Isak’s Tale: ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

The sequence is part of the fifth chapter – titled “Demons” – of the TV version of Fanny and Alexander. When it takes place, we have already been immersed in the misfortunes of the Ekdahl family for more than four hours.

Isak Jakobi (Erland Josephson) has managed to rescue Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) from their wicked stepfather, Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), whose abuses have become intolerable. Isak shelters the siblings at his labyrinthine residence, shows them the room where they will sleep and proceeds to read them a story.

What is Isak’s true role in Fanny and Alexander? Uncle Isak is not, in actual fact, the siblings’ uncle. A Jewish antiques dealer, loyal friend of the Ekdahl family, intimate companion of grandmother Helena, Isak liberates the children from their stepfather’s yoke. By doing this, he accomplishes their late father’s will. But he is not a father to Fanny and Alexander. Nor is he trying to become, like Vergérus, a pale substitute for it. Isak’s figure is far more remarkable. Freed from the mundane ties of paternity, he is what children (especially orphan children) wish for, sometimes intimately and silently: a mentor, a facilitator, or – to use the term coined by Serge Daney – a passeur.

There’s a lovely detail in this sequence that reveals to us how seriously Isak takes his job. He holds in his hands a little book, written in Hebrew, made of “stories, thoughts, words of wisdom and prayers”. He’s about to read something to the children, but warns them beforehand: “Maybe it’s a bit choppy, since I have to translate as I read”. However, after the first few lines, Isak lifts his gaze and doesn’t look at the book again until he pronounces the final sentence. Obviously, he knows this text by heart, or maybe he’s inventing it on the spot. Like a magician, he’s aware that a trick’s success lies in its execution and that, for his audience, a story printed with ink, in the pages of an old book, holds a greater truth than the art of forging a tale.

In Isak’s story, a young man “journeys down an endless road in the company of many others”. Under the burning sun and the dusty wind, he walks through an inhospitable landscape. Tormented by his thirst and his anxiety, the youth despairs. His hopes diminish, his senses are weakened, and he forgets “why he ever set out on his journey”. Isak’s tale is modelled on the myth of the hero’s journey and, as he recounts it, the camera moves closer to his face, very slowly. The words flow from his mouth as if everything he narrates was happening at that very moment, before his eyes – or as if it had happened long, long ago, and told many times since. Bergman doesn’t introduce a single reverse shot of the children: this is a significant gesture through which we come to occupy their place – the place of the absent reverse shot. Fused with the siblings’ gazing and listening, we are made direct recipients of this story through which Isak speaks to us.

At one point, however, Isak’s tale splits into images – in the entire six minutes that his narration lasts, this happens only once. Isak relates how, one night, the youth heard an old man telling other children about the forests and springs. The youth remembers then that he himself had visited these forests and springs once, but his memories are faint and indistinct, like “a dream”. Then, in a remarkable, single shot – itself like a mirage, or a dream – we see Alexander lying in the open, clutching his Teddy next to a fire. Suddenly, matching the action in Isak’s story, Alexander sits up and turns. The camera ascends with him and, at the same time, tracks out. This discreet gesture serves to open up the image and radically reframe it: now, Alexander is among a group of kids, facing Isak who sits on a pile of cushions. From this slightly elevated position, the man tells tales to the children who, spellbound, listen to him with their gazes lifted.

The diagonal line traced by the figures’ heads seals the pact between teller and listener, between old age and youth. The magnetic movement of the camera, the hypnotic march of the flames dancing in the background around the main characters, magnify the effect of incantation portrayed and produced by this primal, iconic vignette. This shot is the juncture where the film’s narrative and the tale’s narrative interlock, signalling the exact point at which the oral narration casts its spell and relaunches the hero’s faith in the journey. The mise en abîme generated in this shot emphasises, precisely, the magical powers of storytelling. The powers by which Isak and Alexander become, respectively, the old and the young man in the tale; the powers by which the film becomes their pilgrimage, full of suffering, in search of a promised land – a land of rivers, streams and springs, where “you can quench your thirst, wash your badly burnt face, cool your blistered feet”.

After having compellingly chanted the attributes of this paradise, the old man confesses to the youth that this destination – lost and longed for, remembered or half glimpsed – may not exist. In The Cinema Hypothesis, Alain Bergala describes the passeur as “someone who gives of himself, who accompanies his passengers in the boat or up the mountain, who takes the same risks as those temporarily in his charge”. When Isak is about to reach the tale’s end, he directs his gaze to the book one last time, and concludes with these words: “The next morning the youth set out with the old man, to seek the mountain, the cloud, the forests and the rippling springs”.

A brief pause follows. Schumann’s “Piano Quintet in E-flat Major” starts playing on the soundtrack at the very moment in which Isak raises his eyelids, finding our gaze. Then, and only then, Bergman introduces one of the most beautiful reverse shots in film history.


Between this close-up of Alexander’s face and the later, extreme close-up of his eyes, we are taken again into the imaginary space of Isak’s tale. Crowds of people advance, as in the Biblical Exodus, passing the boy who looks around, astonished. Several characters from the film reappear as figures imbued with religious and symbolic associations. The family saga is abstracted, enlarged, connected to its mythical roots. Across these ten shots –a theatrical embodiment of suffering and joy, of madness and relief – Bergman creates a choreography of dance, movement and gesture: Alexander’s traumatic experiences, his memories and longings, are condensed, reworked and transformed as in a dream.

If, as Bergala notes, “cinema, the greatest cinema, has ontologically a lot to do with the subject of transmission”, this sequence captures the intensity of such an experience, bursting with the electrified emotion of that transference.

© Cristina Álvarez López, March 2012/December 2018

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