Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is best known for his work on his The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility. There, Benjamin argues that works of art lose their ‘aura’ when technologically reproduced. But I would argue that art that is reproducible – such as film, or photography, music that is heard, say, on radio or Spotify – does not lose its aura. In fact, sometimes, the aura of a technologically reproduced work of art can become magnified over time. I am thinking of the films of Ingmar Bergman …
Walter Benjamin’s aura magnified
Every Christmas, I have fallen into the habit of rewatching Bergman’s (1982) film Fanny and Alexander. I first saw this film when I was a college student in the 1980s. At the time, I do not think I understood the film very well, if at all. I was drawn to the film by its strangeness and beauty. Over the decades, the ‘aura’ of the film magnified; its strange allure continually draws me back year after year, decade after decade.
The film takes place at Christmas time in 1907 in Sweden. The story of the Ekdahls is told through Alexander’s eyes. He is a magical, mystifying child who is a seer of sorts. And he is Ingmar Bergman. The Ekdahls live in a world of opulence. A world unfamiliar to most. They are surrounded by beautiful things and live seemingly wonderful lives; they are a family of actors and lovers of theatre. The film opens with gorgeous crystal chandeliers, a beautifully set table, a grand piano, sleigh bells, horses, snow scenes outside during a cold Swedish winter. The family gathers for Christmas dinner and toasts the life of the theatre. But 1907 is a cold year in Europe, full of foreboding. World War I hovers like a ghost-to-come.
Against the backdrop of clocks ticking, magic lanterns, shadows-plays on the wall, gas lanterns and theatre rehearsals, things do begin to go wrong when Alexander’s father Oscar collapses while rehearsing for a production of Hamlet. After his death, his ghost hovers around doors, watching life move on without him. Alexander senses his father’s presence always. He understands that from the moment his father dies, all is not well with the world. He understands that Edvard is evil, even though his mother, Emilie, cannot see that when she first marries him. Emilie comes to realize that her new husband, the stern Bishop, torments Fanny and Alexander, forbidding play and storytelling. After a terrible flogging by Edvard, Alexander is found by his mother Emilie bloodied underneath a figure of the crucified Christ. Alexander is the crucified Christ hanging on the wall; Emilie, his grieving mother. This is Bergman’s family drama in the tableau of a pieta.
Isak, who courts Helena Ekdahl – Alexander’s grandmother and the matriarch of the family – is also a seer: he senses the future-to-come, a world imploding because of ‘worse people’ and ‘worse wars.’ It is he – a Jewish puppeteer and magical spirit – who will save Fanny and Alexander from the brutality of his mother’s new husband Bishop Edvard, who locks the children up in a room with bars on the windows and flogs Alexander for telling lies. Isak’s sons – Aron and Ismael – live with him in a strange house with puppets hanging from the ceiling. Ismael is locked up in a room because he is apparently a danger to others. He is unpredictable and has a strange power over Alexander. As in Bergman’s film Persona, where two women face one another – are like one another – and could, in fact, be one another, Ismael could be Alexander’s other. He foretells the tragic fate of Bishop Edvard, who dies mysteriously in a fire after Alexander’s mother escapes by putting sleeping pills in his tea.
As the characters’ lives fall to pieces, foreshadowing the horrors that will soon befall Europe, the theatre is a refuge. Although references to Hamlet dot the screenplay, the mise en scène is modelled after Strindberg’s Dream Play. The film is a play on the theatre and of the theatre. ‘This little world’ of the playhouse, Uncle Gustav pontificates, ‘is enough.’ The theatre gives people ‘a chance to forget for a few short moments the harsh world outside.’ For Bergman, the theatre-of-the-cinema holds together the threads of forever-falling apart world(s).
Like Bergman, Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of History (1942) was inspired in part by a painting by Paul Klee titled Angelus Novus. Klee’s is a strange angel. It is not the kind of angel one meets entering heaven. It is a ghostly-creepy looking angel: a revenant, a spectre. Benjamin writes about the angel’s wings being stuck open while being ‘blown’ backwards by the ‘storm’ of ‘progress,’ symbolizing history’s ‘horrors upon horrors’ ‘piling wreckage upon wreckage.’ While both Alexander and Ismael sense the ‘wreckage’ of ghosts, demons and horrors-to-come, Bergman’s film is messianic. The end of the film suggests that theatre is salvific. Walter Benjamin says that messianic time emerges as ‘flashes,’ ‘constellation[s],’ ‘shock[s].’ Time is not linear; it unfolds as a ‘stoppage’ and ‘arrest.’ Time in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is similar: the flash of lightning from the sky; a bolt and sudden arrest; the constellation of events that culminates in the ghostly figures of Alexander’s father and step-father haunting him.
Paul Klee’s strange-looking angel echoes Alexander’s strange alter-ego, Ismael. Reciting famous lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, performance artist Laurie Anderson, in her song ‘Blue Lagoon’ (1984), intones: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made: Those are the pearls that were his eyes; Nothing of him doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.’ ‘I am alone to tell the tale,’ Anderson ends, ‘call me Ishmael.’ Alexander, whose double Ismael’s strange eyes echo those of his father, is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, whose eyes are pearls, whose bones are coral, dressed in floating chiffon, drifting through time. His father has undergone a ‘sea-change into something rich and strange.’ Alexander has become one with Ismael, the exile locked up and forsaken by his father, but also the seer, the oracle, who breaks through time and space to see the constellation of events.
For Bergman, like Benjamin (and Derrida, who draws on his work), the pointing toward a future-to-come that is full of mystery, magic and myth – a magnification of the aura – is enough to ward off the horrors of the world. This is why the ‘little world’ of the ‘playhouse’ is enough for him. The world of the theatre, the world of cinema allowed him to survive a harsh childhood through imagination and storytelling. Not for nothing does Fanny and Alexander end with Helena Ekdahl reading from Strindberg’s The Dream Play. It was the dream of the theatre, the dream of the play that Bergman so loved.
The ongoing nightmare of COVID-19
We do not live in the time of a dream play. We live amid a nightmare. The global pandemic seems without end. How do we psychically survive this? We turn to fantasy, film, magic and mystery. But, against the backdrop of the ongoing catastrophe of the COVID pandemic, we must consider whether fantasy is enough, whether film is enough, whether poetry is enough, whether theatre is enough. Is philosophy enough? Is there anything that is enough to take our minds off the reality of a world that is to-come? Physicians and scientists can only do so much: they are not magicians; they are not diviners or oracles. How to fill our ‘little worlds’ cut off from others, waiting for the end of a nightmare? Wittgenstein once said, ‘how small a thought it takes to fill a life.’ But can a small thought really fill a life?
One moment, things seem to be getting better. The next moment, another variant-to-come is upon us. First, the variant is little to worry about; then, that same variant is a variant of concern. Not only that, it seems that now everybody knows somebody who has COVID or has had COVID. They say that we will all get COVID. I have had COVID not once but twice. Three times is not a charm. I don’t want to get COVID again, but the odds are against me, vaccinated, boosted, sick twice – both times for three months. Some can recover in a few days, a few weeks. But for those of us who are immune compromised, COVID lasts for months, with lingering symptoms that never seem to end: memory loss, horrific fatigue, brain fog. On really bad days, I sit and stare at the stock market numbers moving up and down mindlessly. I can do no more. Yet, after months of recovering from COVID, film helps. That ‘little world’ of the cinema does help me forget the horrors of the world outside.
This spring will be yet another one of discontent. School will begin again. Still, no vaccine mandates, no mask mandates, over-crowded classrooms, poor ventilation, no social distancing: a free-for-all. If you are positive and asymptomatic, just go back into the classroom, and all will be even more unwell. It seems that history has taught our ‘leaders’ nothing. The 1918 flu epidemic should be a lesson to us all, but has been conveniently forgotten. Schools and hospitals have one thing in common: disappearing teachers, disappearing healthcare workers. Staff shortages like we have never seen, sick-outs of entire ICU units. Who is to take care of the sick? The emergency room is full, with patients lined up against the wall. There are no beds in the ICU, and few staff to take care of the sick. Classrooms will soon empty out, with sick students and sick teachers absenting themselves. In some states, they say, non-teachers will teach the classes. What is a non-teacher? Will non-healthcare workers take care of the sick in hospitals? This meltdown of the health care system in the United States, this falling apart of the public-school systems and universities, is nothing but the horror of history – Benjamin’s catastrophe of history – unfolding as if without respite.
What kind of a world are we living in? What will be left of our ‘little worlds?’ How to keep body and soul together while the world falls to pieces? Can we dream The Dream Play of Strindberg? Or are dreams forsaken?