Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

The Seventh Seal: examining a man’s crisis of faith and his quest for meaning to his existence

Ingmar Bergman, “The Seventh Seal / Det Sjunde Inseglet” (1957)

Set in Sweden during the Black Death (1347 – 1350), this famous film examines a man’s crisis of faith and his personal quest for meaning to life and a reason to go on living when around him suffering, violence and death can strike suddenly, randomly and senselessly. The film is also a criticism of formal religion, the beliefs its priests or their equivalents proclaim and more or less coerce their flocks to follow, and how formal belief systems and ideologies can collapse so quickly after a major disaster like a disease epidemic. Having returned from the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is on his way home with his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) when he meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. Block challenges Death to a chess game: if he can keep the game going by fair means or foul, he can earn extra time to find God and a meaning to his existence. Death, kept busy by plague victims dropping like flies, and not a little proud of his prowess as chess grandmaster, agrees to the challenge. Block successfully plays Death to check, and Death allows him respite.

During this period, Block and Jons meet several characters who attach themselves to the pair who promise to save them from the plague. Block meets a young family of actors and troubadours, Jof (Nils Poppe) who has visions, Mia (Bib Andersson) who cares for their baby son Mikael, and their manager Skat. Jons rescues a young woman from her would-be rapist whom Jons recognises as theologian Raval who, ten years earlier, had urged him and Block to join the crusade to the Holy Land. Jons’ disgust at seeing Raval suggests that he believes Raval to be a charlatan and liar for having sent knights on what turned out to be a futile and unnecessary quest of suffering and sacrifice. Later, Jons also saves Jof from Raval’s vicious behaviour and wounds the theologian. Skat has a fling with a blacksmith’s wife Lisa but she ends the affair and returns to her husband. Meanwhile Death pursues all of them.

The historical setting is not intended to be accurate, it is a metaphor and allegory, and all the characters are symbolic. The young family represents Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus: the embodiment of hope. Block is the man on a quest and Jons is his cynical atheist shadow. Raval represents the hypocrisy of religion. Other minor characters such as a girl (Maud Hansson) condemned to death for suspected witchcraft perhaps represent fear, ignorance and superstitious belief, and their tragic consequences. The acting ranges from fair to good to the often hammy, depending on the scene as the film features comedy, tragedy and melodrama in equal measures, but the major actors at least give their best to their roles.

Although Block cannot save himself and not all his questions are answered to his satisfaction, he does make good use of the time he gains by saving the young family from Death’s clutches and comforting the accused witch in the last moments of her life. In this act of gratitude for their hospitality, Block perhaps discovers the meaning of life and existence: our existence will have meaning only through our actions towards one another and to all other actors in our environment. Through his actions, Block expresses the compassion of God, a silent presence in much of the film (and to which the film’s title is an oblique reference).

Not a bad film but in my opinion this is not as good as “Wild Strawberries” which treated similar themes on a more intimate level – for such an iconic and mostly even-tempered film, the melodrama can be very heavy and bombastic. As the characters play symbolic roles, they lack depth and Block’s anguish may not appear very genuine to modern audiences. There isn’t much back-story to Block so viewers get no sense of how empty he might be at the beginning of the film, how spiritually dead and useless he feels, and so any triumph he achieves by the time he is claimed by Death has a reduced impact.

 

Persona: visually stunning minimalist meditation on identity, duality and the art of film-making

Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” (1966)

A visually stunning film, shot in black and white film and using contrasts of lighting and landscape to illustrate its themes of identity and the breakdown of boundaries between things thought to be separate, “Persona” is a minimalist film revolving almost entirely around two of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors. The plot is basic and in the hands of a hack Hollywood director could have become a campy horror lesbian porn flick. An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) is stricken with a psychosomatic illness that renders her completely unable to speak. A young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to Elisabet’s care. The head nurse of the hospital where Alma is caring for Elisabet suggests the two might like to stay at her seaside cottage for a while so that Elisabet can recuperate better. The two women duly go there.

The area where the cottage is located seems very remote and Alma talks constantly to keep the catatonic Elisabet’s spirits up. At first Alma engages in idle chit-chat about herself, then she opens up with deep-seated anxieties about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend, and admits to having had a fling with two young boys behind her fiance’s back. Increasingly Alma feels herself being dominated by Elisabet – she happens upon a letter Elisabet has written to her therapist and discovers that the patient has been “studying” her – and though she fights against what she believes is Elisabet’s projection of herself onto her own personality, she repeatedly succumbs to the “domination”. Elisabet for her part withdraws more and more into herself until she is incapable of responding to anything around her except through Alma. Which of the two will find the strength to break out of this unhealthy loop?

The minimalist style of the film calls forth questions about the two women that will remain forever unresolved. Is Elisabet really manipulating Alma, is her muteness deliberate – or is Alma imagining that she is being dominated because of her own insecurity and mental fragility? In one scene, Alma believes Elisabet has crept up on her during the night yet Elisabet denies having visited her in her bedroom: who is to be believed here? Is each woman suffering from an emptiness that only the other can understand and fill? Alma has had to abort a baby she probably wanted while Elisabet (according to Alma) gave birth to a child she didn’t want: the two women complement and complete each other through their female reproductive function. Is Elisabet “studying” Alma as a character she might play in a future acting role? Is Alma projecting her own imagination and experiences onto Elisabet as though suggesting a role in a future stage play?

Other themes about family and the maintenance and continuation of family relationships and connections also come to the fore; it is likely that Elisabet’s mental problem that is causing her speech blockage stems in part from deep-seated family issues, of which her ambivalence towards her son is an illustration and symptom. Another possible cause for Elisabet’s speechlessness may be her inability to empathise deeply with the suffering she sees on television (a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest at the US military intervention in Vietnam) and in a famous photograph of Jewish women and children being rounded up by German Nazi soldiers; this inability also affects her relationships with her husband and son. Once Alma has guessed what Elisabet’s real problem is, she tries to make her escape. The physical escape may be easy enough but the film makes no suggestion that the mental escape is as smooth and quick.

Bergman deliberately inserted abstract elements and collages of images at the beginning, end and in the middle of the film to suggest that “Persona” itself isn’t to be taken seriously. The film is very much also about the art of film-making and the art of acting, with a message that to be effective, actors must study other people and become other people. There is a risk that in becoming another person, the actor may lose her identity and real personality. Thus Elisabet becomes completely catatonic once Alma discovers the root of Elisabet’s sickness and decides to break free of Elisabet’s hold over her.

The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is at once stunning and subtle, and while it is probably overdone it certainly emphasises the duality in the film and its characters: shots of Ullmann and Andersson together are arranged so that the actors’ faces, hands and upper bodies are overshadowing each other or can be imagined combined. The cottage setting close to the seashore hints of the land and the sea competing for domination over the other. Contrasts between light and darkness are emphasised: the actors frequently wear dark clothes to highlight this polarity. The film’s self-referential quality is highlighted in Alma’s rant to Elisabet about the latter’s ambivalent feelings toward her son, done twice: the first time from Alma’s viewpoint and the second time from Elisabet’s. It’s as if Alma is now directing Elisabet in what to say and do, what her motivations are, so that the mute woman knows what her character is to do next.

Because the film is so spare in its narrative and so open-ended in its plot and in the way it was filmed, no two people will see this and come away with the same conclusions about it. “Persona” will remain as much an enigma to viewers as Elisabet is to Alma and others around her.

 

 

 

Wild Strawberries: a road trip into self-discovery and examination that leads to redemption and self-forgiveness

Ingmar Bergman, “Smultronstället /  Wild Strawberries” (1957)

Few movies feature 80 or 70-something actors as lead characters so to see Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” with Viktor Sjöström in a lead role only a couple of years before his death at the age of 80 years is to see something special: an actor still at the peak of his powers and perhaps aware that his role will be his swansong piece. The film also features actors who regularly appear in many of Bergman’s films: Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow. Although the title in Swedish refers to something of sentimental personal value, Bergman uses the strawberry patch that appears early in the film as the launch-pad for a journey of self-discovery and examination, and a final redemption and reconciliation with the realities of life and custom.

Professor Isak Borg (Sjöström) learns he is to be honoured by his old alma mater the University of Lund with an honorary doctorate for services to medicine so with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Thulin), who is estranged from his son Ewald, he sets out on the long car journey from Stockholm to Lund. Along the way he and Marianne stop to look at his old family holiday home with its strawberry patch and memories of his youthful romance with a girl called Sara (Andersson) come to him. The unlikely duo continue on their way and pick up three teenage hitch-hikers, one of whom is called Sara (Andersson again). The five then nearly collide with another car and have to take on the married couple as passengers. The husband and wife quarrel so much that Marianne forces them to leave. The couple reminds Borg of his own unhappy and tumultuous married life and his wife’s infidelity.

The journey continues and at each step of the way Borg is forced by daydreams, memories and knowledge of his own impending death to admit that he has never been a model lover, husband and father, and that his own son Ewald has become as cold, rationalistic and status-seeking as himself. He is forced to see that his coldness drove away his sweetheart Sara, who ended up married to his fun-loving brother Sigfrid, and his wife (Gertrud Fridh) into an affair. He and Marianne visit his aged mother (Naima Wifstrand) and Marianne is shocked to see the aged crone as a cold bitch.

The five reach Lund and Borg duly accepts his award in a sterile and lifeless ceremony of mumbo-jumbo Latin and starched-collar comic parody quality. Later Borg bids adieu to the teenage Sara and her boyfriends; in the short space of a few hours Borg and the second Sara have become close friends. Borg’s son Ewald (Björnstrand) later tells Borg that he and Marianne have decided to reconcile. When Borg retires for the night, he dreams of a picnic in which he sees his parents again and he is at peace.

The film is low-key and quite serene in presentation, masking the deep emotions and the quest for meaning to a long but empty and shallow life. In the space of a few hours’ ride in a car a dysfunctional family’s problems are laid out with the use of ingenious methods such as dream sequences in which Borg finds himself a voyeur into dioramas of family life, heart-felt conversations he should have had decades ago with Sara, his wife’s secret love affair and encounters with death. Significantly at the beginning of the film, Borg is spiritually lifeless and his connections to human beings are cold and formal but through his car journey, he is forced by experience and memory, and the way new associations with people such as the teenagers and the quarrelsome couple bleed into his reveries, to acknowledge his weaknesses and arrogance, and through that acknowledgement become human and alive at last. By the end of the film, he has forged a new and more caring relationship with his daughter-in-law and might be well on the way to reconciling with his son.

All the acting is good though Bibi as the teenage Sara is a bit unbelievable as a typical 1950s hipster jiving teen who declares her love for an old man while flirting with two boys. Considerable poetic licence must be allowed – the car journey itself can’t have taken such a short time from sunrise to early afternoon and allowed Borg to have prepared properly to receive his award. The near-collision scene strains credibility as well but it’s what happens afterwards that is most significant.

Symbolism is important in the film: Borg’s dreams, in particular his nightmare at the beginning of the film, carry prophetic elements and even props such as the coffin in the nightmare, slipping out of its carriage like a squalling newborn, or the funeral cortege-like car Borg and Marianne drive to Lund have been carefully selected. The country landscape with its quiet trees and sinuous roads is a stoic contrast to the turbulence roiling in Borg’s mind. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little too heavy and forced as when branches of a tree appear to encircle Borg’s head from one scene to the next. The use of dreams as a way to explore issues of existence and the worth of one’s life and values can be inspired; in one dream sequence, Bergman uses a common dream theme – returning to school for an exam – to demonstrate how rationalistic Borg became and how his humanity was reduced as a result.

This is a film to be experienced for its visual beauty, its intelligence and philosophical questioning as well as for the fine acting and story of self-discovery and redemption through a car-trip.

Brink of Life: sympathetic and unromantic 1950’s investigation of pregnancy and childbirth

Ingmar Bergman, “Brink of Life” (1958)

Even in these supposedly more “liberal” times when no topic seems taboo to speak about openly, a director, male or female, would need to be very brave to tackle the subject of childbirth, miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy and stillbirth in the same feature film. Imagine then that over half a century ago, when it was rare for Hollywood even to show a married couple in bed together, a director did precisely just that: make a movie about childbirth and pregnancy that didn’t romanticise the phenomena but instead portrayed them as painful and ghastly and part of human suffering. The film is “Brink of Life” and it was made by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, following soon after he made “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries

Revolving around three women patients thrown together in a room in a maternity hospital, the movie has an ordinary look and its focus is small and intimate: the camera limits itself to the three women’s ward, the corridor immediately outside and a few other rooms. The entire film hangs on the performances of the actors playing the three women Cecelia (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hjordis (Bibi Andersson); fortunately all three actors rise to the challenge of playing characters undergoing their own personal crises connected with their pregnancies and all give outstanding performances. Cecelia has a miscarriage and tries to explain it away as evidence of her husband’s lack of love for her and the unborn child: she decides that they should get a divorce. Hjordis is a young unmarried girl rejected by her lover for falling pregnant; having had an abortion before, she now wants to keep the baby but is frightened that her parents will turn her away. Stina is looking forward to seeing her new baby and when her husband (Max von Sydow) visits, they make plans about what cot the child will sleep in. The birth turns out to be difficult and ends badly; the doctors are unable to explain why and how it went wrong

Each of the lead actors makes the most of her role in one scene or a few: Thulin in particular gives a wrenching performance early on when, delirious from the anaesthetic, she raves to Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornas) about the lack of love in her marriage, her own personal inadequacies and how these affected the pregnancy. The camera focusses closely on Thulin’s face, in intense psychological pain, and, like the nurse, the viewer feels trapped yet compelled to listen. Dahlbeck has her moment when Stina goes into labour and suffers pain and panic as the baby gets stuck; the acting looks so realistic and is heart-rending to watch as doctors and nurses scurry about helplessly. Andersson perhaps steals the film from Thulin and Dahlbeck in her portrayal of Hjordis: young and not a little rebellious, yet unsure about her future and the baby’s, she has no monologues but her telephone scenes and the dialogues she has with Cecelia, Nurse Brita and a counsellor reveal a great deal about Hjordis’s background and inner turmoil about her relationships with her lover and family.

Of the support cast, Hiort af Ornas as Nurse Brita is excellent, having to be confidant to the patients in her charge as well as the authoritative head nurse giving orders, yet never really succeeding in giving the patients the psychological comfort they need and just mouthing platitudes about the joys of motherhood. Erland Josephsson, playing Cecelia’s husband, makes the most of his limited time portraying a man completely out of his depth in trying to help his wife come to terms with her miscarriage. Generally all male characters in “Brink of Life” seem self-centred and lack understanding and sympathy for the psychological and emotional issues that arise for women experiencing pain and uncertainty in a major life-changing event; they approach such problems with rationalistic views or science and technology which in the movie end up failing them. The nurses, Nurse Brita included, go about their duties quietly and efficiently but always defer to the men and their science. The hospital is revealed as remote and clinical in its culture, its staff narrowly focussed on getting results and churning through patients and babies: it’s, well, an inhospitable place. Towards the film’s end, Inga Landgre nearly sweeps away the other female actors’ thunder in a very brief but impressively forceful appearance as sister-in-law to Cecilia, urging her to give her marriage another chance

Limited to a small set of rooms, the film has a trapped, claustrophobic quality; the crying of newborn babies and the patients’ own limited movements reinforce the claustrophobia. The small scale of the movie is such that it begins with Cecelia being admitted to hospital and, in a terrifying scene, stranded in a room by herself while her foetus dies; the movie ends with Hjordis discharging herself from hospital, separating from the other two women with whom she has shared several details about herself so viewers never know if Cecilia and her husband will reconcile, or how Stina will react to news of her baby’s death. The film sometimes has the look of a play – if it had been made in the present day, it might be expected to look more like a documentary taking place in an actual hospital with improvised acting – and most of the acting does have a staged quality. Some of the dialogue that Hjordis has in expressing her ambivalence about pregnancy and looking after a baby to Nurse Brita touches on issues of human suffering which may strike some viewers as rather deep and intense for a young girl of a working-class background to express. The very ordinary, almost sterile look of the film may not win it any technical accolades but it does concentrate the attention on the actors and their lean dialogue

The premise of throwing together three women representing different social classes in the one ward hardly seems credible and the plot doesn’t explore the women’s social differences and how these might influence their attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth, and to one another. Hjordis’s social background helps to round out her character and fears about her pregnancy and what she believes will be her family’s reaction to the unexpected pregnancy but the other two women’s backgrounds seem irrelevant to their character development and the plot’s workings. At least the hospital staff treat the three women equally (as in equally coldly and unsympathetically) regardless of their social class. The film’s overall message seems to be that human existence can be grim, people don’t always live up to their potential as full human beings and provide the support women and babies need, and mothers must make the best of whatever difficult situations they find themselves in: a fairly trite message.

In spite of its limitations, “Brink of Life” is worthwhile watching for the performances given and for a complex and sympathetic view of pregnancy and childbirth in a context that should give care and support to women who need both but treats pregnancy and childbirth as strictly technical medical conditions.