Broken Reality: On Two Scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982)

While watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, I came across a very powerful scene about grief. I keep thinking about it. I suspect I will think about it for a long time because it articulates (and, in a way, resolves) several things that I struggle with when it comes to grief and loss.

In the scene, Helena Ekdahl is speaking to the ghost of her dead son, Oscar. She talks about what grief has done to her life and to her sense of reality. Helena used to be an actress, and that’s what she’s alluding to when she mentions playing a role.

This shattering of reality is central to my own life. I often use the word “shattered” to describe what it was like to lose my father when I was 16 years old. Something happened when he died, something happened when I was told that he was dead. This wound was created and started to form. Reality was shattered, broken. I have lived with that brokenness ever since, and I have struggled to articulate it, to find words for it.

I am also overwhelmed by the inability to make sense of things. I’m not sure how to explain this to you. I’m not sure many people understand it. Nothing makes sense anymore, nothing has made sense since he died. The way I thought the world was, what I thought my life was, what I thought reality was–all of it was destroyed. It’s why I’m drawn to non-linear, non-narrative forms of art. It’s why I myself write in fragments. His death, and all the other loss and trauma I have suffered in the intervening years, pulverized me, reduced me to ruins. That’s how I write. I write bits and pieces, I write word shards. I write all the fragments that remain of my shattered life and soul. I can’t make sense of anything. I can’t find or create meaning. I can’t do it.

What I find fascinating about this scene is Helena’s acceptance of her shatteredness, her embracing of senselessness, her belief that it makes reality more real, that it is the natural state of life. She has no desire to heal the wound, to repair the brokenness, to make any sense out of the chaos. I think, for so long, I have resisted the senselessness. I’ve thought that I needed to overcome it, or maybe I thought that it would change, that some miraculous moment would arrive when everything finally made sense again. That isn’t going to happen. I know that now. 

He’s been dead over a decade. It’s never going to feel real. It’s never going to stop killing me. It’s never going to be acceptable that he isn’t alive. I cannot heal (“I’m so completely unhealable, baby”). I cannot move past it. I cannot bear it. Reality is broken. It will always be broken. All I can do is create a space for engaging with what is broken, what is lost, what is unbearable. I do that through writing. Writing helps me to survive the senselessness of this world. It helps me live in this broken reality that often defies language and makes words impossible. How do you write when you can’t make sense of anything, when your reality is cracked in pieces? How do you write a scream?

There’s another powerful scene in Fanny and Alexander. It’s just after Oscar’s death. His body is laid out in a room in the house. His two children–the title characters–are awakened in the night by the sound of their mother’s screams. Emilie Ekdahl is pacing the room that holds Oscar’s body. She is releasing the primal shrieks of grief. No language can be found. She cannot speak. She can only wail. It’s one of the most visceral and honest scenes about grief that I’ve ever witnessed. Helena speaks about the breaking of reality, and Emilie enacts it through her body, through her guttural and raw shrieking that gives voice to the depths of her unspeakable anguish. 

I think that’s what I want my writing to be–the articulation of a scream.