Although he is still working extensively in television, Fanny and Alexander in 1982 was Ingmar Bergman’s last work as a director for the big screen and it’s hard to imagine a more impressive way to round-up an illustrious career in cinema. Described by Bergman himself as “the sum total of my life as a film-maker”, the three hour theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander was the winner of 4 Academy Awards in 1982, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. From about 24 hours of material, Bergman then produced a five hour cut of the film as a television series, and it’s this 301 minute version that is released as a 2 disc set by Artificial Eye.
Fanny and Alexander is largely an autobiographical film. Set in Sweden in 1907 (earlier in reality to the director’s own childhood) the film covers a year in the life of 10 year old Alexander Ekdahl and his 8 year old sister, Fanny. The Ekdahl’s are a lively family, closely attached to the theatre. The richness and warmth of the Ekdahl home where everyone is always singing or telling stories mirrors the richness of life for the children. This contrasts with the second half of the film – when the children’s father Oscar dies, their mother Emilie remarries the bishop, a cold-hearted, cruel man and the cold, austere, barren surroundings and barred windows of the bishop’s household reflect the empty and loveless conditions that the children have been placed in.
The film is a rich evocation of a childhood and growing-up, of families and the formative influences that determine one’s life. It depicts life in all its facets – from the heights of joyful exuberance and tenderness to the depths of suffering and cruelty. Ghosts, Death and even God make typically Bergmanesque appearances in the film. It seems like every emotion is laid bare over the course of its 5 hour running time, perfectly weighted and balanced – a work of far greater richness and depth than could accurately be conveyed in any review.
It is a major disappointment therefore that the film couldn’t have been served better than this DVD release. The aspect ratio is closer to 1.53:1 than 1:66:1, and there is no anamorphic enhancement. Even if there were an anamorphic transfer, it is probable that it would only have made the poor quality of the print even more evident. Marks, scratches and tramlines are apparent on the print every so often especially in the first 2 – 3 hours of the film. The picture is slightly faded and does not do justice to the deep, opulent, warm colours in the film. The picture is grainy, soft, lacking in contrast and blacks have no solidity or depth. At times the quality is no better than VHS – with shadows, ghosting and brightness down the right-hand side of the picture, notably visible in dark scenes in Part 1, but extending to fade and distort the colour on half the print throughout Part 2. Parts 3 & 4 on disc 2 show a significant improvement in colour depth and contain little damage to the print, but are much too dark and contrasty.
The 2 disc set released by Artificial Eye contains the full 301 minute version of the film. Part 1 and Part 2 on disc 1 contains the first three acts, while disc 2 contains the remaining 2 acts split across Parts 3 & 4. There is an option on the menu to view the whole disc without the intervening end-titles between each part. Scene selections are also available for each episode. Subtitles are fixed on, rather than below the print, but because of the non-anamorphic 1:66:1 aspect ratio, they are still unfriendly for widescreen TVs.
The sound is mostly clean and sharp in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, with good noise reduction, however loud voices tend to be shrill and in some scenes the sound wobbles. In Part 1 there is a good 10 minutes where the sound wavers becoming alternatively muffled and then clear. This is just not acceptable.
Considering we have a five hour film spread over 2 dual-layer DVDs, you wouldn’t expect there to be much in the way of extras. Filmographies are provided for director, Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer, Sven Nykvist on Disc 1. Disc 2 contains a behind-the-scenes still gallery of a dozen or so photographs . There is a 110 minute making-of film in existence – Dokument Fanny och Alexander, but it’s maybe expecting too much to have that included on this release.
Fanny and Alexander certainly isn’t a film for everyone. It’s a long, slow family drama with occasional eccentric touches, but at the same time it is not at all obscure or impenetrable. It’s a superb demonstration of cinema as an artform – from the technical skill demonstrated in every aspect of its creation to the masterful depiction on screen of life in all its richness. As this is the only DVD version yet available of the film, it is a pity that the opportunity has been missed to present this wonderful film in the way it deserves to be seen. It’s sad to say, but even Tartan’s releases of older Bergman films are of better quality than this.