Cinematic atheism: The Wizard of Oz and Fanny & Alexander

Film, like other forms of art, is often a vehicle for cultural reflection on fundamental issues of human experience. Religion is one of the most commonly addressed topics—particularly the figure of God. In The Wizard of Oz and Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, Fanny & Alexander, the question of God is addressed in subtle but profound ways that resonate with contemporary culture far beyond the limited scope of the films themselves. Both films attack institutional religion and the concept of an objective “god” who controls our lives, offering instead the usual replacements: individualism and aesthetics, respectively.

The Wizard of Oz is a popular “family” film which conceals a rather subversive and distinctly modern understanding of God and humanity. At the end of the film, the curtain is pulled back to reveal—gasp!—that there really is no wizard; it was all a hoax, an illusion to inspire fear and trembling. While the film comes off in the end as a charming fable about a young girl and three fairy-tale friends, this final revelation is striking in the way it clearly undermines traditional religious orthodoxy. The wizard is a thinly veiled reference to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. The pulling-back of the curtain is not unlike the efforts of 19th century atheistic philosophy (Feuerbach, Nietzsche), in which God was declared either “dead” or—as in the film and in Feuerbach’s writings—merely an external, transcendent projection of the human consciousness or Ego.

When the wizard is shown to be just an ordinary man pulling off an elaborate illusion, one gets the impression that Oz might refer to Christianity in general, and some men in authority are pulling off an elaborate illusion to keep people believing in the reality of God. Corresponding with this new understanding of God, there is the realization that Dorothy and her friends are all capable of achieving their desires on their own. The Lion can find courage, the Tin Man a new heart, and the Scarecrow a brain without the help of some (divine?) wizard; in other words, any god/God is superfluous. Humanity is itself capable of self-realization. To use the words of Feuerbach, there is “no distinction between the divine and human subject”; humanity can truly and fully be called divine. In this regard, the film is a parable of modern liberal ideals of human autonomy and freedom. The cult of the individual replaces the cult of religion. Any god becomes unnecessary and, therefore, religion is abandoned altogether.

Bergman’s great autobiographical film, Fanny & Alexander, is a massive story encompassing many diverse themes, including the role of the aesthetic, family, marriage, social status, wealth, and the divine. Fanny & Alexander is unquestionably a masterpiece of the art form. It is one of the greatest films ever made, and it provides a beautiful summary of Bergman’s most striking and important motifs. In this film, young Alexander experiences a shattering event when his father dies, but the tragedy is compounded when his mother marries a cold, controlling bishop who lives in an austere environment without love and without meaningful relationships. Thanks to a carefully hatched plot, Alexander and his sister, Fanny, are snuck out of the house and brought to a safe place.

While in this home, a pivotal scene occurs in which Alexander, in the middle of the night, finds himself lost in a kind of basement. Suddenly, a door opens in front of him, and a large puppet-like creature comes forth, speaking with the voice of God. The scene is important for two reasons: (1) Alexander expresses his anger and disbelief in God, because it was this God which permitted all the evils in his life; and (2) at the end of the fearful encounter, the puppet is revealed for what it is, just a puppet controlled by a man playing a joke. The lesson is clear: God is nothing more than a puppet of the church, a joke to be dismissed; the world is simply a dark, foreboding, godless place. This scene brings Bergman’s film close to The Wizard of Oz in their conclusions about God, though for very different reasons. Bergman is much more theologically self-aware. The issue of theodicy and the outrage felt by Alexander at the God served by the evil bishop are both close to the surface. The film’s conclusion is that the unloving God of religion should be replaced by the sacred world of the aesthetic.


dw said…
You're in good company, David, with so many others who have read parabolically into The Wizard of Oz. My favorite is the populist reading:

"the stark opening of the book depicts the rural worker's despair and blasted hopes; the Wicked Witch of the East, who kept the Munchkins in bondage, stands for Eastern financial interests; Dorothy stands for everyman, ie. a naive and innocent citizen; the Tin Woodman represents dehumanized machine-like labor in the factories; the Scarecrow represents the farmers; the Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic/Populist candidate with lots of roar, but not much accomplished; the Wizard of Oz represents William McKinley, the Republican president who upheld the gold standard; the Emerald City represents the national capital; the Silver Shoes were the silver standard; and the Yellow Brick Road was the gold standard; and Oz is the popular abbreviation for how gold is measured."