The Magic Flute (1975)

2018 marks 100 years since director Ingmar Bergman’s birth, and celebrations across the globe are planned, not least a ten-week season at London’s BFI Southbank.  In April, the BFI will release a bluray of his film of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, following a UK cinema release in February.  As a Christmas treat it was previewed at the BFI Southbank.

Now I must confess that although I enjoy some classical music, a lot of opera leaves me cold and I often find Mozart lightness of touch to be maddeningly twee and dull.  But I love Bergman’s films and this is one of the few of his that I haven’t seen.  So I leapt at the chance to see it in the cinema.

The Magic Flute was made for TV and was first broadcast on Swedish TV on New Years Day 1975.  Incredibly, one in four of the Swedish population watched it and it was subsequently released in cinemas.  I just can’t imagine that level of enthusiasm in the UK, even when we were limited to four or five channels on TV.  But by 1975 Ingmar Bergman was an international star and revered in his home country.  He had recently completed his magnificent and harrowing Cries and Whispers and had scored a huge TV hit with his multi-part masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage, a tough but life-affirming exploration of a difficult marriage and separation.  The Magic Flute, is a complete contrast – light and joyful.

According to his biography, Bergman first saw The Magic Flute as a boy and immediately set about recreating it in his toy marionette theatre.  Anyone who has seen his semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander will understand Bergman’s childhood fascination with theatre.  Apparently, he had the entire production planned out including layered scenery and lighting effects.  In the end, he was unable to stage his miniature performance because he couldn’t afford to buy the music on record.  So when he was asked if he’d like to film an opera, he leapt at the chance to direct The Magic Flute, his boyhood ambition.

Ingmar Bergman directing The Magic Flute with Sven Nyqvist at the camera

The plot of The Magic Flute is rambling and bizarre.  In brief, Tamino our hero is sent  on a quest by the Queen of the Night to find her beautiful daughter Pamina in return for Pamina’s hand in marriage.  Pamina is being held captive the evil Monostratos, seemingly on behalf of her unwitting father Sarastro, the leader of a mystic order.  We also follow warm-hearted Papageno who loves music and birds but yearns to find a girl to love: his own Papagena.  Tamino and Pamina are noble and worthy; Papageno and Papagena are loving and homely.  Pamina is rescued, and then the two men undergo three mystic trials to prove their worth and enlightenment.  Tamino triumphs at the trials, and he and Pamina are initiated into the mystic order.  Papagno lacks discipline and fails the trials, but he still gets his Papagena.  The Queen of the Night, who turns out to be evil, is vanquished along with her army.

The TV film starts with the camera surveying the theatre audience listening to the orchestral overture.  We see close-ups on faces, people of all different ages, many young.  Amongst the audience we see actor Erland Josefsson, cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, Bergman himself and his son Daniel before the camera settles on the face of a young girl.  From now on, we will experience the opera through her eyes.

magic-flute-Helene Friberg
Helene Friberg, the little girl in the audience who is captivated by The Magic Flute.  We watch through her eyes

Bergman was inspired by the baroque theatre at Drottningholm, which he visited as a child. However, the entire theatre stage was recreated in a film studio.  The set had to be precise and accurate: Bergman was certain that the opera was written for a seven metre wide stage, derived from the distance needed for a character to pace its width stepping to the beat of the music.

The production is unashamedly theatrical.  From the start, the scenery and costumes are clearly contained on a stage and we regularly cut to the reaction of the young girl in the audience.  In Act I we meet Tamino being chased by a monster, a comical dragon costume that could almost be from a school play.  We are later introduced to Papageno backstage, he leaps out of bed when he hears his cue, completes his costume and rushes onto stage.  We see scenery drop from the flytower above.  There’s a scene with flute playing drawing comical animals from the forest. A lion, a bear and an applauding walrus; the costumes are childish and fun; again this is very theatrical.  All of this reinforces to the audience that we are experiencing the magic of theatre and we are encouraged to suspend our disbelief through the eyes of a child.

Despite being deliberately set on the theatre stage, Bergman takes a very cinematic approach.  There’s a playful use of framing in the television 3:4 aspect ratio.  The camera is carefully positioned for good composition, but also for what’s left just outside the frame.  We just catch glimpses of theatrical effects at the edge of the screen.  Somewhat comically, groups of singers hold cards with the printed libretto text that just fill the frame width passed up by hands just out of frame (of course, as the text is in Swedish, we get our own superimposed English subtitles).  We’re always aware that we look through a camera, and that more things are happening just out of sight.

But the film takes us beyond the theatrical limits of stage and prosecenium; this is more than a film record of a staged theatre production.  Although Bergman is careful to establish that we are in the theatre – we see the theatre exterior, the curtains, the audience – he breaks these rules.  We hear the audience applause after the first scene, but we don’t hear any further applause until the very end.   The first few scenery changes are theatrical – we see the scenery raise and lower.  But once we are immersed, the scene changes are achieved by camera editing: suddenly we cut to prison walls, or we are in the snow.  The protagonists progress to different spaces during the trials near the near the end of the film, cutting to each new environment.  Without fanfare, Bergman gradually moves us from the magic of the stage to the magic of film.

Extras in one of the trials

There are lots of faces. Bergman and Nyqvist are masters of expressive close-ups, it’s almost a signature. Acting on the stage involves big gestures and physicality; acting on film requires more subtle expression seen from close quarters, the cinema viewer is much closer than an audience in a large auditorium.  Bergman directs his cast to achieve a subtle mixture of the two.  Again, this is a film and  a theatre production.

Similarly with the sound design: opera singing on stage must project into the auditorium acoustics, but for a film this isn’t necessary as there are microphones.  Accordingly, the style of singing is more understated.  It’s easier on the ear, warmer and more engaging.  I only noticed one exception: the queen of the night is a little more strident, but that may be intentional to match her character.  Apparently, this was one of the first uses of stereo for Swedish broadcast television, and the voices are placed in the stereo mix to match their location on stage or in the frame.

Music very important, not just because it’s an opera but important to the plot as well. There’s the magic flute itself, of course. Also a music box that is a tool to aid an unlikely escape from the clutches of evil Monostratos, who is distracted and inspired to dance with his underlings, charmed by the music. The box also later saves Papageno from suicide.

The music from the flute protects our heroes in their trials

In fact there are two scenes of attempted suicide, the darker one involves Pamina who believes herself spurned by Tamino intends to take her life using her mother’s dagger.  These are surprisingly dark turns for what is otherwise a very light production.

The ending is also very strange, involving a sort of three-stage initiation.  The first is a trial of temptation from a sexy trio of female singers, caressing hands that wander teasingly just out of frame. Then a trial of silence. Then a strange trial of faith using the flute to walk through fiery furnace like a hell, complete with writing white-clad dancers, then a weird passage through a queasy green-lit forest of hands. This last section is a more mysterious tone, differing from the lightness of previous scenes. This change in tone grabbed my attention and came just as the film was beginning to outlast its welcome.

I’ve read that Mozart’s opera depicts a Masonic journey of enlightenment, and presumably this culminates in the initiation / trials at the opera’s conclusion.  Sarastro is regularly hailed as wise or enlightened by some sort of Druid-type sect all in robes. He decides on Tamino’s initiation as a test to prove his worthiness, and somehow it is vital that Pamina and Tamino’s love is tested to be worthy. There are supposedly many other Masonic references, such as the recurrence of the number three, including three boys and also three ladies that serve as guides.

Masonic rituals led by Sarastro

The women are seen as objects of desire and of appreciation, almost as precious objects to be possessed.  The superficial ideal of falling in love with a beautiful face, particularly between Pamina and Tamino, would be problematic by today’s standards. There’s a particularly creepy and sinister sequence when the villain Monostratos expresses his desire by gliding his hands suggestively over the sleeping Pamina, not quite groping but not far off.

By contrast, in a lovely scene in the forest Papageno and Papagena peel off one another’s muted winter clothes to reveal their true green woodland costumes, while singing of having children – the adults in audience would interpret that enthusiastic disrobing as sexual desire, but the younger viewers would find it entirely innocent.

Papageno and Papagena, with his own simple musical instrument

Despite the use of close-ups, I was surprised to discover the cinematography was by Sven Nyquist. The style, with filtered artificial light and muted tones, is the opposite to the high-contrast natural light that we are accustomed to seeing from him in his collaborations with Bergman. The film makes good use of lights and darks, with a chiaroscuro effect as you might expect from baroque theatre lighting design. The lighting contrasts day and night, dark caves and bright spring forest. Visually, the colour palate varies with the seasons – bright in summer, warm in autumn, cold in winter.  It’s more muted than Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, although towards the end of the film the hues are stronger and with greater contrast.  This adds drama to the final trials and battle.

The final battle has a darker palate

The picture quality of this BFI restoration is good.  It was filmed on 16mm due to budget restrictions and makes the picture appear slightly soft. There are also some flaws in the original source print most noticeable in the close-ups of the girl in the audience, but these are minimal and don’t distract.  I expect this new BFI restoration is the best it can look.  The soundtrack is mono, clean, warm and pleasingly intimate.

The Magic Flute is a charming film. Bergman is not generally known for his lightness of touch and although some of his comedies are playful they seem dated nowadays.  By contrast, this film is joyful and timeless.  I’m pleased this minor but enjoyable film can now be appreciated in the UK.

The Magic Flute will get a UK cinema release on 16th March 2018, and will be released on blu-ray and DVD by the BFI on 23rd April 2018.

The Ingmar Bergman Archives page on The Magic Flute is here.




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