Much of the film observes the Ekdahl’s, a wealthy theater family in early 20th-century Sweden, and their close friends and help during the winter of 1907. There is, of course, Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his sister, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). There is their mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling), father Oscar (Allan Edwall) and grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren). There, too, is the uncle Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), another uncle Gustav (Jarl Kulle), his wife Alma (Mona Malm), and his lover, the maid Maj (Pernilla August). One night, Oscar suffers a stroke while performing in Hamlet, another story that very much welcomes ghosts to play.
Months pass and the snow vanishes. Emilie is engaged to a tyrannical bishop, Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), who she turned to for comfort after he officiated Oscar’s funeral. Photographed by longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, the Ekdahl estate is filled with color and exuberance. But in Edvard’s home, drab shades are the décor and Alexander wears gray. The cooks and maids seem to be deprived of hot water.
This is not where Alexander, Fanny and Emilie belong. Edvard is a stern, ugly bastard. When Alexander is caught lying, Edvard grills the boy and demands he ask his mother’s forgiveness. Emilie, meanwhile, is forced to abandon her friends, habits and thoughts. We learn that Edvard’s first wife and children drowned on the property. “Perhaps the house is haunted,” observes one of the children. In this house, a living statue would only seem sinister.
The film is long, with the theatrical cut clocking in over three hours and the television version just over five. But both versions have their purpose. Would the stretch of time spent at Edvard’s seem so horrible or the bishop himself so evil if we had not experienced all of the joy and eccentricities of the Ekdahl clan?
Fanny and Alexander was supposed to be Bergman’s last film in this then-36-year career. He went on to make four more in 20 years. Fanny and Alexander sits with his best, which include Cries and Whispers, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, the Trilogy of Faith, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries. But faint are the theological and existential questions and crises that are trademarks of Bergman’s works. In place are childhood fantasies and a fart gag.
The Theatrical Version:
Commentary: This track, recorded for Criterion’s 2004 DVD release, features film scholar and author Peter Cowie (Ingmar Berman: A Critical Biography) discussing the life of Bergman, the work of longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the design of Fanny and Alexander, the themes, and much more.
The Making of “Fanny and Alexander” (1:49:41): This feature-length documentary, directed by Bergman himself, is one of the most personal and detailed accounts on the making of a film, ranking alongside works like Burden of Dreams, Hearts of Darkness and, coincidentally, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, about the production of the director’s Winter Light.
A Bergman Tapestry (39:21): This documentary features interviews with producer Jörn Donner, production manager Katinka Farago, art director Anna Asp, assistant director Peter Schildt, and actors Pernila August (Maj), Ewa Fröling (Emelie Ekdahl), Bertil Guve (Alexander), and Erland Josephson (Isak Jacobi), who all reflect on their experiences working on the film.
Ingmar Berman Bids Farewell to Film (59:10): In this 1984 interview with film critic Nils Petter Sundgren, Bergman discusses his upbringing, life and death, his working habits, leaving filmmaking, and more.
Rounding out the special features on this disc are a Stills Gallery, a Costume Gallery and Set Models.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray set is a 32-page booklet featuring three essays: “In the World of Childhood” by Swedish film critic and filmmaker Stig Björkman; “Bergman’s Bildungsroman” by author Rick Moody titled; and “Just a Director: The Making of “Fanny and Alexander” by professor Paul Arthur.