The Movie Inside the Movie:
Variations on Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander
In Fanny and Alexander there is a season that doesn’t exist. It’s an endless winter. Interiors even in their warmth emit the same white glare as the air outside. In the outdoor scenes, in the streets of Uppsala, I hear the same creaking in the trees as I hear in the floors of the living rooms, the bedrooms where people sleep.
The camera sees like a remembering mind—every snow-drift, every glass glinting in the light belongs to the same person, to the same memory, the same dream. The camera is searching the places inside a mind: Bergman’s mind? Alexander’s? Now mine?
The winter moves in waves underneath the houses in summer. It is the ringing when the mother undoes her hair while her husband sleeps; it is the wailing that pierces her when he dies; later, it is the silent room in the new husband’s house the children must pass through without being heard or detected.
In my memory of the movie there is another movie—the movie that has no beginning or end—the movie that changes as I grow and remember it differently. I can access the winter in that movie at will. It’s not even strange that the children are dressed in white gowns, or that someone is cruel to them. There is a thaw—a rushing river, another winter.
I first saw Fanny and Alexander as a child and I’m still haunted by it. The children’s fears felt like my own fears. To think of it is to access a certain time in my childhood, when I could hear the sounds of my father watching a movie on the other side of the wall.
In some part of my mind it is Bergman’s Sweden in summer. I hold my hand out the window and mosquitoes come. The mother is in the house. I can hear the way the faucet runs. I can hear but I can’t see her children.
What is important is not to remember the movie but to return to it—to return to it as one would return to a house whose walls may have shifted or begun to lean more deeply into one another, while the movement of your body through it has also changed. Sometimes what you recognize is a place you have been, and sometimes what you recognize is the memory you have visited many times since. The actors walk through rooms like visitors, like people remembered after their deaths.
My father walks into the living room acting out the scene when the uncle farts up the stairs. I can’t stop laughing, but the uncle’s laughter is already the laughter of a ghost. The staircase will go blank; the child alone on the staircase after the death of his father will disappear into the landing where the winter air is bright but sealed inside a window. Is that window really there? How many times have I walked into the living room and the movie was on—my father there in the afternoon, some moment in the movie out of order—and even when I see the movie again all the way through—that scene is not there.
I don’t know what drops in my stomach when someone in a movie dies. This time I think it’s the child understanding that he dies.
Even in the longest movies everything is condensed. It’s a relief that life isn’t like that, that we don’t see things change that quickly. Sometimes I don’t want to be aware.
Winter is hanging over the children’s bed as if the ceiling of the house in Sweden was suddenly pliant, suddenly made of cloth. Why can’t we see the mother? Why can’t we lie against her?
In the stepfather’s house, the breath has been knocked out of the furniture.
While the mother is berated behind the locked door, the anger in the boy turns his mother into snow to protect her. Snow, the raging river, the glass of oil on the table, the cracking ice.
Erica Ehrenberg’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Slate, Octopus, jubilat, the New Republic, CURA, the St. Ann’s Review, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf 2008), and Guernica. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Vermont Studio Center, a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and will be a resident this summer at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at Yaddo. At Fordham University she teaches writing and creative writing courses that often focus on the connections between literature, architecture, sculpture, film, painting, and photography. She has also given talks at the Storm King Sculpture Center on poetry and sculpture.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.