“Fanny & Alexander Ep. 2” Bergman shows the many faces of death

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The first scene of Episode Two is hilarious until it isn’t. We follow Oskar as he rehearses for his upcoming play. He goofily stumbles over lines, his feet, the set, and his co-star’s feet. Then he collapses to the ground. So begins “Fanny & Alexander’s” meditation on death. Hey, it’s directed by Ingmar Bergman, it’s gotta happen at some point.

When Oskar finally dies, Bergman takes care to show us the many different ways people react, specifically the difference between how adults and children act. His wife, Emilie, seems surprisingly upbeat. She’s polite, friendly to her guests, and strong for her children. She laughs politely when someone makes a joke and is quick to move on to the practicalities of the effects of Oskar’s death. It is only late at night when she thinks that she’s alone, that she lets out all her pent up grief by wailing into the walls of the house in a surprisingly unsettling scene. We can only assume that many of the other adults act in similar ways, bound by the need for strength and politeness to mask their true emotions.

This manner of behavior is contrasted severely with Alexander’s reaction. Frustrated by everyone’s emotional constipation, he acts out. He runs, cries openly and belly flops onto the table next to his father’s coffin. Here, Bergman seems to suggest that the emotional openness of a child might ultimately be more healthy. As we see later in the episode, Oskar’s death causes Emilie to act in self-destructive and impulsive ways because she finds difficulty in properly expressing her grief. However, through Alexander’s immediate sincerity, he finds it easier to move on from this traumatic episode.

Alexander’s evident contempt for “adult” rituals and behaviors is also seen in the funeral scene. On his deathbed, Oskar begs for a small, simple funeral. Apparently, small and simple in Sweden translates to a massive parade with a large crowd of onlookers as a coffin gets carried through a church. Alexander seems flabbergasted by this hypocritical display, and he expresses his contempt through the only way an adolescent knows how: by swearing. “Piss, shit, cock, fart,” he mumbles to himself. This isn’t swearing for its own sake, this is Alexander’s way of undermining the pomposity of rituals and a way for him to question why people aren’t allowed to express their emotions naturally.

In the second half of the episode, Emilie rebounds to a new lover, the charismatic bishop. We aren’t quite sure what to make of this guy. At first, he seems warm, friendly, and good with kids. The way he deals with Alexander lying makes him immediately likable. But, as the episode progresses, we witness the darker aspects of this man. If Emilie is to marry him, he says, she must leave behind everything: her friends, her family, her house, and her possessions. Her children must do the same. I think because Emilie has never been able to properly recover from Oskar’s death, she’s put in the position where she would readily agree to such an insane proposition. Fanny & Alexander, being children, don’t really have a say in the matter.

And so, the episode ends with the two children trying to adjust to life in the bishop’s church. In stark contrast to the ornate house they used to live in, these quarters are sparse, simple, almost bereft of any personality. The nuns that run the place rule with an iron fist and institute a series of controlling and pointless rules. A scene from Episode 1 suddenly came to me in this section: where Alexander and his family sing and dance around the house in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine anything remotely resembling that scene taking place in the bishop’s house.

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