Ingmar Bergman is a powerhouse of a director, having directed over sixty works for the screen. Yet, despite his iconic successes in film, he chose to spend the last few decades of his career focused almost exclusively on television. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist has commented that “What Bergman has made for television are not simply films on television, they are television films.” His mini-series Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) in particular stand as testaments to his career. While each was originally conceived as works for television, both of these two series were edited and released in cinemas to mass critical acclaim. Bergman was one of the first directors to realize the full artistic impact of television, seeing television as more than a small screen and envisioning it as a place to create, in his words, “an aesthetically superior everyday product”.
When asked why he chose to focus on television later in his career, Bergman responded with: “When you live on Fårö [Bergman’s island home] you become an avid television viewer. Television is quite simply the most amazing thing. It opens up the whole world.” Bergman observed that television allows for a mass audience much wider than film. For example, Scenes from a Marriage’s final episode was seen by “3.5 million Swedes, virtually half the population” This wide reaching audience was exactly what Bergman wanted – although he stated that “If only a few people sit down in the kitchen and talk about it afterwards over a beer and sandwich, then I’m pleased.” The reaction to this work was strong and impassioned: a myth surrounding Marriage is that it single-handedly increased the divorce rate of Sweden after its release. While Marriage was later cut and released in theaters for international distribution, this mass audience was a fundamental goal for Bergman.
Fanny and Alexander, meanwhile, has three versions – a short theatrical cut of 188 minutes, screened first in Sweden in 1982, followed by a longer theatrical cut in 1983, and finally the television series itself. The long theatrical cut spans 312 minutes – the series strung together into a feature film. This choice made the work, intended to be Bergman’s last, eligible for awards – primarily the Oscars – as it was screened in theatres long before it was released on television. However, Bergman’s original intention was to release this as a television series. The long cut was completed first, and he “claimed that the TV version was the one that showed his true vision”.
In the first act of Fanny and Alexander, the father of the family, Oscar Ekdahl, refers to the world of his theater as “a little world” held up in contrast to the outside “big world… [and] sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better”. This metaphor also describes the world Bergman creates within Fanny and Alexander. As on Ekdahl’s stage, Bergman crafts a “little world” within the confines of the series, one where the characters have complex motivations and the level of production design is detailed and fully realized. As is also evident in Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman applies the same attention to detail within his television as he does in his film work
The key difference between his theatrical work and the worlds he creates within these series is that the length allows for vastly greater detail in character and story development – be it through Scenes from a Marriage’s deep exploration of a couple over a length of time or through Fanny and Alexander’s multiple generations and facets of a family. As a series, the audience lives with these characters over a course of time. Television permits a longer length and pacing which allows for the unfolding of a narrative, and watching these television films in their full durations allows for the full emotional impact of these stories.
Today, television is no longer seen as just a lowbrow form of entertainment. The divide between film and television in the early 21st century is fluid, with many contemporary directors (Stephen Soderberg, etc.) making a transition from film to television and vice versa. Meanwhile, with the rise in popularity of high quality television, many series are highly acclaimed and considered to be important cultural works. Television has realized itself as an artistic medium, becoming something in which both filmmakers and audiences can invest themselves. Bergman was a trailblazer, having had the vision to realize the possibilities this form allows.
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