Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fanny, Alexander and Isak

At the risk that this blog is going to turn into a movie review site, here are some words about one of the greatest movies of all times, Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander
I watched the complete TV version (over 5 hours) again last night, and once more discovered that this is a film that never gets boring, but just becomes more fascinating the oftener one sees it. Whereas the Hollywood style forces the viewer to have exactly this-or-that emotion at this-and-that moment, and thus leads him or her through a predetermined trajectory that leaves very little room for any alternative interpretations or reactions, here we have a movie that leaves the viewer endless freedom to look at the same images, the same characters and the same story from ever new perspectives.
There are many amazing scenes in this film, but one part that always impresses me particularly was (I think) deleted from the abridged cinema version. Fanny and Alexander had been kept imprisoned by the sadistic Lutheran pastor who has married their mother, and have just been miraculously liberated by their uncle Isak, the stereotypical Jewish merchant and money-lender, and an old friend of the family (he used to have a secret affair with the grandmother when they were both much younger, they were discovered by her husband, who went for his gun - and the two men ended up becoming friends for life!). Isak now lives in a big house full of magical objects and moving puppets, together with his brothers Aron and Ishmael, who is living in a locked room because he is considered dangerous (and for good reasons, as the viewer finds out). The children have barely begun to recover from the nightmare of the pastor's house, and while they try to get used to the fact that they are now safe, Isak sits down and reads them a story. Modern directors would never dare to even consider a scene like this: 15 minutes at least, mostly consisting of continous shots, showing nothing but the face of an old man telling a story. It's captivating, but I will not try to summarize it here: you'll have to find the DVD and watch it yourself. Alexander's dreamlike vision at the end of Isak's story catches some of the deepest messages that I think Ingmar Bergman wanted to convey. And that means someting, for the whole movie is full of such insights. What a delight to see the contrast between the cold, austere and inhuman asceticism of the Pastor and his household, and the human warmth and colourful richness of the Ekdahl family household, with unforgettable characters such as Fanny & Alexander's uncle Gustav Adolf, whose sexual escapades with the maid servants are known to the whole family, including his wife Alma, but who is such a warm and generous character that nobody can remain angry at him for long. As a whole, the movie is a grand affirmation of life against the life-denying powers represented here by religious fanaticism and moral rigidity. In a key conversation, Fanny & Alexander's mother, Emilie, compares the austere "purity" of her husband's God with her own God, who is fluid and formless, hides behind countless masks and never shows his true face. For a time she is tempted by a desire to see behind those masks and roles, and the message is clear: this quest for spiritual purity, final clarity and definitive answers is deadly - it almost ends up destroying herself and her children.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pre-Rafaelites in Amsterdam

"Mariana in the Moated Grange" by John Everett Millais. I find this a splendid painting. The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam just opened an exhibition of Millais's paintings.
What more can I add? If you have a chance, go and have a look...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Will-Erich Peuckert's Pansophia

I don't suppose many English or American readers will have heard of Will-Erich Peuckert (1895-1969), but this German folklorist has written some of the most enchanting books on the history of magic. Many years ago I came across his Pansophie: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weissen und schwarzen Magie, and was instantly fascinated. Probably it had as much to do with Peuckert's unique writing style as with the contents: it gave the book a very peculiar atmosphere, which I still find almost impossible to define, but which caused me to recognize the book spontaneously as a Pilzbuch, a "mushroom book". Not only is it very very German, but although it's a difficult monograph about 15th and16th century magicians and mystics there is also something about it that, somehow, reminds you of a botanical collections of magical herbs or plants. I was not surprised at all to discover that Rolf Christian Zimmermann, in a long preface to one of Peuckert's books, calls him a collector at heart, and adds that he was in fact a very knowledgeable amateur botanist who could tell you the name of each and every plant, flower or weed.
Zimmermann also emphasizes that while Peuckert was a scholar of extreme erudition, all his work is somehow intensely personal, because he identified with his area of research to such an extent as to become almost inseparable from it. This is shown even in his strange habit of giving quotations (sometimes very long ones) without quotation marks, so that it's sometimes hard to be sure where Peuckert ends and Paracelsus begins. In 1935 Peuckert wrote a preface to Pansophie which shows how much he loved what he studied:

... I began this book with secret feelings of joy. ... I wrote it mostly for my students - as the history of our longing. As the history of a way of thinking that was right - like every way of thinking was once "right". ... I have devoted a good part of my work to the times that I have described here, and I do not regret it. I have seen what few others have seen; I have seen Faust and Luther and Weigel and Paracelsus and J. Boehme, the great movers of the German spirit; I have sat with astrologers, and have listened to alchemists for hours; I have been allowed to intuit magic as truth. I was allowed to grasp what I believed needed to be grasped; the way of research lay open before me, I was bound no more firmly than Paracelsus was bound in his magic. Only one star stood shining above my road, the star which determined his life: Alterius non sit, qui suus esse potest. I have been allowed to live beautiful years.
I want to be grateful to all the years. For these years, and for this road. It is the only one that fits us. Alterius non sit, qui suus esse potest.

"Let no one that can belong to himself, belong to another". These words are all the more touching if one realizes that they were written in 1935. Peuckert, who never compromised with Nazism, would soon be hit by a publication ban, and one of his books was burned in public. In 1945 he and his wife had to flee for their lives, and his unique library of ca. 35000 books was destroyed. After the war he lost his wife in a tragical accident, later lost his son as well (the Introduction to his book on astrology is dated "20 July 1960, the day I buried my son"), and toward the end of his life he could hardly read and could type only with his left index finger. In seems that those beautiful years were over for him, but across many decades we can still share in his love for a world that no longer exists.