrical family with dozens of interesting characters. There's plenty of
intimate detail, drama and intrigue. Most of it is seen through the imaginative eyes of
young Alexander (Bertil Guve), allowing the director to introduce a subtle fantastic element
into his tale. Fanny and Alexander veers from warm family gatherings to the dark
contrast of an oppressive stepfather's domination. It is also a unique, riveting ghost story.
Criterion presents Bergman's most accessible movie in two versions, the original five-hour
Swedish Television show, and the three-hour theatrical cut-down.
The episodic story begins with a joyful Christmas celebration, before major changes overwhelm
the Eckdahl household. The spirited grandmother still keeps a tight rein on family business,
and is visited by an old admirer, Isaak (Erland Josephson). Her grown sons are amusing
eccentrics. Gustav Adolf carries on an open affair with one of the household maids. Uncle
Carl has lost faith in his importance and abuses his German wife. But Alexander's father
Oscar tells fanciful stories to keep the theatrical world of magic alive for the children.
The main event is a sudden death in the family, followed by the marriage of Alexander's
mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) to the local Bishop (Jan Malmsjö). Only Alexander
seems to intuit this man's unyielding Calvinistic menace, and soon Emilie and her
children are prisoners in his stone 'palace,' surrounded by frightened servants. The
Eckdahl family seems powerless to retrieve them, and the fanatic Bishop is determined to
break Alexander's spirit.
What a plot description can't communicate is Fanny and Alexander's magical subtext.
At first confined to Alexander's flights of imagination, such as making a statue come to
life, the unexplainable events expand into ghost visitations by dead relatives and legendary
murder victims. Hamlet's ghost in the Eckdahl's little theater production might
serve as the source of inspiration. But later on Alexander comes into contact with Isaak,
an elderly Jewish sage who uses tricks of slight-of-hand that are completely unexplainable.
That mystery leads to other mysteries, such as Isaak's mad son Ismael (played by a woman,
Stina Ekblad) locked away in a secret chamber.
Bergman's story takes a number of frightening turns but never retreats into his older world
of hopelessness and isolation. Help comes from unexpected directions. Alexander's unreliable
Uncles make a spirited, if laughably uncoordinated attempt to intimidate the wicked Bishop.
Alexander and his shy sister Fanny face down their oppressor with the kind of courage and
resolve unknown in Bergman's earlier Hour of the Wolf and Shame.
Filmed in rich color, Fanny and Alexander idealizes a childhood in a
turn-of-the-century Sweden. The celebratory opening is mirrored by a concluding christening
party as warm and human as any in the movies. Grandmother and Emilie are firmly in charge
of the family, and all is right with the world.
Criterion has yet another remarkable DVD in Fanny and Alexander; it's fair to say
that this leading DVD company is now also one of the centers of film culture. Their
presentation of Ingmar Bergman's crowning achievement goes way beyond market requirements.
The flawless transfers of both versions sport glowing colors. The discs are organized to
navigate swiftly to desired content without waiting for elaborate animated menus to play out,
which is a wise and welcome new trend in DVD.
Also included are Bergman's well-known making-of documentary, an hour-long interview with
the director, and new interviews with a score of collaborators and actors, including Bertil
Guve, Ewa Fröling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson. There are also eleven
personal film introductions that Bergman prepared in 1984, galleries of theatrical trailers,
art and set sketches, stills and essays from Rick Moody, Stig Bjorkman and Paul Arthur.
Criterion's disc producer is Johanna Schiller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fanny and Alexander rates:
Supplements: Ingmar Bergman's feature length documentary The Making of Fanny and
Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film, a 60-minute conversation between Bergman and Nils
Petter Sundgren made for Swedish television in 1984; Audio commentary on the theatrical version
by film scholar Peter Cowie; New video interviews with producer Jorn Donner, production manager
Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schildt, and actors Bertil Guve,
Ewa Froling, Pernilla August, and Erland Josephson; Introductions by Bergman to eleven of his films;
A selection of Bergman theatrical trailers; Costume sketches and video footage of the models for
the film's sets; Stills gallery; booklet featuring new essays by novelist Rick Moody, documentarian
and film historian Stig Bjorkman, and film scholar Paul Arthur.
Packaging: Three card and plastic folders inside a card box
Reviewed: December 5, 2004
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson