Ingmar Bergman: The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
5Apr/110

Ingmar Bergman: The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYI have to admit that, at this point, I'm just delaying the inevitable.  Aside from the mountains of made for TV movies that Bergman created between his "retirement" from cinema and his final film Saraband I no longer have any feature films of his to look at (save, of course, Saraband).  But that was the final film he made before he died, so I want to stave off the end as much as possible.

Bergman is doing a lot of coping during the filming of Fanny and Alexander.  So much that he allowed cameras to capture what was going on behind the scenes and preserve it as a vague reminder of what it meant to be a director.  He is pretty upfront about how useful he thinks a documentary of the film making process is.  In the many text cards that outline his thoughts, the first reads that at best a documentary can be mildly illuminating and at best entertaining.

Thankfully, I do not share Bergman's cynicism about a documentary, especially this one.  Despite his ever-so-sunny disposition I believe that what Bergman captured by allowing the cameras backstage was the pure joy he was experiencing towards the end of his life in seeing his memories come to life onscreen.  Many times before he reached into his well of personal experience for inspiration but since Fanny and Alexander was so personal, going so far as to use many direct events from his life, but you could see many times the pain and joy on Bergman's face as his young stand-in travels the story of Bergman's life.

Bergman, in a typically contemplative mood, during the filming of Fanny and Alexander.

What I'm most interested in with Making Of is what the film manages to say about Bergman as a director at this point in his life.  He did not shoot most of the footage used, but ultimately edited the shots together and decided what it was that he wanted to leave as the document of the movie making process.  He interspersed these scenes with various title cards detailing his thoughts and experiences on the set of Fanny and Alexander.

What we have is one of the first examples of what would become director's commentary for a DVD track, though given the limitations of the technology available the text is all we're going to get.  This is a fairly ingenious way of allowing Bergman to both comment on the events of making the film while maintaining a certain distance from the final product and allowing us to form our own conclusions.  Bergman never allows his voice to directly comment on what's going on outside of the directions he is giving in the moment of each scene.

The first thing that I noticed about Bergman when watching Making Of was the wonderful way that he worked with children.  He prods and coaxes them to playful listlessness when a pillow fight is next to be filmed, and finds ways of soothing and guiding the young performers through some of the more troubling elements of the movie.  This is particularly useful when he has to deal with the scenes of the Ekdahl patriarch dying, and of Alexander's dalliance with the androgynous person who stimulates him in a way he might not be ready for.

After a certain point, it becomes clear that he's using this film as a cautionary tale of sorts to prevent anyone else from having the same kind of childhood he did.  This is evidenced clearly in the film, but also because of the emotional toll that the film seems to be taking on Bergman/  He said, many times, that the true mystery of existence and cinema was in the human face.  That's part of why he and Nykvist worked so well, because Nykvists minimalist lightning style meant that only the intricate features of someone's face would be lit if need be.

Nykvist and Bergman have developed a shorthand for working through various shots, and it's very interesting to see them work through disagreements.

Bergman's face betrays him many times while he is making Fanny and Alexander.  There are the obvious expressions of camaraderie and joy that he experiences when the cast first assembles, as well as in those delightful dinner and pillow fight scenes.  But more telling are the moments of grief or concentration where Bergman slips and his eyes become damp as the rest of his face tries to harden to compensate.  This is a deeply personal film for him, one that he cannot fully separate himself from and tries to fuel the production with the pain he is mining from his childhood.

While Bergman clearly has an emotional interest in the material that he cannot disentangle himself from it doesn't prevent him from working with a high level of professionalism and care.  There are many moments where he has to repeat the same shot over and over again to get the effect that he desires.  That he is able to do so without driving he or his comrades crazy is a testament to how much he has grown.  He even pokes fun at himself for this level of stringency - fondly recalling the time he tried to get two horses, a cat and an actor to work together.  That he tried is commendable, that he realized it was a lost cause signaled a director who knows when to pack it up and go with what you have.

Overall, the Bergman of Fanny and Alexander is a far cry from the Bergman who gave us Crisis some thirty six years previously. Bergman was a director who threw hissy fits and yelled at his cast and crew during that time.  Now he was still forming his craft but the way he treated them heavily burdened a film that was, at best, a third rate effort for Sweden.

Many times, we get the sense that Bergman is realizing his dream of visualizing his childhood and remembering all the pain that comes with it.

He's also far removed from the man that gave us Through A Glass Darkly and The Seventh Seal.  There's another documentary about Bergman, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie, that reveals this much.  That film follows Bergman around as makes Winter Light and it shows a far different man.  That Bergman was cold and very much in control, willing to discuss things a bit more but still butting heads with cinematographer Sven Nykvist and staff on occasion.  Bergman still strove for the best out of everyone, and birthed one of the greatest of all his movies as a result.

But those were different times for different movies.  What Making Of proves is what I talked about last week, Bergman had finally come to terms with the end of his life and found where his faith truly was.  As much as Fanny and Alexander was about his experiences growing up, it was also about the old storytellers growing old and stepping down to allow the new generation to come in.  Bergman identifies as much with Alexander as he does the soon to be dead elder Ekdahl, the storyteller who loved theater so much that he couldn't leave even after he died.

As a film separate from Bergman's other works, Making Of is interesting enough to see how a director tries to formulate the sum of his life onto film.  But for those of us who have been with Bergman from the beginning, it's a victorious cry of life and art.  Even Bergman, too cynical to really admit this to us, feels it at the end.  He may not want to directly admit the reasons for his sadness, but we know that he moves on with courage and love.

No more delays.  Next week will be Saraband.  I'm sad to see this end, but if someone as dour as Bergman can learn to love the end, I can do the same.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Posted by Andrew

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