FANNY AND ALEXANDER is clearly an impressive work but maybe Too impressive. It’s never a good thing when an artist celebrates himself or attempts to sum up his career with a grand finale, an all-too-self-conscious magnum opus. It can pan out on occasion. Akira Kurosawa made RAN in this vein, and despite problems it works because it was done with broad brushstrokes. It has ‘epic’ written all over it. In contrast, a work like FANNY AND ALEXANDER depends on detail and intimacy(and is very good with those), the poetics of the private moment, but both are rendered secondary by overriding tone of officiality and pageantry. (In WILD STRAWBERRIES, the old man treks to a ceremony in his honor. In FANNY AND ALEXANDER, Bergman, not quite so old, bestows the honor unto himself. It’s as if he crafted a trophy or baked a cake for his own self-aggrandizement.) It’s like one of those Lifetime Award Ceremonies, one in which Bergman both fulsomely toasts and gently roasts himself.
As a result, the private elements are rendered into public display, and the genuine article of the work is compromised. It’s like whispers through a megaphone. Also, Ingmar Bergman, around 65(official retiring age) at the time of production, wasn’t yet wise and mature enough to reflect on his life with sufficient honesty and integrity. That would come later with three films about his parents — THE BEST INTENTIONS, SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS — and perhaps FAITHLESS, in which he reveals himself to have been a worse monster than his father. His father, for all his Christian charity and selflessness in his calling, was a bitter and vindictive man of insecurities and resentment. And the son, Ingmar, despite his creativity, freedom, and worldliness, was no less controlling, possessive, and touchy in his own perverse way. FAITHLESS is more damning of Bergman than the three films of his parents are of the father, but it is marred by excessive self-condemnation that reeks of pride of guilt: “I admit I’m a scoundrel, so gimme credit for saying as much.”
Perhaps, Bergman had Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ in mind when working on FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Fellini’s film, along with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, is the gold standard of film about film-making. Even though FANNY AND ALEXANDER isn’t about film-making per se, it is a tribute to creativity and imagination, the dreams and muses that eventually led young Bergman toward a career in cinema as the fulfilment of the magic lantern of his childhood.
Also, the film is about the world of theater, and at least in Sweden, Bergman was as renowned as a man of the Theater as of Film. (According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, far less enamored of Bergman-as-filmmaker, theater was his real forte. Or one could argue Bergman’s films tended to be more photographic than cinematic, especially when compared with the works of Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky who had deeper intuitions of cinematic time and space.) Still, 8 ½ was made when Fellini was at his peak, and though sadly, what followed was a steady decline. 8 ½ was meant to signal a summing up of and a break with the Old Fellini and the heralding of the New Fellini unmoored from earlier restraints. As it turned out, it was no way to make cinema. Creativity feeds on liberation but also needs form and structure. One wonders if Fellini’s precipitous decline following 8 ½ owed to artistic bankruptcy or adoption of a foolish conceit, from which 8 ½ was spared because it struggled toward than surrendered to its temptations. Fellini, self-indulgent by nature, needed a leash to rein him in.
Unlike Fellini in 1963 who seemed poised to remake cinema, the Bergman who made FANNY AND ALEXANDER was way past his prime. And indeed, the film offers nothing new and merely magnifies what he’d done earlier(though the aesthetics of CRIES AND WHISPERS and THE MAGIC FLUTE somewhat anticipated this). And the result is undoubtedly very impressive, the effect being not unlike the final part of BABETTE’S FEAST when steady moralism makes way for sensualism for a day. It’s been a common theme in the history of spirituality, philosophy, and the arts. It’s like the old colleague in HOUSE OF GAMES noting the Freudian Slip of ‘pressure’ for ‘pleasure’.
In a way, FANNY AND ALEXANDER was a return to form but also something more. Beginning with THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY but especially with WINTER LIGHT and THE SILENCE, Bergman had moved in a new direction. The previous works were situated somewhere between conventional narrative and early modernism, as if cinema had much catching up to do with the aesthetic and theoretical trends of the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century. So, even though Bergman’s cinema, like that of Fellini and Kurosawa, seemed fresh and new for the young medium, it wasn’t quite so fresh or daring by the standards of the modernist movement or the latest avant-garde, though Luis Buñuel was an exception of sorts. (It’s like the gaunt intellectual in 8 ½ says cinema is 50 yrs behind the other arts.) WILD STRAWBERRIES’s use of symbolism was masterly, but that sort of thing had been done to death in painting. Fellini’s LA STRADA, though relatively new for cinema, was old hat by standards of drama or literature.
However, by the late 1950s and early 60s, a new modernism emerged in cinema, mainly from post-Neo-Realist Roberto Rossellini, the French New Wave and its peers(especially Alain Resnais and Chris Marker), and especially Michelangelo Antonioni. If men like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman were adapting pre-existing modes and expressions of drama, novels, and painting for cinema, Jean-Luc Godard with BREATHLESS, Resnais with HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, Antonioni with L’AVVENTURA, Teshigahara with WOMAN IN THE DUNES, and perhaps Francois Truffaut with JULES AND JIM were making works that were not only contemporaneous with the latest modernism but could be conceived only in cinematic terms. This posed a new challenge for established artists like Fellini and Bergman. No wonder Fellini felt such pressure while making 8 ½. Likewise, Bergman felt compelled to move beyond catching-up-to-modernism in the other arts. He got colder, more cerebral, more austere. The works became more distilled of the recognizable ‘human element’. The warmth, sentimentality, humor, and ‘human’ qualities of SUMMER WITH MONIKA, SUMMER INTERLUDE, WILD STRAWBERRIES, SEVENTH SEAL, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, DREAMS, LESSON IN LOVE, and even SAWDUST AND TINSEL were gone. A bit lingered into THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY but were frozen out by the time WINTER LIGHT and THE SILENCE rolled around. Even though Bergman had loyal admirers, he felt left behind by the new sensibility.
If the Art Film in the 40s and 50s was mainly playing catch-up to modernism in the other arts, by the 60s it was attempting to be on par or even ahead of the other arts. As compelling as Bergman’s new films(beginning with THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY) were, there was an element of strain to compensate for the insecurity and anxiety. After all, the three films couldn’t match up to something like L’AVVENTURA or MURIEL. Or Godard’s ALPHAVILLE. Or the works of the chameleon-like Luis Bunuel, a natural born modernist for whom oddity came naturally. (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV, in contrast, defied all categories. They were unmistakably modern works created by sensibilities profoundly and unmistakably affected by modernism, but they were eternal and timeless in scope and meaning. They could just as well be placed within classicism or spiritualism.)
But then, Bergman, after a bout of illness that led to hallucinations(and what he deemed to be near-death experience), sprung forth PERSONA(like Athena from Zeus’s head), one of the greatest works of cinema and one that put him right back smack in the middle of the avant garde. Despite its stark difference from the circus-like 8 ½, it has a similar theme: Interrelation of mental block and spiritual vacuum. At any rate, PERSONA was such a resounding success(at least in the art house circuit) that Bergman fell into the same trap that Fellini did with 8 ½. If Fellini lost his way in ever more garish displays of phantasmagoria, Bergman became ever more isolated until there was little left but the neurosis(though with CRIES AND WHISPERS, as Fellini did with AMARCORD, he did try to recapture certain elements of classicism; same holds true of AUTUMN SONATA, a softer work about mother and daughter). Success of 8 ½ led Fellini to ever more extravagant self-indulgence, whereas the success of PERSONA led Bergman to more self-denial — ‘spiritually’, one went more ‘Catholic’ whereas the other went more ‘Lutheran’ despite their secular outlooks — , but they had in common the desperate attempt to recapture the miracle that led to their greatest works; the problem is a miracle cannot be consciously recreated.
But then, so many of the great directors who’d defined Cinema-as-Art were lost in the wilderness through the 1970s. Though there were exceptions, the French New Wave directors, Antonioni, the great Japanese masters, and other big names seemed to be, at best, treading water, totally washed up, or abandoned by the industry. Part of the reason was age. Artists grow old and run out of ideas, and cinema is especially a taxing medium on mind and body. Another reason was the Film Generation that defined the 60s became working age adults and lost their enthusiasm for World Cinema. Also, modernism in cinema petered out, as it had earlier in the other arts; it was inevitable as the primary value of modernism was premised on novelty or shock value. Though various national cinemas were branded as the new ‘new wave’, nothing could generate the kind of excitement that BREATHLESS and LA DOLCE VITA once did. The exception was THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS but largely for its frontier in sexual content.
The biggest names in cinema of the 1970s were Americans who, despite their relative youth, were less experimental pioneers than talented professionals who incorporated Art Film elements into popular genres: William Friedkin revitalized the crime and horror genres with THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST. Francis Ford Coppola refurbished the gangster movie and family drama with THE GODFATHER. Roman Polanski added a new touch to Film Noir with CHINATOWN. Sam Peckinpah unleashed the New Western with THE WILD BUNCH. Arguably, the only truly personal artists of ‘New Hollywood’ were Scorsese with MEAN STREETS & TAXI DRIVER and John Cassavetes with HUSBANDS, among others, but the appeal of Scorsese’s films partly owed to genre expectations. MEAN STREETS could be enjoyed as amateur-hour Marx-Brothers gangster film, and TAXI DRIVER could be seen as an artier version of DEATH WISH or DIRTY HARRY. (Some would argue that John Hinckley got the Wrong Idea from the film, but, on some level, he got the right idea though most people are loathe to admit it. While Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese were not exactly endorsing Travis Bickle as a hero, there was too much of Schrader and Scorsese that understood and even identified with Bickle for the film to claim itself as a rational study of a psychopathic personality. For many viewers, there was an unmistakable sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.)
If certain renowned directors were past their prime in the 1970s, others were undone by the changes in film production, especially with rising costs and dwindling investment. As for the French, the idiotic May 68 Event dealt a devastating blow on the finances of film-making, and its ideological ramifications were even worse. Many in the French film community vowed to join the radical cause and, as a result, either couldn’t find financial backing or churned out obtuse propaganda like Godard for much of the decade. (It was a proto-‘woke’ moment for French Culture.) For a time, many French film-makers derided cinema-as-art as too ‘bourgeois’, therefore tainted with lack of ‘commitment’ in favor of conventionality or the privilege of esoterica. Film festivals were shut down, and film journals ran little but politics.
Of course, the Grand Narrative would have us believe that Personal Filmmaking died with the advent of JAWS and STAR WARS, but it’s at best a half-truth. Even if Spielberg and Lucas had never arrived on the scene, Cinema as a Modernist Enterprise had run its course by the mid 70s, and what followed was the inexorable rise of Youth Pop Culture. Indeed, it was a worldwide problem. Take Sweden. In the 1970s, the nation was virtually paralyzed because everyone ran home to watch Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, a 5 1/2 hr television miniseries. Now, one might have surmised that a people so serious and sophisticated would have ended up differently from dumb, vulgar, and trashy Americans, but the cultural trajectory of Sweden has been no different from those of the US and Japan: dumb and dumber. Besides, if anything degraded Western Sensibility, it had less to do with blockbuster movies than white pop music that further vulgarized the lewdest elements of black music(but then, we aren’t supposed to cast any negative aspersions on black influence) and the rise of pornification of mainstream culture.
Then, after the fallouts and crises of the 1970s that bore the brunt of the social and cultural upheavals of the 60s, it wasn’t surprising that a key theme of the 80s was a kind of restoration. No wonder Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl dominated the decade. And Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA & RAN were hailed as a master’s return to form, along with Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Later, the once radical Bertolucci made the respectable THE LAST EMPEROR, and Nagisa Oshima, the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, made MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE, more tempered and classical in style than his earlier anarchic works. And praise was heaped on Francois Truffaut for THE LAST METRO — significant given the bitter row between radical Godard and bourgeois Truffaut in the 70s. It was a middling work but a reassuring one after so many years of cultural chaos and uncertainty. Oddly enough, the great New Hollywood American directors who hit the radar in the 70s failed to make their mark through much of the 80s. Coppola, Scorsese(but for RAGING BULL to start the decade), Robert Altman, Brian DePalma, Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, Friedkin and etc. all seemed to be floundering. (TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is Friedkin’s greatest work but was mostly neglected by audiences. And SCARFACE grew in stature over the years.) Indeed, some of the most memorable works of the decade were either swan songs or late resurgence by directors who’d made their names in the 60s or earlier. Other than Kurosawa, Bergman, Oshima, and Bertolucci, there were Shohei Imamura with BALLAD OF NARAYAMA, Kon Ichikawa with MAKIOKA SISTERS, Sergio Leone with ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Robert Bresson with L’ARGENT, Jan Troell with THE FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE, David Lean with PASSAGE TO INDIA, Louis Malle with ATLANTIC CITY, Andrei Tarkovsky with THE SACRIFICE, Istvan Szabo with MEPHISTO, and of course, Kubrick with THE SHINING and FULL METAL JACKET.
FANNY AND ALEXANDER has some of the warmth, zest, and humor of several Bergman films of the 1950s. People forget that SEVENTH SEAL is one third comedy, one third fantasy, and only one-third tragedy. And A LESSON IN LOVE and DREAMS could have been made for Hollywood. Though WILD STRAWBERRIES has dark moments, it is also full of sentiment and sunshine. FANNY AND ALEXANDER reconnects with those emotions, which Bergman had increasingly cast aside beginning in the 60s.
But then, the sheer scale of the work makes it unlike anything he’d done before. Even his film on the major subject of war, SHAME, was modest in scope and narrow in focus both in terms of movement and meaning. In contrast, FAA is expansive and all-embracing. It feels at times like Bergman’s THE LEOPARD or THE GODFATHER(or SOUND OF MUSIC). And despite its length, it is his most audience-friendly work since WILD STRAWBERRIES, also a film about family, generations, dream vs reality, and hope. In a way, FAA’s length allows for a more human story in the manner of a saga. The earlier shorter works, mostly ranging from 80-90 minutes, had little room for character development and tended to favor psychological states or concentrated on specific themes; they didn’t so much let us get to know the characters than provide an angle on them for the purpose of positing a theorem. FAA allows the characters to grow and develop, and the result is rounded than angular. Even those who know nothing of Bergman can immerse themselves in the story and share in the emotions. I first saw it in the dorm lobby in college with someone from a small town(who knew nothing of Art Film). It began late at 11:30 pm and ran long into the night, but the attention of those in the lobby never flagged. (In contrast, most will find 80 min of WINTER LIGHT or HOUR OF THE WOLF tough going.)
Though FAA isn’t a genre movie, it comes with certain ‘tropes’ associated with genres, especially horror, also true of CRIES AND WHISPERS, released a year before THE EXORCIST. Bergman admired Hitchcock as a technician(while disdaining him as an ‘artist’), and FAA is full of tricks associated with the suspense genre. It can also be approached as a “children’s movie” even if not meant for children. The overall sensibility could be said to be gothic, or Swedish Gothic. Of course, ‘gothic’ has two meanings, one associated with Medieval Christian aesthetics and the other associated with pagan barbarism. With the Renaissance revival of Classical Greco-Roman culture & ideas, the Christian aesthetics of the Middle Ages was wrongly disparaged as the ugly imagination of Germanic Barbarism.
The gothic legacy perhaps had the greatest influence on Western Horror, and it shows in FAA. Gothicism is as much a state of mind as well as a particular aesthetic. So, we can speak of an American Gothic. There’s even Jewish Gothic in FAA, a forbidding world of shadows and grotesquerie, though sometimes this dark magic has elements of ‘magic realism’, more a Latin thing.
Against the gothicism of the dark-souled Bishop and quasi-kabbalistic Jews, there is the warm and embracing radiance of the Ekdahl clan. (It seems the Jews have elements of both the Bishop’s family and the Ekdahl family. On some level, they are just as dark and twisted as the former, though more knowing and less repressed about their strangeness and perversity — it’s as if Jews had internalized exile/torment for so long that it’s become second-nature to them —, but on another level, they seem to embrace life as a kind of freak show at a circus. They are like the Nibelungen at home in the underworld. They are rich, but their wealth as pawnbrokers is founded on collecting the belongings of others, usually gentiles. They are alien Jews surrounded by alien gentile properties. They own the Other.) Alexander yearns for the glow and warmth of the Ekdahls than be trapped in the Bishop’s gothic hellhole, and yet, there are gothic elements in the world of the Ekdahls as well, a kind of Family Gothic. Alexander’s father, despite his prestige and privilege, is a rather depressed and morbid figure, a walking dead(who also looks like Hitler, recalling Donald Sutherland’s role in THE DAY OF THE LOCUST) or a puppet hanging on the last thread. Though his body works in theater, his soul seems halfway in the netherworld even before his sudden collapse and death. Despite outward festivities of the season, there is much bitterness and agonizing behind the scenes. The young housemaid is sexually exploited, much like many a goyess by Jewish bourgeois perverts; indeed, Gustav looks somewhat Semitic. She is slapped in the face before being presented with a gift by his corpulent wife. In some ways, she has it worse than the brown maid in ROMA. And even when Alexander is with the Ekdahls, he sees ghosts like the kid in SIXTH SENSE. His grandmother sees them too. Of course, they may not be ghosts but merely Bergman’s way of saying we are always in the company of those who haunt us, be they living or dead.
–The story is semi-autobiographical and reprises many of the themes explored in his other films.–
It strikes me as just barely semi-autobiographical, unlike Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS, a more candid work about the trials of youth. In real life, Bergman was the son of a minister, but in the film the religious patriarch is the usurper. What was Bergman saying? That he never regarded his real father as his spiritual father? Bergman’s imagination is as fanciful and delusional as Alexander’s. One might say it is more fanta- than semi-biographical. It is less a fictionalized account of his childhood than a fantasy of how his childhood should have been. It’s like ‘Betty’ is the shoulda-coulda-woulda fantasy of Diane Selwyn in MULHOLLAND DR. According to the logic of FAA, Bergman’s real childhood was like a nightmare in Pottersville, from which he dreamed of escaping to his true Bedford Falls of the Ekdahls, an ‘Athenian’ family open to freedom and creativity, one of cakes and ale than bread and water. (The young Bergman wished he’d spent more time with the extended family on his mother’s side than be stuck in the nuclear family headed by his spartan father. Unfortunately for Bergman, the nuclear option wasn’t merely the result of modernity but his father’s bitter estrangement from relatives on all sides. And even within the nuclear household, he was often emotionally exiled from his wife and children.) Thus, Bergman’s fantasy childhood has him not as the son of a devout patriarch but the wunderkind of the infinitely patient/tolerant/forgiving Oscar, a man surrounded by loving family members. (And yet, Oscar, though made to resemble Adolf Hitler, is presented as weak and ineffectual. Alexander comes to hate the bishop, but he never respected his own father. Is Oscar’s weakened state a suggestion that the fantasy is too good to be true? Or was Bergman saying that the bishop, miserable as he is, has the power to pose a challenge to Bergman that Oscar never could. Authority, even bad authority, is necessary, even if only to rebel against, especially for someone like Alexander who, without challenges, is prone to losing himself in childish fantasies. And it is through the trial by fire with the bishop that Alexander learns to incrementally put away childish things. Indeed, this goes for Adolf Hitler’s childhood as well; like Bergman, his relation with his father was stormy to put it mildly. Would he have developed such an indomitable will if not for his father’s disdain for his dreams? Because of his father’s contempt, Hitler felt even more compelled to justify his self-image as an artist. In our time, so many Western males are pampered by proggy women and wussy-cuck dads, and just look at the result. Too many men remained stuck in childish fantasies of video-games and superhero movies. If Bergman grew up today, he might have an ass-tattoo and be into rap music and making garbage like GIRL WITH DRAGON TATTOO.) By the way, how did Oscar become so prominent in theater? He seems too passive and resigned, lacking in will and authority, to run such an operation. Are we to suspect that his vaunted position owes to his family’s riches and connections than real talent, and this self-doubt has been eating away at him? His beautiful wife likely married him for his money and position as he’s so lacking in charisma and masculinity.
Anyway, what does all of this imply? That Bergman regarded his actual childhood as an unnatural imprisonment at the hands of a man whom he never regarded as his true father and that his fantasy was his ‘true’ family? Ironically, the mentality is not unlike that of the unfortunate child in THE BEST INTENTIONS who idealizes the Bergman Household and wants to be a part of it than with his own sullen and impoverished relatives. The child even tries to kill baby Bergman as coming between himself and the Bergmans as his hopeful adoptive parents. So, as hellish as living under Father Bergman was for little Ingmar, it was a vision of heaven for some wretched kid born to miserable circumstances. It’s all relative, I guess.
–Gustav Adolf is an ebullient restauranter married to Alma, the mother of his three children who good-naturedly encourages him in his extra-marital affairs.–
I can’t stand the guy. He’s like Gerard Depardieu’s role in DANTON(and I suppose the Bishop is like the humorless and austere Robespierre). Gustav is a man of high spirits but also gluttonous appetites. He looks gross, and his habits are nauseating. And his porcine wife is hardly better. Gustav porks the young maid and hardly takes care of her and the bastard child. The wife tolerates extra-marital affairs because she’s well-taken care of. Besides, she looks upon the young maid as a mere servant, hardly more than property. So, why shouldn’t her husband use her for his sexual foibles? The girl exists to be used and abused. It’s all very gross and self-indulgent. If Gustav comes across a positive figure in the film, it is only because others are even worse. (Even though the bishop is repulsive, at least there’s a logic behind his madness. He is truly and sincerely to his theology of life, like Norman Bates to his mother. In contrast, Gustav’s wife slapping and then handing a gift to the young maid is the nastiest moment in the film. For all his faults, the bishop believe he’s trying to mold Alexander into something noble and true. In contrast, Gustav’s wife doesn’t care at all about the young girl. We want to punch the prickly bishop, but we want to throw self-satisfied Gustav’s wife to the crocodiles.)
–Alexander is a wide-eyed boy of ten with a vivid imagination.–
He’s a little prick, spoiled brat, and no-good punk. He is why the bishop doesn’t come across as entirely vile. Alexander could have used some spanking from his real pa while alive. Now, one can argue that Alexander isn’t presented as an ideal kid. He is meant to be seen as selfish and egotistical, i.e. Bergman was admitting he was a self-centered child who wanted everything his way. When Alexander’s father lays dying, Alexander reacts with petulance; incredibly, he’s less mature than his younger sister. Instead of thinking of his father and others, he only thinks of himself and how the death may affect him; he wants to be the focus of attention. He doesn’t so much see the death as a family tragedy as his father letting him down. (Indeed, despite the title, the story is all Alexander and virtually nothing about Fanny.)
But despite Alexander being presented as a no-good prick(who even mutters obscenities at his father’s funeral), we are supposed to sympathize with him and even adore him as a kid with the ‘sixth sense’ of imagination — portrait of an artist as a young boy. But he strikes me as hardly better than Ferris Bueller, and indeed the Alexander vs the Bishop conflict is about on the level of Ferris vs the Principal in John Hughes movie. We are made to root for Ferris, but in truth, he is a lying manipulative little brat while the principal is only doing his job. So, why does Ferris get away with everything? Indeed, his little sister(Jennifer Grey) wonders why too. Of course, to make us root for Ferris, the principal has to be made utterly ludicrous and grotesque in character & personality, and the same trick is played in FAA. As Alexander is a jerk(in a family full of jerks and asses), the only way to make him(and them) more sympathetic is by creating the bogeyman of bishop and his sadistic gothic crew. They are presented as so vile that even the demented Jews in the film come across as somewhat favorable(though I can’t stand anyone in the film).
Despite its nuances and complexities, FAA serves up arch-villains as foil to humanize everyone else. It’s a rather cheap trick. It’s one thing to present the religious household as dark and disturbed but quite another as caricatures and gargoyles. It’s so extreme that we are sometimes not sure if we’re seeing the actual family or Alexander’s fervid vision of them.
Because the bishop is such an A–HOLE(!!), we can’t help but sympathize with Alexander and the Ekdahls more than they deserve. There seems to be NOTHING within the bishop’s household that resembles anything human. (Even the bully-teacher in HEAVEN HELP US wasn’t that bad.) They seem to be devil incarnate in pious clothing. For all of Bergman’s mastery and sophistication, the bishop and his family amount to a cartoon, much like loathsome Fanucci in THE GODFATHER PART 2. Fanucci is so awful that Vito, Clemenza, and Sal, though criminals themselves, come across as relatively good, even noble. (Hannah Arendt wrote of the Banality of Evil, but Mario Puzo mastered the art of the Nobility of Evil as the Corleones ennoble evil as necessary deeds of ‘business’ in a corrupt world.)
Now, the bishop is a difficult man, it’s true. If anything, his piety has blinded him to his own failings. (Ironically, the bishop’s moralism and the film’s aren’t that much apart, at least in kind. The bishop doesn’t claim to know everything, and he surely knows that he himself is a sinner in the eyes of God. But because he is more penitent than the average person and especially the Ekdahls, he feels himself to be so much better than them. He is no angel, but he is an angel COMPARED to them. This feeds his pride and vanity. But, the film’s moralism works much the same way. True, Alexander and the Ekdahls are far from perfect. They are capable of betrayal and loutish behavior. BUT, they are not as bad as the bishop and his family, therefore they are wonderful and worthy of celebration.) Now, what really sent the bishop over the edge? Alexander spun a ghastly tale about the man’s deceased wife and children. And it’s about the nastiest shit one could possibly imagine. Naturally, the man is going to be extremely upset. Of course, he’s going to whup Alexander’s butt. But then, had his butt been paddled on occasion by the Ekdahls, Alexander might not have become such a spoiled brat. On the other hand, with a wild-eyed child like Alexander it’s hard to distinguish between creativity and mendacity. Did Alexander spin a nasty tale with willful disregard for the truth, or did his fertile imagination just get carried away? (The tale is pretty good Edgar-Allan-Poe-like stuff.) Or, was it both?
Bergman once said of Fellini that lying came naturally to him, and it was intrinsic to what he was. But as an artist known for clarity and concentration, Bergman earned, rightly or wrongly, the reputation as the penetrating prober of truth, especially beginning in the 60s when some of his works seemed downright clinical; Andrew Sarris complained there was too much ‘undigested clinical material’. But FAA suggests child Bergman’s creative spark began with a near pathological inability/refusal to discern fact from fantasy. Perhaps feeling he was born to the wrong father/family, he developed a knack for making stuff up, something he both indulged and resisted as an artist.
Apparently, he wanted a family environment like the Ekdahls’ but ended up as the son of a severe humorless minister who reprimanded him over ‘trifles’. The vilification of the bishop seems less anti-Christian or anti-religious than anti-father-of-Ingmar. (Indeed, the school teacher in TORMENT, the first major film for which Bergman was writer than director, has a similarly miserable character, the type who exaggerates one’s authority as a crutch for inner insecurities. So, it’s essentially a matter of personality than theology.) It comes across as a cruel and vicious revenge on his father, Bergman’s way of airing dirty laundry masquerading as serious art/drama. But then, perhaps, he had to get the vindictive venom out of his system before he could fairly assess and contemplate the lives of his parents, which is what makes THE BEST INTENTIONS, SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS such invaluable works. Directed by others, there is less ‘auteur’ flourish to distract us from the raw human story. (If Bergman has any value to the Dissident Right, it’s his endeavor of remembrance and reflection on his roots. Because, after all, despite his fame and renown as film-maker, theater director, and writer, he was the product of his parents by nature and nurture. However far his creativity and ideas took him away from his roots, at the end of the day was the fact that half his genetic material from his father and the other half from the mother. Modern individualism tells us to define ourselves based on freedom and choice[that for most people amounts to little more than imitating pop culture and regurgitating official dogma], but people are not created by ideas or idols but by real people, their parents, and therefore to know oneself one must know one’s origins, whether one likes them or not, something the mulatto woman realizes at the end of IMITATION OF LIFE. For much of life, Bergman was busying defining his own conception of self, but once his star had faded and he had nothing more to prove, he reflected deeply on his origins; and as an old man, he wondered of his parents as young people. Many adopted people seek out the truth about their biological parents, but Bergman, like so many of his generation, did everything to tear himself away from his family to follow his own bliss/muse. But in the final part of his career, squaring himself with his origins became the most important labor and, in a way, led to his richest works; and the direction by others allowed for a certain detached objectivity that Bergman found impossible to muster. Who says memory has value only as the glow of nostalgia? A tragic sense of life means facing up to all the darkness in the past, personal and tribal, as part of the trauma of history. It’s hard to think of another film artist who reflected so deeply on his parents’ life. Perhaps, Bergman’s belated sympathy for Jews owes something to Holocaust Memory. Jews have deep memory of trauma. Though his problems of youth cannot be compared to something as horrific as Shoah, a sensitive and self-centered person is prone to feeling that his personal tragedy is THE tragedy. A dull person can go through hell and come through relatively unscathed whereas an intensely sensitive person can go through far less and feel scarred for life. It’s like the loss of ‘mommy’ is for David in A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE the greatest horror that he can conceive of. Thus, Bergman may have felt as a kind of ‘holocaust survivor’ himself because of his ‘survival’ of the monster-father. At the same time, he realized the absurdity of the claim, and he appreciated the Holocaust as a rude reminder that his own troubles were NOTHING compared to the real horrors of the world. This is reflected in PERSONA where Liv Ullmann’s character feels as the greatest victim in the world but is also paralyzed with guilt and disgust at her pathological self-absorption.) The characterization of the bishop is like a wooden stake through the heart of his father as a Dracula. But maybe Bergman had to slay the ‘vampire’ aspect of his father to later dig up the flawed man. Also, given his personal failures and betrayals, the only way he could forgive himself was by trying to understand his father. Given that father and son went separate ways in culture and lifestyle but ended up equally as louts suggests they had more in common than either was willing to admit; you can reject your father’s god but not the devil in the genetic detail.
But before Bergman could confront his father as man, he had to slay him as a dragon in the form of the monstrous bishop. Indeed, the sickest and grossest member of bishop’s family, the bedridden aunt, seems to sense this. The diseased woman(played by a male fatso) one day knocks down the oil lamp, sets herself on fire, and burns the bishop with her. It’s like the ending of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN where the monster finally realizes the perversity of the whole enterprise and destroys the mad scientist along with himself. Or it’s like Jon Voight’s character in THE RUNAWAY TRAIN who sacrifices himself along with the arch-figure of authority. Arch-chaos and arch-order colliding into oblivion as two opposing principles of reality. In FAA, the bishop represents total order & structure while the fat bedridden aunt represents all that is messy and chaotic. It’s as if one exists in the total denial and repression of the other, i.e. extreme order rests on the denial of the chaos as integral part of reality. The sick aunt is part of the family but hidden away in some dark corner of the house, indeed as if she doesn’t even exist. Yet, she finally ends it all by setting herself on fire and killing the bishop along with her. One could say it was all an unfortunate accident, and a bit of ambiguity hangs over what really happened. (The scene also recalls the footage of the burning monk in PERSONA.)
The characterizations in FANNY AND ALEXANDER certainly make for compelling and colorful drama. However, THE BEST INTENTIONS, SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS are more nuanced, subtle, and multi-layered in their conveyance of life; this quality makes them more painful and less enjoyable yet ultimately more rewarding. Life as etched in the three films are made up entirely of countless mini-scratches, whereas the mini-strokes in FAA follow the pre-arranged sketches that more-or-less turned the various characters into broad archetypes. The three films rise to the level of genuine art. FAA is full of artistry and not without moments of depth, but it panders to middlebrow tastes and, as such, is closer to THE GODFATHER and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO(or AMADEUS). It’s a great piece of myth-making than art about truth.
Now, middlebrow pandering on that level isn’t such a bad thing and stands high above most popular entertainment, but still, FAA is a bit to eager to please. For example, the bishop is immediately recognizable as the arch-villain, the sort of character we LOVE TO HATE. And the bitter troubles with him are all too cleverly structured toward a happy ending of sorts, with speechifying that is too heavy on the cream and sugar. FAA is a great work of cinema but as middlebrow fare. It’s Bergman’s Buffet than real cuisine. But then, why not? Bergman earned the right to go out with a bang, a crowd-pleaser of sorts with just enough art & artistry to qualify as a ‘masterpiece’. And it encapsulated the remarkable span of his career, everything from TORMENT to THE MAGIC FLUTE.
As for the Jews, there’s just enough truth in the film to present them as something other than wise and noble. They are certainly not exactly likable. But set against the bishop’s family, they do come off rather well(but then everyone would, apart from Charles Manson), especially as they helped save Fanny and Alexander from the clutches of the bully patriarch. (In Europe, it became fashionable for people to brag about how their family saved some Jews from the Nazis. The Jews in FAA can brag about how they saved the kids from the bishop’s Drabocaust. Btw, I don’t think magic was used to save the kids. The Jewish family are puppet-masters, and they placed lifelike puppets in the room to fool the bishop that the kids were asleep.) Jews are a problematic people, and what ‘ennobles’ them in the current West has less to do with their behavior and deeds(which are now beyond gross and vile) but their hogging the spotlight as the main champions against the biggest evil of them all: Nazism, Antisemitism, and ‘Racism'(with ‘homophobia’ stirred into the pot as well). So, it doesn’t matter if Jews are currently crazy and vile. As long as their role in the world is framed against the ‘nazis’, they are redeemed as heroes and saviors(but also as pitiable victims who need to be saved by good goyim from bad goyim; according to SCHINDLER’S LIST, the Jew exists to save the goy’s soul, and the goy exists to save the Jew’s body; Schindler, soul-saved by Gandhi-as-Jew, risks everything to save Jewish bodies, LOL). Indeed, this is how Jews get away with so much garbage in the West. They divert people’s attention from Jewish bad behavior by pulling the alarm about ‘Nazis’ and ‘racists’!! Bogeyman of Nazism always washes away Jewish sins and launders Jewish crimes. Likewise, the Jews in FAA can’t be too bad since they are allied against the villainous Christazis and saved Fanny & Alexander to boot from fuhrer bishop.
But then, consider the scuzzy tattooed character and other freaks in GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Why are such hideous creatures redeemed and ennobled? Because they fight the ‘nazis’. This has become like a worn-out trope in Scandinavian cinema. Goodness is less a matter of one’s personal virtue than one’s opposition to the Evil. It’s the core conceit of Antifa. Its members can be total louts, tards, and bums, but no matter; they are redeemed solely because they are ANTI against the ‘fascists’. Take the Swedish movie EVIL where some troubled kid is prone to violence because of abuse at the hands of his step-father. But at a new school, he’s determined to turn a new leaf and become the good guy. He allies with some shlubby Jewish-Mediterranean-looking kid and beats up the Aryan-looking toughies; finally, he decides to beat up his bullying step-father. So, the source of evil is Aryan Authoritarianism, and the only solution is to ally with the Semites and beat up the ‘nazis’. EVIL is terrifically well-made but its moralism is rather bogus upon closer scrutiny. And then, there’s the wretched vampire movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In it, a kid is bullied by classmates and befriends a Jewishy-looking vampire girl. The vampires are real killers, alright, but it’s as if they’d been so cursed by an uncaring society that marginalizes the outsiders, i.e. they have choice but to be vampires for survival. The boy and the vampire girl strike up a friendship, and in the end, the girl becomes like Anne-Frankenstein and kills all the bullies. Again, it’s about the alliance of the alienated and conscientious Aryan with the Jewish elements against the ‘nazi bullies’.
The easiest way to ‘ennoble’ characters is to set them against people who are worse. (THE DIRTY DOZEN is a famous example. Against Nazis, even psychos and thugs are good guys.) Consider the politics after 9/11. The Taliban was supposedly so evil that the so-called ‘Northern Alliance’ became the ‘good guys’ even though the US admitted they’re a bunch of bandits, drug-runners, and cutthroats. And what with Russia-Russia-Russia, Iran, and ‘white supremacism’ as the Evil Irredeemable Other, the Globalists don’t have to be any good to justify themselves. As long as they are fighting the Worse Evil, they are automatically the ‘good guys’. Contra the evil bishop, even the miserable brother Carl comes off favorably. (“I suck, but you suck more, so I don’t suck.”
Ironically, the bishop’s family is used by the film like how Jews were by Anti-Semites, for whom, as long as the Jews were deemed worse, they were justified. Likewise, the crazy Jews in FAA must be ‘good’ because they are reviled by the evil bishop, who is ‘antisemitic’ to boot; it’s like what Pauline Kael said of the evil butler in THE SHINING: he’s not just demonic but a ‘racist’ who said ‘nigger’.) This is the most tawdry aspect of FAA. Against the bishop and his villainous crew, it’s so easy to be ‘good’; it’s like compared to Elephant Man, everyone is normal and handsome. It’s like Grimm Brothers fairy tale for adults. For all the mastery, it essentially comes down to manipulation. It recalls one of Bergman’s most simpleminded ideas, that of Bibi Andersson in WILD STRAWBERRIES playing two characters, the modern one having two boyfriends, one an atheist and another a believer. Utterly schematic in a film too schematic already.
Now, what’s with the androgyny business? Kurosawa himself cast some transvestite named ‘Peter’ in RAN. In FAA, there are TWO cases of gender-bender stuff. The daemonic Ismael and the gross aunt in the bishop’s house. Apparently, the female principle is somehow better than the male principle. Ismael is male but seems to possess a female soul, whereas the sickly aunt is female but seems saddled with male animality. Ismael, as I recall, was a funny kind of Jew, if considered a Jew at all. He wasn’t the child of Abraham and Sara but Abraham and some servant woman, and supposedly, his progeny eventually became the Arabs and other such tribes set against the Jews. So, Ismael in FAA seems both Jew and non-Jew, both insider and outsider. As Jews are outsiders, he is an outsider among outsiders. His own family keeps him locked up.
In a way, his situation is somewhat like Alexander’s in the Bishop’s house: Imprisonment. So, there’s a mutual understanding between them. Just as Ismael is a Jew apart from other Jews, Alexander is a goy apart from other goyim. He is different, special. He sees what others don’t see, delusional or not.
And yet, there are also differences. Even though Ismael is held captive in his family’s house, he has the greater will, rather like that of Dr. Mabuse. His brothers treat him with fear and deference. Like Hannibal Lecter, he is the master even behind bars. In this, Alexander falls short. He can be creative and imaginative, but it’s mere make-believe and child play compared to what Ismael is capable of. It’s like the smartest goy kid in AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS meets his match in the smarter Jewish kid. Ismael is to Alexander what Merlin is to Arthur. For all his talents, Alexander, like Bergman the artist, works on the conscious and cerebral level, whereas Ismael, like Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky, can tap into the dream world in waking state. Bergman could look through the window of the dream world but couldn’t access the key(except for one time with PERSONA). Thus, Alexander and Bergman are limited. Alexander’s only chance of freedom, for all his flights of fancy, is to physically break free of the bishop. In contrast, Ismael is, in some ways, the freest person in the Jewish House despite his captivity. It’s a case of ‘Have Soul, Will Travel’ with him. It’s like the Aryan has vision and imagination, but the Jew has the depth and penetration. Jung and Freud. Or Hesse and Kafka. In Cronenberg’s Existenz, the goyim move about but in the Jew’s dream. If you can own the soul of the man who imprisons your body, you are the true master. Jews understood this. Through psychology, academia, media, entertainment, and advertising, they found a way to gain ownership of the souls of goyim who were masters of the Western House. As soul-slaves of Jews, goyim lost their house to the Jews as well.
Or perhaps, Bergman toyed with gender-bender stuff in FAA because the art of storytelling is like creative trans-genderism. Perhaps, this makes homos more fit for art in certain respects. Having both male and female principles, they can more easily empathize with both outlooks, like someone who can write with both right and left hands. (On the other hand, homos tend to be more narcissistic and egotistical, therefore more self-absorbed and less concerned with the feelings of others. They have female vanity and male aggression.) Despite his close association with Max von Sydow, Bergman has been more a director of women than men. And in his later career, Liv Ullmann became the centerpiece of his films. Whenever a male artist invents and creates a female character, he has to think and feel female, and vice versa. Bergman said the idea of PERSONA arose in a state of delirium in a hospital. Perhaps, having devoted so much energy toward creating female characters, a kind of male/female symbiosis took part in his psyche. It seems a part of him melded with Liv Ullmann who later directed PRIVATE CONFESSIONS and FAITHLESS. He came to trust her that much, as if another part of him, perhaps the better part. (But then, this begs the question. Does Ismael represent the female soul in the man’s body or the man’s soul in the female body?) In SAWDUST AND TINSEL, the final scene has the clown recalling a dream in which he entered his wife’s womb, reverted to a fetus, and then disappeared into peaceful sleep: Man as a hard being reunited with the Woman as soft being. Indeed, there’s a feminine aspect to the appeal of Christianity. Son of God shuns manly things and appeals to the ‘maternal’ side of mankind. Judaism, in its conception of the One God, emphasized patriarchal male power at the expense of matriarchal force that was central to paganism. And yet, what is repressed seeks an out, and this could explain why homosexual politics became especially prominent among Jews despite their religion having been the most anti-homo in the ancient world. There’s this sense in Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! where the female goddess principle feels neglected and ignored by the male god principle that hogs all the spotlight. And in FAITHLESS, which unfolds like a ghost story, the female character haunts ‘Bergman’ and is associated with the Ocean, much like the search for the Blue Fairy and ‘Mother’ in A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. Indeed, the most beloved figure in FAA is the grandmother who is warm, inviting, and forgiving, whereas the most hated figure is, of course, the bishop, in all his coldness, sternness, and inflexibility. Perhaps, Ismael embodies the conflict between the male principle and female principle, one that he has the power to overcome and somewhat reconcile though never to full satisfaction. In contrast, the fatso aunt is defeated by conflict, and the only way out is to be consumed by fire as there’s no hope to reach the spring, the source of water.
–Helena is also something of a feminist, dismissing Strindberg as “that nasty misogynist.”–
But then, Strindberg took pride in his misogyny. He was so into woman-bashing that even social conservatives were taken aback by his tirades and diatribes. Bergman, given the centrality of women in his films, would seem the anti-misogynist, but FAITHLESS suggests his talk didn’t guarantee the walk.
–The first version of the script—which is very different from the final film—may throw some light on the connection, for Helena Ekdahl’s maiden name is given as Mandelbaum, a very Jewish name. This throws light on an odd conversation at the very beginning of the movie, when Helena’s maid Ester remarks on how odd it is that they have celebrated 43 Christmases together. Of course it would be odd if Helena had been born a Jew.–
Or maybe she was half-Jewish, i.e. a child of Jewish father and Christian mother. And, maybe the 43 yrs of Christmas celebration seem odd to the maid because the family are non-believers, a modern people. Or, maybe what seems odd is not so much that they’ve celebrated Christmas for so long but that they did it TOGETHER. It could be there were bitter tensions between their younger selves that they overcame or put aside to preserve their roles as master and servant. Given that Gustav uses the young maid as a sexual plaything, who knows what happened among Helena, the old maid, and bygone men of the household long ago when they were young.
At any rate, the Jewish thing is sometimes puzzling in Bergman’s movies. Supposedly, the male character in SHAME was meant to be Jewish, but how would we know? It’s not like he pulled down his underpants to prove it.
–If any single word describes the Ekdahls, it is “pagan.”–
I would say they are essentially ‘bourgeois-modern’. Connotations associated with paganism — nature-worship, mountain-climbing, hunting, Wagner’s operas, neo-Teutonism, etc. — don’t really apply to the Ekdahls whose world is a bit too cozy. Indeed, the family in Luchino Visconti’s THE DAMNED is closer to paganism, though in a bad way. There is an element of hedonistic satiety and sensualism in the family, but the bourgeoisie liked their delights and indulgences. And they were careful to keep up appearances and remain respectable. All that money and privilege should provide for some good times, despite the Protestant Work Ethic. A true pagan is more likely to abandon his bourgeois ways as artificial, but the Ekdahls are nothing without artificiality.
–the theater is not just a symbol and site for fakery, loose morals, and cultural decadence. On a deeper level, the theater is a symbol of the creation of culture in the first place.–
Theater, like the very concept of art, is a contradiction. In a way, theater reflects life. It’s been said all the world’s a stage, and people play roles and wear masks in their daily affairs. The purpose of theater and the arts is to present the deeper truth but by means of artificiality that often serves as escapism from reality. According to FAA, the child Bergman looked upon life itself as a kind of play, and in a way, the arts are like toys for grownups. Children often have difficulty telling facts from fantasy, the real from the unreal. Why else would they believe in Santa Claus like the kids in A CHRISTMAS STORY? As they become adults, they come to separate the chaff of fantasy from the wheat of reality, but reality is so often unruly or slow or damningly silent. Or, so at odds with one’s aspirations in the real world. And human nature has a craving for fantasy and escapism, and the arts serve as a respectable and ‘serious’ outlet for adults to continue with the childlike fascination with fantasy.
Theater and Art, at their highest and deepest levels, are supposed to explore and reveal truths, but they are constructed of artificiality and most often created by people who have problems with reality; but then, it’s that very neurosis that drives them to explore reality deeper. One might argue that artists create models of truth, works of fiction that nevertheless formulate the essential conflicts of life, just like a plastic model of DNA molecules isn’t the real thing but provides us with a useful approximation of its basic structure.
Unlike entertainment, the main function of which is escapism, theater and art claim to examine and reflect truth. And this revelation of truth can be harrowing. And yet, because it is based on make-believe, theater and art always come with an element of safety if not escapism. No one ever caught disease from a play, novel, or film about poverty, no matter how accurate; no one ever got killed by a play, novel, or film about war, no matter truthful it might have been.
Bergman, a sensitive and neurotic soul, was always troubled by this contradiction between art and life. In PERSONA, an actress one day stopped speaking, a kind of secular vow of silence. She rejected speaking on stage and in life. A similar neurosis marked Bergman’s cinema for the next seven or eight years. There was the problem of art as a sanctuary from life but also an instrument for probing into life. Thus, art takes us both further from and closer to life. Bergman also sought relative isolation on an island even as he became a world-famous artist who supposedly had something to say about the modern condition. There’s a harrowing childbirth scene in BRINK OF LIFE. Of course, it’s fake, mere acting, but Bergman made it seem more real than real. It was a powerful display of cinema’s ability to mimic reality. The child is born, but the woman feels no love for it. Her happy expectation of motherhood was undone by the trauma of giving birth. It all seemed too real, and Bergman could take pride as having used art to convey truth. Still, it was all make-believe, an actress faking it. Thus, it was both true and untrue, both showing life as it is and presenting fakery as reality. Bergman’s running theme of pregnancy and childbirth(or abortion) suggests the parallels within the anxieties of creativity and creation, especially as the artist’s creation, like that of the mother, takes on a life of its own independent of the intentions of the creator. If Alexander’s father Oscar was too weak to mold his son into a young manhood, the bishop as step-father is insistent on constructing Alexander into an ideal puppet. (In that, there’s a certain justice in the Jews replacing Fanny and Alexander with puppet-doubles. On the psychic level, the bishop too is a puppet-master.) Just as children are disappointed with the parents they didn’t choose, the parents are disappointed with their children they didn’t really choose either as procreation is like a lottery; one never knows what kind of child is going to pop out of the womb. Most people, parents or children, fall short of the ideal, and even if they do fit the ideal, there remains the anxiety that oneself isn’t good enough for one’s parents or one’s kids.
In PRISON(aka DEVIL’S WANTON), there’s guilt about abortion and dead child. In WILD STRAWBERRIES, the husband says he wants no kids because the world is full of misery and he’d make a lousy father anyway. So, it could be that the scene with the babies at the end of FAA was Bergman finding some peace and acceptance of life as it is and of art for what it is, i.e. there’s no way to resolve the contradictions within art as both conveyer of truth and teller of lies; one must accept the one with the other. Accept it for what it is because no amount of obsessing and philosophizing will change anything. A few yrs after FAA, Woody Allen in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS ended on a similar note of accepting life for what it is.
It’s understandable why Bergman in his later career settled for the world of theater than film. Theater, like film, has characters and tells stories, but stage is always removed from the real world. All arts thrive on artificiality, but theater far more so than cinema. It’s a world of gestures and utterances. There is indeed a ‘little world’ about theater, something like an inner-circle of family.
In contrast, because cinema works on the level of realism, its stage melds into the world. Performances in cinema become semblances of lived life. We don’t so much see actors playing roles than characters becoming the roles. There’s a sense of window into reality.
Thus, cinema cannot be a ‘little world’, and perhaps, Bergman found this aspect of the medium far too taxing on his nerves and energy. THE BEST INTENTIONS, SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS certainly don’t make for easy viewings because their minutia of life is so omnipresent and overwhelming. So, it could be Bergman wrote them but had others direct them as the experience would have been too much for him, especially as they dealt with matters that scarred him for life. In contrast, FAA is one of Bergman’s most theatrical works, and he rather seemed enjoyed the experience of directing it(by the looks of THE MAKING OF FANNY AND ALEXANDER) because he could play tricks than sit down with the truth.
–The central drama of Fanny and Alexander springs from the clash of Christianity and paganism.–
Perhaps not. It could be that the real problem isn’t Christianity per se but a rather stern and severe kind of Lutheranism that took root in Scandinavia(before the Scandis went in the opposite direction and ruined their nation with libertine revelry). In one way, the bishop embodies Christian puritanism, but it could also be seen as frigid Nordicism. Who says Christianity has to be that way? Italian Catholicism was warmer, and Fellini’s depiction of the Italian Church wasn’t without humor and affection despite the mockery and irreverence. The cold climate and the frozen temperaments of the Nordics made for a severe and stern kind of Christianity, but it was only one kind. Indeed, the various celebrations and delights in FAA were commonplace in other Christian nations that weren’t so ‘anal’.
Probably, the high paganism of Southern Europe tempered the spiritual zealotry inherent in Christianity. The achievements of the Greeks and Romans were so astounding that Christians couldn’t fully dispense with them, and Catholicism became a fusion of high paganism and Christian piety. In contrast, Northern Europe had low barbaric paganism that came to be regarded as brutish and stupid, unworthy to preserve with the coming of Christianity into those parts. Thus, even though Christianity came later to the North, which was further removed from the birth of the Faith, it was the North that got the more pristine and hardcore version. But then, even when they were pagans, the Northern Barbarians, like the Eskimos and American Indians, were less colorful and jolly in their temperament; they were more gloomy and depressive. So, the combination of a more purist form of Christianity and the Nordic temperament made for a more stern and demanding culture. It also led to more conscientiousness, less corruption, and more of a culture of trust and earnest will to do good.
The giveaway that Bergman was more critical of a certain personality type than religion per se is the bishop reminds us of the secular doctor in THE MAGICIAN(aka THE FACE). Though irreligious, he resembles the bishop in his sneering pride of rationality and materiality, not unlike Richard Dawkins, the prig-secularist. Even though the mystery turns out to be a prank of sorts in THE MAGICIAN, we are glad to see the haughty ‘scientist’ get his comeuppance.
The bishop also resembles the husband in WILD STRAWBERRIES. For all his atheism and modernity, he too is a control freak who can’t tolerate anything that deviates from his sense of order. If the bishop is adamant about raising the children the correct way, the husband doesn’t want any child at all lest things go wrong and upset his equilibrium. He’s made peace with the conviction that life is meaningless and doesn’t want to be disturbed.
And there’s the proto-Nazi scientist in THE SERPENT’S EGG. He doesn’t need religion to be mad in his own way, subscribing to a prophecy in the iron laws of history and science. Indeed, he thinks he has it all figured out, and there is no other way for humanity.
–Soon after their arrival, Isak reads a story to Fanny and Alexander. He says that it is written in Hebrew, and it will take some work to translate. But once the story begins, his eyes no longer look at the page at all, suggesting that he is simply making it up.–
Or maybe he read it before and knows it from heart. Or maybe he’s improvising on a story in the book in his own peculiar way. Spiritually, the Jew is likely to be more seeking because the Messiah has yet to arrive for the Tribe, whereas Christianity provides its flock with a completed religion. Also, Jewishness is about contemplating the contradictions in the Torah and Talmud whereas Christianity claims to have resolved all the contradictions with the coming of Jesus.
–In the parable, a young man wanders a crowded and dusty road… Suddenly the young man is in a verdant forest… But he is blind to it all and is soon swept back into the mob.
The youth asks an old man about the source of the water. He replies that it flows from a mountain whose top is hidden in clouds… But the cloud is not caused by God. Its cause is entirely natural. Indeed, it is entirely human. It is created by the fears and prayers of men addressed to God or to the void. The fears and prayers become rain, which feed rivers that flow from the mountain.
But most men cannot slake their thirst from the mountain’s waters because they will not break from the pointless rat race on the road… The message is that religion springs from man, not God, but men are denied its solace, which can only be found in the solitude of nature, because they are caught up in the frantic rat race of organized religion.–
Isak probably noticed something special about Alexander. He’s a willful boy, a born non-conformist. That side of him is promising, but his self-centeredness also blinds and limits him. It’s the World according to Alex. He doesn’t care much about other people’s feelings. At his father’s funeral procession, Alexander spews obscenities and stands apart from others. So, he has the independence of spirit but a closed heart. And it is through the metaphor of the clouds that Isak tries to impart onto Alexander the need for a fuller understanding of humanity and the heart.
By the way, how can the clouds be ‘entirely natural’ and ‘entirely human’? If the former, it’s just part of natural phenomena. If the latter, it’s meant as a metaphor(which cannot be natural), the culmination of all the passions and prayers of mankind. The mountain then is metaphor for God. The cloud represents all the human voices, joyous and sad, heard by God. God-as-mountain gathers all the clouded-pangs-of-humanity and transforms them into streams and springs for mankind to drink from. So, the truth or salvation is not found via solitude with nature but in unity with the memories, dreams, and aspirations of humanity at large. Bergman made several films about man’s solitude with nature, and the results are invariably grim: loneliness, depression, paranoia, despair, hallucinations, etc. In a way, through the parable, Bergman was possibly critiquing his egotism and obsessive need for private space. It’s like what one of the characters says to Guido at the end of 8 ½: “I understand what you mean. You can’t do without us.” On one level, FAA is a big Christmas Card and thank-you-note to all those who’d stuck by him through thick and thin. It’s a way of Bergman saying he couldn’t have done it alone. It is both auteurist in its egotism and anti-auteurist in intimating that art is as much team work and cooperation as personal vision.
Also, the nature of organized religion is not like a ‘rat race’. Rat races are fraught with anxiety, but at least they can be exciting, even exhilarating, like among all those competitors in Wall Street and Silicon Valley. There’s always something happening in rat races. In contrast, the people in the parable are part of a numbing procession. They march forward without individuality or direction. They just keep marching onward as if by habit and custom along with everyone else. People join rat races to stand out and rise above others, but it seems the people in the parable just keep their heads bowed low and march forth like a mindless herd. The parable suggests that religion began with the spirit and inspiration. So much so that people left their native lands in search for this truth. But they soon forgot the spark that led to inspiration and the pilgrimage. So, it just became a matter of form, a set of instructions. Thus, it separated people further from the truth, but most remained within the formation because community, even a terribly misguided one, is more comforting than the loneliness of solitude and exile. (After all, even Jesus, after the forty days of fasting and meditation, returned to the community of people, without which His truth couldn’t be realized.) At least with a rat race, there is a sense of ‘my interest’ and ‘my pride’. In contrast, the endless procession on the road bespeaks of hivemind, no one questioning anything but just keep on moving on.
Alexander has a certain acuteness of mind attuned to things most people aren’t privy to. He senses what others cannot, like the kid in THE SHINING is specially gifted. But Alexander has yet to learn to listen to others, open his heart, and develop a larger sense of humanity. It may be that the young man who feels the waters around his feet but fails to grasp its meaning is like Alexander. He is different and can wander off the path and feel the water at his feet, but he still lacks the understanding to appreciate it. Independence alone won’t cut it because, despite its rejection of the mob, it can exist only in opposition to the mob, without which it has nothing to be independent of. So, the higher consciousness is about embracing the community of man but founded upon a truer understanding of history and spirituality. That understanding comes from the parable of the cloud. To know the water, one must know the source of the water. And this source goes beyond individuality and egotism. It’s the summation of all the sorrows, hopes, and visions of mankind. Whether we call it God or some other power, it is a mystery beyond the comprehension of any single person. Man may have created gods or God, but God or spiritual vision isn’t the creation of a single individual in the Ayn-Randian sense but the culmination of all that humanity has imagined, dreamed, and hoped through the ages. As the culmination of so many voice and dreams, He has a power beyond any single man or any single nation, Jew or gentile.
Ingmar Bergman once spoke of the Medieval Cathedral, how it wasn’t the work of one man but of many, most of them unknown but who indelibly left their mark on the whole. And Bergman called Tarkovsky the greatest because, far more than Bergman, the Russian had a deeper and wider sense of humanity. In ANDREI RUBLEV, the painter-monk is inspired by all the history, destructive and regenerative, around him. And the giant bell is cast from the work of innumerable people. It hangs in contrast to the balloon in the first scene, like the flight of fancy in the opening of 8 ½, represents the vanity and pride of a single man.
So, it’s not enough to have the water at one’s own feet. One must know of the cloud, from which the water flows. And this cloud isn’t the work of one man but of countless people whose dreams and prayers were heard by God or some higher power that turned mist into water to flow back to mankind. So, the message is not about solitude and nature but a spiritual unity with all the experiences and aspirations of mankind.
It is also an extension of what Bergman explored in THE SEVENTH SEAL and VIRGIN SPRING. The returning Crusaders have long forgotten what the adventure was all about, and in the final days, the existential knight seeks answers and attains a glimpse of truth through all the brutality and beauty around him. One can travel far without seeing anything or remain near yet hear the universe. In VIRGIN SPRING, the flowing water represents something more than nature or solitude with it. It is the expression of God toward a man who underwent the unspeakable in sorrow and vengeance but strives for inner peace and redemption. Sad but hopeful, the miracle of the spring couldn’t have been possible without the tragedy of loss. And THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY ends with the father opening his heart to the son and both realizing that the essence of ‘god’ is man’s feeling for one another. And the self-absorbed character in PERSONA is horrified by a burning Vietnamese monk on TV and later stares at a famous Holocaust photograph of a Jewish child. In Bergman films, there is this tension between the extreme egotism of neurosis & self-absorption and the guilt about not being more concerned about bigger issues about humanity and the world. Still, the message in FAA isn’t about political commitment(which can be just as blinding as any religious crusade), but learning to listen to the deeper murmurs of the heart, which is what art can be about, a vessel of empathy.
–For one thing, one has to ask if Isak’s homosexual and pedophilic attentions toward Alexander are part of Bergman’s vision of utopia or a lingering trace of his darker, youthful views of Jews.–
I don’t think the main reason for Bergman’s support of National Socialism had to do with Jews. It had to do with the positive side of New Germany. In this, he was not unlike Leni Riefenstahl who was drawn to Hitler as the savior of Germany than out of any particular animus toward Jews(or Slavs for that matter). This was also true of John F. Kennedy who expressed enthusiasm for Hitler as the man of the hour. National Socialism seemed so promising that Bergman and others like him tuned out its darker ramifications.
Still, the various foibles FAA provides some hints as to why the young Bergman was drawn to National Socialism. Communism, like Christian puritanism, was too drab and dogmatic. Living under communism was like living under the Bishop. As for the bourgeoisie as depicted in FAA, they were too compromised and hypocritical. And traditional Sweden was too stifling for a man of Bergman’s energies. Jews were too alien and strange.
Take the young maid in FAA. She is a nothing and nobody in that system. A mere plaything for the bourgeoisie. Even though the Ekdahls are presented with affection and empathy, they live in their little world with no sense or vision of the larger world. It may not be a doll’s house, but it’s a dolls’ mansion. It is a world of class divisions and petty foibles. In contrast, National Socialism came along and sought to bridge capital with labor and then with blood and culture. And via the ideology of volk, there was an understanding and experience of culture beyond the high arts or entertainment. High arts are for the educated elites and their narrow circles. Mass entertainment panders to the lowest common denominator. But the volkish concept of culture meant everything of the nation is part of the culture: Family, community, tradition, customs, remembrance, rituals, and etc. The stuff of life of all Germans. Furthermore, the emphasis on blood meant everyone of the nation is part of the larger family. Thus, even someone like the young maid in FAA under National Socialism would be more than a mere servant, a pet-plaything for the rich. She too would be a valued member of the national family. This was a great idea, and it’s understandable why Bergman, a Nordic, was drawn to it. And it would have succeeded if Hitler didn’t start those damn wars. Sadly, the crimes of the Nazis were so grave that people after WWII decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater and reject everything about the blood and volk. That, of course, is formula for racial and civilizational suicide.