If Dickens is a moralist, then Bergman is a reprobate. And Dickens, whatever the quality of his prose and his talent for naming, is a moralist, though a sentimental one. No wonder he warms our hearts each Christmastide, a time in which the most pious and least devout unite in anti-humbug cheer. I am no more immune to this than anyone else. I watch A Christmas Story (1983), decorate my tree, and bask in the warm glow of lights strewn (though regrettably less and less) across suburbia. This year I even took in Scrooged (1988)! My heart—it bleeds for thee, Christmas.
Not too long ago a friend and I were joking that Ingmar Bergman captures the two ends of religiosity (we said “Protestantism” at the time, but the question of how and where to apply the criteria is too much for this brief reflection): you either end up the dour, moralistic bishop from Fanny and Alexander (1982) or the sullen, desperate cleric lamenting the impossibility of knowing a good god in Cries and Whispers (1972). With another gray, temperate, snow-less New Jersey Christmas upon me, I can’t help but feel (with the dampness in my bones) that we had it wrong. You can also turn out a sentimentalist, a moralizer in cherubic rouge.
No wonder then that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) has us so enchanted—how wonderful the blush and compelling the hearth’s glow. I cannot question its potency, certainly not having just celebrated the savior’s birth and the abolition of miserliness from men’s hearts (and who could remonstrate the ever-memorable declaration, one I repeat ad nauseam each Nativity in deference to its Cockney-inflected power of stupefaction: “Why, it’s Christmas day!”?). I will do no such thing. But my traditions are not those of the old anglophone world; my Slovak ancestors knew no such story. I have had to dip my arm deep in the American stew to find something meaty enough for merry supper.
In the big, boiling pot, I found something Swedish, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, an over-five-hour tale of two early-twentieth-century children, whose sumptuous, loving but woefully realistic bourgeois home life is disturbed by the death of their father and their mother’s remarriage to the aforementioned (very grim, very pedagogically minded) bishop. Originally shot as a TV series and later cut for theatrical release, Bergman’s epic is, at least according to Roger Ebert, influenced by Dickens. In its epic scope and wry attention to types, this analysis is spot on. But so what? Fanny was also Dickens’ sister’s name. Here, however, I am concerned with sentiment, not craft or biography.
Every winter, I hunker down with Bergman’s movie because it begins on Christmas, when the Eckdahl family gathers for a magnificent feast. Their gorgeous manor, decorated in all manner of thick red draping, softly glowing candles, and carefree tinsel, is host to intriguing kin, childish flights of fancy and loneliness, and even the problems and adventures of their servants. Here, we have the best Christmas as it really exists: a gathering of half-linked fallible human beings (whether in service or blood) getting along despite themselves, glowing with drink, dance, and song, briefly let out of the cold Swedish winter, financial failings, romantic indiscretions, and all the aching, invisible horrors of life, allowed to twirl and pirouette with childlike fantasy, living the dream of a better world. They even go to church.
Fanny and Alexander’s parents are actors. And it is during rehearsals for Hamlet that their father takes ill and soon dies. Oscar, their dad, was to play Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost, only now to wordlessly haunt his son as he descends into the gray-walled severity of life at the bishop’s palace. The children’s next Christmas will be spent here, along with many other months of punishments, beatings, drudgery, and sallow-faced tedium. They are forced to go to bed early, given no time to play with the few bare toys left in the manor. Fanny and Alexander learn that even the servants are not to be trusted. Sharing one of his fantasies with a nanny (if that’s even the word), Alexander is harshly reprimanded, severely beaten, and left to rot in the cold, dank attic, where the ghosts of two dead girls mock his fantasias and—in a shot worthy of a J-Horror flick—vomit next to his restless head, eyes agape. His mother, away on a trip to aid an escape and previously frozen by deluded love and fear, rushes in to save him, cradling her broken child, Bergman’s camera giving us just a glimpse of the blood half-oozing, half-caked on his backside.
Their story ends in springtime with the births common to comedy. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Again, we are at a feast at the Eckdahl manor. Again, there are tears of joy, now harder won than ever, with Fanny and Alexander released from the bishop’s austerely Lutheran grasp. Again, happiness reigns if only for a moment, the spirit of joy is triumphant, has the last laugh, smirks down on misery, not to invalidate it but to conquer it. This is the story of Christmas, even of winter—without sentiment.
And one that the director carried over into his life. The bishop after all, is said to have been based in part on his father. Bergman’s longtime collaborator, Max von Sydow, claimed to be an atheist, to disdain the idea of an afterlife. On set, he shared this view with Bergman, who called it ludicrous, promising von Sydow he would visit him and prove it after he died. In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, von Sydow retold this story, sagely and nearly wordlessly communicating that Bergman kept his promise. Faith came easier now, visited as he was, by a ghost known from happier times.