by ALEX CARNEVALE
The difference between a dated film and a timeless one is measured by the lengths of the skirts.
Irish hermits colonized Faro Island, halfway between modern day Norway and Iceland, in the eighth century. Ingmar Bergman shot The Passion of Anna there during the fall of 1969. Anna (Liv Ullman) appears almost out of nowhere in the film’s opening minutes, gripping a shabby cane and asking to make a call to Stockholm. Andreas (Max Von Syndow) forces himself to listen in on the conversation.
In his notes for the film, Bergman writes, “One morning I awakened and decided to abandon the story about the two sisters. It feels too large, too unwieldy and too uninteresting from a cinematic point of view.” Instead The Passion of Anna revolves around Andreas’ interest in two women, neither of whom he has any idea how to love.
Shortly after the introduction of Anna, we meet Eva (Bibi Andersson) who is her more desirable double. It is the performance of her unhappily married woman opposite Andreas that gives meaning to the entire film, for where Anna’s style is basically dated, Eva is disturbingly modern in contrast. “It is hard to realize one day that you’re meaningless,” she informs Andreas, inculcating his worst fears. After the overwhelming eroticism fades, both ourselves and Bergman’s hero are left with not very much. Therefore he looks to Anna.
Bergman hated the miniskirts that Bibi and Liv Ullman suggested their characters wear, but he gave into their instinct. “That misfortune was not noticeable then but revealed itself later,” he complains in Images, “like writing in invisible ink.” Miniskirts are the least of the horrors on the island, since such things come into fashion again. Elsewhere, eight sheep are mutilated and killed; an innocent man is pushed to suicide after he is accused of the crime. Andreas finds a dog almost dead by hanging and serves it milk, but he is fighting a losing battle against the universe. His despair is Bergman’s.
Between scenes of Andreas’ desolate hermit life on the island and his seduction of the women there, Bergman blends straightforward interviews with the actors about portraying their provincial characters. He later regretted including these departures, admitting “the interviews should have been cut out.”
Watching a documentary about a movie alongside the movie itself is not so nearly disorienting today, and it gives The Passion of Anna an inflated importance, making the film’s chaotic events seem to add up to more than they really do. The masterfully subtle performances Bergman receives from Von Sydow and Ullman further distract from the inadequacies of the script. The Passion of Anna is not near one of Bergman’s best films, but it is his messiest.
During the forty-five days it took to shoot The Passion of Anna, Bergman fought endlessly with his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist. Bergman felt he needed The Passion of Anna to be a success after the financial failure of Shame, and he was handicapped in his ambitions by the fact the screenplay he took to Faro Island was incomplete, comprised mainly of “moods.” Images finds Ingmar musing that “The Passion of Anna could have been a good film.”
It was their first color effort together, and although the natural light they received on the island is perfect, the final color of the film is disastrous, frequently displayed as overexposed and especially hard to look at in interior scenes. Sometimes this is intentional, as when infidelity occurs. Other times, the spectrum is simply chaotic. The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman’s only films to not rate highly in its overall presentation, suggesting why he was so frustrated by the process of filming it.
Faro Island for Bergman was a kind of hell, representing what he called a Kingdom of Death. Any tendency towards isolation, The Passion of Anna suggests, is self-annihilating. This anoints the present as a sincere improvement on the past, for the reason that we are all closer together now than we ever were. “You are scared,” Bergman writes, “when you have for a long time been sawing off the branch on which you sit.”
from Ingmar Bergman’s Images
There are two godfathers to Fanny and Alexander. One of them is E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Toward the end of the 1970s, I was supposed to direct Hoffmann at the Opera House in Munich. I began to fantasize about the real Hoffmann, who sat in Luther’s wine cellar, sick and nearly dying. I wrote in my notes: “Death is everpresent. The barcarole, the sweetness of death. The Venice scene stinks of decay, raw lust, and heavy perfumes. In the Antonia scene, the mother is intensely frightening. The room is people with shadows, dancing, and mouths gaping. The mirror in the mirror aria is small and gleams like a murder weapon.”
In a short story written by Hoffmann there is a gigantic, magical room. It was that magical room I wanted to re-create on stage. The drama would be played out with that room set on stage. The drama would be played out with that room set in the foreground and the orchestra in the background.
There is also an illustration from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories that had haunted me time and time again, a picture from The Nutcracker. Two children are quivering close together in the twilight of Christmas Eve, waiting impatiently for the candles on the tree to be lighted and the doors to the living room to be opened.
It is that scene that gave me the idea of beginning Fanny and Alexander with a Christmas celebration.
The second godfather is Dickens: the bishop and his home, the Jew in his boutique of fantasies, the children as victims; the contrast between flourishing outside life and a closed world in black-and-white.
One could say that it all began during the fall of 1978. I was living in Munich and felt ill at ease. I was still enmeshed in the tax imbroglio, and I didn’t know how or when it would end. On September 27, I wrote in my workbook:
There is no longer any distinction between my anxiety and the reality that causes it. And yet I think I know what kind of film I want to make next. It is far different from anything I have ever done.
Anton is eleven years old and Maria is twelve. They act as observers of the reality I wish to depict. The time is the beginning of the First World War; the place is a small town, exceedingly quiet and well-kept. There is a university, a theater, and a hotel some distance away. Life is peaceful.
Anton and Maria’s mother is director of a theater. When their father died, she took over the management of his theater and now runs it with authority and shrewdness. They lie on a quiet street. in the back of the theater lives a Jew, Isak, who owns a toy store. It contains some other interesting and exciting objects as well. A frequent Sunday visitor is an old lady who used to be a missionary in China. She performs Chinese shadow plays. There is also an uncle who is a little crazy but is harmless and who takes certain liberties. The house is well-to-do and extremely bourgeois.
The grandmother is an almost mystical figure who lives in the apartment below. She is fabulously wealthy and was in her past a royal mistress and a great actress. Now she has retired, but sometimes she will appear in an occasional part. In either case, it is a world completely dominated by women, from the cook who has been around for a hundred years to the little nanny who is cheerful, freckled and limps because one leg is shorter than the other, and who smells deliciously of sweat.
The theater is both a playground for the children and a haven. Sometimes they are allowed to participate in a play, which they find enormously exciting. The children sleep in the same room, and they have many things to keep themselves occupied – their own puppet theater, their own movie projector, toy trains, dollhouses. They are inseparable.
Maria is the one who takes the most initiative. Anton is rather anxious. Their upbringing is strict, and severe punishment for even the most trivial offenses is not out of the question. The church bells measure the passage of time; the small bell at a nearby castle announces when it is morning and when it is evening. The Vicar is always a welcome guest, even at the theater. One might suspect that Mother has a special relationship with the vicar. However, this is difficult to know right away.
Then Mother decides to marry the vicar. Mother cannot continue to manage her theater; she must become a wife and mother. It is already apparent that her belly is swelling. Maria does not like the vicar; Anton does not like him either. Mother transfers the ownership of the theater to her actors; crying bitterly, she bids her people farewell and moves into the vicarage with Maria and Anton, who are raging with anger.
Mother is a good wife to the clergyman. She plays her part irreproachably: she gives birth to a child and invites the parishioners in for coffee after the morning service. The church bells ring, and Maria and Anton brood, thinking of revenge. They are no longer allowed to sleep together in the same room, and the cheerful Maj, the nanny, who has become pregnant, is fired and replaced by the vicar’s sister, who is a dragon.
With my divining rod, I searched the ground for a source and came upon a vein of water. When I began to drill, it gushed out like a geyser. My notes continue:
Through my playing, I want to master my anxiety, relieve tension, and triumph over my deterioration. I want to depict, finally, the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, and which I so seldom and so feebly have given attention to in my work. To be able to express the power of action, decisiveness, the vitality, and the kindness. Yes, for once, that would not be a bad idea.
From the very beginning one can see that with Fanny and Alexander. I have landed in the world of my childhood. Here is the university town and Grandmother’s house with the old cook; here is the Jew who lived out back; and here is the school. I am already in the place and beginning to roam around in the familiar environment. My childhood has of course always been my main supplier, without my ever having bothered to find out where the deliveries were coming from.
On November 10, I write in my workbook:
I often think of Ingrid Bergman. I would like to write something for her that would not be too demanding, and I see a summer porch in rain. She is alone, waiting for her children and grandchildren. It is afternoon, the whole film is set on a veranda. The film will last only as long as the rain. Nature is showing her fairest face; everything is enveloped in this soft unceasing rain. When the film opens, she is speaking on the telephone. Her family is out on an excursion around the lake. She talks with an old friend of hers, who is much older than she. A deep trust exists between the two. She writes a letter. She finds some object. She remember a theater performance – her big breakthrough. She sees her reflection in the windowpanes – and can catch a glimpse of herself as a young woman.
The reason she has stayed at home is that she has sprained her ankle – it is only a slight sprain; mostly it feels good to be alone. Toward the end of the film, she sees the family returning from their trip; the rain is still falling, but it is now a peaceful, quiet drip.
Everything should happen in a major key.
The porch in summer – everything is enveloped in a soft chiaroscuro. In this piece there are no hard edges; everything must be as soft as the rain. A neighbor’s child comes and asks for other children. She has bought wild strawberries, and she is given a treat. She is wet from the rain and smells wet. It is a kind life, a good, simple, incredible life. When she sees the child’s hands, the most unusual thoughts come to her, thoughts that she has never had before. The cat purrs, stretched out on the sofa, the clock ticks; the smell of summer pervades over all. She stands in the doorway to the porch and looks out over the meadows with the oak tree, the meadow that leads down in the old bridge and the bay. To her, everything looks both old and familiar and yet new and unexpected. It is strange how longing emanates from sudden solitude.
This looks like a different film, independent of the first, but the material came to good use in Fanny and Alexander, the decision to depict a life, luminous and happy, was there from the moment I found life truly difficult to bear.
Harmony is not a feeling that is totally unusual or foreign to me. If I am just allowed to live quiet and create in a calm environment without being tormented, where I can have a clear perspective of my existence, where it is possible for me to be kind and not need anything or have to keep lots of appointments, then I can function at my best. Such an existence reminds me of the good-natured passive life of my childhood.
On April 18 I wrote, “I don’t know much about this film. Yet it tempts me more than any other. It is enigmatic and demands reflection, but the most important thing of course is that the desire is there.”
On April 23 I note: “Today I wrote the first six pages of Fanny and Alexander. I actually enjoyed doing it. Now I am going to write about the theater, the apartment, and the grandmother.”
Wednesday, May 2:
I must get away from rushing and straining. I have the entire summer in front of me to do this, more than four months. On the other hand, I should not stay away from my desk too long. But no, it’s all right to walk around a bit! Let the scenes settle themselves down as they please. Let them become what they will. Then they will be on their best behavior!
Tuesday, June 5:
It is dangerous to invoke the infernal powers. In Isak’s house lives an idiot with the face of an angel, a thin, fragile body, and colorless eyes that see all. He is able to do evil. He is like a membrane for wishes that quivers with the slightest touch. It is Alexander’s experience of the Secret that makes him what he is. The conversation with his dead father. God showing himself to him. His meeting with the dangerous Ismael, who sends the burning woman to annihilate the bishop.
The manuscript was finished on July 8, not quite three months after I began it. There followed a year of preparation for filming, a long and surprisingly pleasant time.
Then, I suddenly stood there and had to materialize my film.
Watching it today, I see that the long version could have been trimmed down half an hour to forty minutes without anyone noticing it. As it was, the work was heavily edited down to the five different episodes for television. But from that point down to the reduced theatrical version was a long step.
The basic chords in Fanny and Alexander are summed up exhaustively in The Magic Lantern:
To be honest, it is with delight and curiosity that I think back on my childhood. My imagination and sense gained nourishment, and I cannot remember ever being bored. Rather the days and hours exploded with these strange wonders, unexpected sights, and magical moments. I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and re-create the lighting, smells, people, places, moments, gestures, intonations, and objects. Seldom do these memories have any particular meaning; they like bits of film, short of long, with no point, shot at random.
This is the prerogative of childhood: to move in complete freedom between magic and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and joy that threatens to burst within you. There were no limits except forbidden things and rules, which were like shadows, mostly unfathomable. I know, for instance, that I could not grasp the concept of time: You must learn to be punctual; you have been given a watch, you must learn how to tell time. Yet time did not exist. I was late for school, I was late for meals. Unconcerned, I roamed around in the park by the hospital, looking around and dreaming; time ceased to exist, then something reminded me I was hungry, and trouble began.
It was difficult for me to differentiate between what existed in my imagination and what was real. If I made the effort, perhaps I could make the reality remain real, but then, for instance, there were always the ghosts and the visions. What was I supposed to do with them? And the fairy tales, were they real or not?
Translated from the Swedish by Marianne Ruuth.