Ingmar Bergman’s restored masterpiece serves as a reminder of the Swedish filmmaker’s genius.
30 Mar 2009 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2015 - 5:06 PM

Editor's note: This article was first published in 2009 to coincide with the re-release of Fanny and Alexander in Australian cinemas. Fanny & Alexander is now available to watch at SBS on Demand. See below for details.

Announced as Ingmar Bergman's farewell to the cinema, the Swedish director's 1982 epic Fanny and Alexander was his most personal film and the biggest and most expensive of his career—and it nearly killed him.

Combining themes of love, Christianity, estrangement, ghosts and repentance, the picture won four Oscars, including best foreign language film. Bergman, who died in 2007, aged 89, described Fanny and Alexander as “the sum total of my life as a filmmaker.”

Many critics rate it as Bergman's most accomplished and uplifting work. Roger Ebert wrote, “At the end, I was subdued and yet exhilarated; something had happened to me that was outside language, that was spiritual, that incorporated Bergman's mysticism; one of his characters suggests that our lives flow into each other's, that even a pebble is an idea of God, that there is a level just out of view where everything really happens.”

Conceived originally as a five-hour miniseries for Swedish television, the production cost a then-astronomical $US6 million. Filming took 250 days and was beset with problems. In his 1990 memoir Images: My Life in Film, Bergman recalls that he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist were nearly killed by a falling crossbeam in the studio. Other crew members were seriously injured in accidents, the head of the costume shop died, and the entire cast and crew got the 'flu, shutting down production for three weeks. As Bergman was too sick to work, assistant director Peter Schildt filmed the funeral scene.

Set in Uppsala, Sweden, his birthplace, in 1907, the film chronicles a year in the lives of two young children, Fanny and Alexander, and the eccentric characters who dwell in the Ekdahl family's mansion.

Their father, Oscar, is a theatre director and their mother Emilie is the local theatre company's leading lady. After Oscar's premature death, his grief-stricken widow turns for comfort to the local bishop, Edvard Vergérus, and marries him, only to discover he's a cruel stepfather who makes their lives a misery.

The children and Emilie are virtual prisoners in the bishop's house until the Ekdahl family intervenes and, helped by an old friend, a Jewish antiques dealer, as well as some magic, the children are smuggled out of the house.

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The parallels between the film and the director's own life abound. Alexander and the young Bergman both loved puppet theatre and a magic lantern, and the actor who played the role, 11-year-old Bertil Guve, looked remarkably like him as a child.

Many of the characters were drawn from Bergman's childhood. The grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, is an affectionate portrait of Bergman's grandmother. Her son Carl has much in common with Bergman's Uncle Carl. The plump, lame red-headed nanny Maj bears some resemblance to Bergman's own nanny Mait.

Bishop Vergérus had the same profession as Bergman's father and his father's austerity and uncompromising nature. However the director said "there is more of me in the bishop than in Alexander, he is afflicted by his own demons," according to the Bergman Foundation website.

The 52-strong cast included many longtime Bergman collaborators including Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Erland Josephsson and Jarl Kulle. Jan Malmsjo, who had a bit part in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973), played Vergérus after negotiations for Max von Sydow to take the role fell through.

Gunn Wållgren, a grand dame of Swedish stage and cinema, who plays grandmother Helena, discovered she had cancer during filming and died in 1983. Borje Ahlstedt, who's Uncle Carl, was infamous for playing the boyfriend in Vilgot Sjoman's groundbreaking sex-and-revolution films I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). Ewa Fröling, who plays Emilie and who Bergman declared "has the look and presence of a queen," later appeared as Regan in his stage production of King Lear.

Watch Bergman's masterpiece 'Fanny & Alexander'
Witness a sprawling Swedish family undergo immense upheaval, through the eyes of a child. Available at SBS On Demand.

Originally British impresario Sir Lew Grade offered to back the film but he pulled out after Bergman balked at his insistence that the running time should not exceed two and a quarter hours. It finished up at 188 minutes.

The project was rescued by the Swedish Film Institute's Jörn Donner who offered to invest in the film on the proviso that it was shot in Sweden—triggering a fierce debate within the industry over whether Bergman was taking bread from the mouths of his colleagues. With the Swedish Film Institute serving as the main producer, the financial burden was shared with local distributor Sandrews, Bergman's Swedish company Cinematograph, his Swiss company Personafilm, French major Gaumont, and Germany's Tobis Filmkunst.

Although he had declared this would be his last film, his “retirement” was short-lived. He penned the screenplays for Danish director Bille August's The Best Intentions (1992), and Faithless (2000), directed by his longtime collaborator and former lover Liv Ullmann; and he continued to direct television films, some of which were shown theatrically outside Sweden, including After the Rehearsal (1984), In the Presence of a Clown (1997), and Saraband (2003).

A few years ago Fanny and Alexander was voted as the third best film of the past 25 years in a poll conducted by the UK mag Sight and Sound, behind Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull.

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