The Magic Flute

Sweden 1975, 135 mins
Director: Ingmar Bergman

Music has always been close to Ingmar Bergman’s heart. To Joy (1949) took its title from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and featured Victor Sjöström as a distinguished conductor – a calling, incidentally, that attracted Bergman himself. Then there have been significant snatches of Bach in movies like Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence and Cries and Whispers. So his production of The Magic Flute, made for Swedish TV, is perhaps not so startling a departure as one might assume. (After all, Hour of the Wolf was richly laden with references to Mozart’s opera.) The fact that it was made for TV suggests not merely the straitened circumstances of the commercial cinema in Sweden, but primarily Bergman’s conviction that only through TV can he now reach a wide audience at a single stroke. He has indeed since shot another serial in four parts, Face to Face, for both theatrical and small screen release.

The budget for The Magic Flute was some £260,000, seemingly immense by Swedish standards but regarded by Sveriges Radio as an appropriate project with which to celebrate its 50 years of broadcasting. Bergman spent a year on the production, selecting a predominantly Scandinavian cast of singers from over a hundred candidates. ‘The most important factor for me,’ he claimed, ‘was that the singers should have natural voices. You can find artificially cultivated voices that sound marvellous, but you can never really believe that a human personality is doing the singing. Records have accustomed us to a kind of absolute perfection – but beauty cannot be perfect without also being vibrant and alive.’

Far from attempting to open out the opera, Bergman has been at pains to recreate the atmosphere of the 1791 production at the Theater auf der Weiden in Vienna (even the dragon that pursues Tamino upstage is a delightful creature of felt and bunting). The Drottningholm Palace Theatre proved too fragile to accommodate a TV crew, so the stage was carefully reconstructed in the studios of the Swedish Film Institute, under the direction of Henny Noremark.

While the Mozart purist may take issue with Bergman’s conception of The Magic Flute, no one can deny the technical perfection with which the film has been mounted. The score was sung, played, and recorded by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eric Ericson, and then replayed in segments in the film studio until Bergman was satisfied with both lip-synchronisation and performances. Everyone sings (in Swedish, of course) with gusto.

When does an opera become a film? Certainly in Act Two, when the Queen of the Night, her face transformed into a mask of fury by waxen make-up and a livid green filter, harangues Pamina in ‘Der Hölle Rache’. And certainly in the climactic sequence when Monostatos and his minions advance threateningly towards the camera. In spite of such frissons, and for all the inevitable skulls that mock the hapless Papageno in the House of Trials, this is a witty, rumbustious Flute, played and sung at fast tempo throughout. During the film, Bergman cuts back occasionally to the seraphic features of a small girl in his ‘audience’, dwelling on her pleasure as if nudging us into recognition of the opera’s ‘childish magic and exalted mystery’. It’s somehow a superfluous, sentimental gesture, uncharacteristic of Bergman.

As Papageno and Papagena frolic with their children in the final shot, one is left in no doubt as to the meaning of the opera in Bergman’s eyes. Like his own best films, it embodies a quest, and Sarastro, so often a grave and sombre figure, is seen by Bergman as the paternal source of that exalted love sought in their different ways by Tamino and Papageno. It is as though Bergman’s own predilection for chilly metaphysics had been tempered by Mozart’s sense of wonder.
Peter Cowie, Sight and Sound, Summer 1975

As so much of Bergman’s adaptation of The Magic Flute is sheer delight, it might be best to get the carping over first and simply regret that he found it necessary to introduce a few awkwardly fey elements, notably the written texts which descend from the wings at various points and the emphasis on an angelic little girl, who is first seen among the expectant audience during the overture and who is then intercut several times into the body of the opera, presumably as a symbol of wonderment and joy.

But Bergman’s staging of the work has its own inherent sense of joy, right from the opening shots of a mock-up of the famous Drottningholm theatre, with its rumbling stage machinery, cramped wings and mysterious dark corners where the cast is observed relaxing during the interval; and it is a tribute to Bergman’s mastery that when he proceeds to scenes which could not be readily observed by the theatre audience, the transition from stage to film is seamless and yet always interconnected, like the moment when Tamino walks forward from the dark Temple set on to the small, brightly-lit stage with the curtains closing behind him. Similarly, Bergman often returns to a set, like the Priests’ meeting room, wondrously lit almost in a Seventh Seal style, to cut in the Priests’ reaction to the main events in a way not possible in a stage performance.

Much has already been written about Bergman’s alterations to the original scenario, the most crucial being that Pamina is now declared to be the daughter of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. This has the effect of turning much of the drama into a discussion on filial attitudes within the context of the larger issues of loyalty, power and the Masonic rituals which hero and heroine have to endure before they are reunited. Most of these cuts and changes occur in the second act and, although one regrets the absence of favourite music, this streamlining has the effect of pushing the story forward dramatically and balancing out the two pairs of lovers – Papageno and Papagena are never lost or made to seem less real and human than the other, more exalted pair; at the end, they indulge in a sort of gentle striptease which seems to herald the advent of spring.

The supernatural elements are never allowed to swamp the action, with just enough of the grotesque animals, descending balloons and puffs of smoke to retain the pantomime atmosphere; only at the end do the semi-nude ballet writhings in the trials of fire and water seem stylistically out of place. The musical performance is very competent without being inspired, with a generally judicious balance between voices (presumably miming to playback) and orchestra. Bergman also shows uncommon good sense in his choice of singing close-ups. Most of the slower arias are shot face-on, but when the Queen of the Night begins her high ululations, he tactfully obscures her behind the crowd, and the great ensemble which ends act one is composed in a flurry of mid-shots, again obviating the sight of straining faces and throats. The spoken dialogue in Swedish is delivered in a suitably intimate, film-like style.
John Gillett, Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: Sveriges Radio TV2
Producer: Måns Reuterswärd
Unit Manager: Ann-Mari Jartelius
Assistant Director: Kerstin Forsmark
Script Supervisor: Katinka Faragó
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
From the opera (Music): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
From the opera (Libretto): Emanuel Schikaneder
From the opera (Swedish Libretto): Alf Henriksson
Director of Photography: Sven Nykvist
B-camera: Lasse Karlsson
Editor: Siv Lundgren
Art Director: Henny Noremark
Assistant Art Directors: Emilio Moliner, Anna-Lena Hansen, Pascual Di Bianco, Lennart Larsson
Costumes: Karin Erskine
Make-up: Bengt Ottekil, Britt Falkemo, Cecilia Drott
Music: Mozart
Music Performed by: Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester
Choir by: Radiokören
Music Director: Eric Ericson
Music Recording: Helmut Mühle
Choreography: Donya Feuer
Dialogue Recordist: Peter Hennix
Sound Mixer: Bengt Törnkrantz

Josef Köstlinger (Tamino)
Irma Urrila (Pamina)
Håkan HagegÅrd (Papageno)
Elisabeth Eriksson (Papagena)
Birgit Nordin (Queen of the Night)
Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, Kirsten Vaupel (ladies)
Ulrik Cold (Sarastro)
Ragnar Ulfung (Monostatos)
Gösta Prüzelius, Ulf Johansson (priests)
Hans Johansson, Jerker Arvidsson (armed men)
Urban Malmberg, Ansgar Krook, Erland von Heijne (boys)
Erik Saedén

Sweden 1975
135 mins

Wed 1 May 18:10 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator); Fri 3 May 21:00; Tue 14 May 12:30; Sun 26 May 13:00
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Thu 2 May 14:40; Thu 9 May 20:15; Thu 30 May 14:30
The Magic Flute Trollflöjten
Fri 3 May 12:00; Fri 24 May 20:25; Tue 28 May 14:30
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Sat 4 May 15:10; Fri 17 May 18:00; Sat 25 May 13:10; Fri 31 May 14:30
West Side Story
Sun 5 May 19:30; Thu 16 May 14:30
Mon 6 May 20:20; Sat 11 May 14:45; Tue 21 May 14:30
A Streetcar Named Desire
Tue 7 May 12:10; Sat 18 May 20:30; Fri 24 May 14:50; Sun 26 May 17:40
Wed 8 May 18:10 (+ intro); Sun 12 May 20:40; Mon 27 May 12:30
His Girl Friday
Fri 10 May 18:10; Sun 19 May 20:30; Thu 23 May 18:30; Wed 29 May 18:00 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
Beautiful Thing
Mon 13 May 20:40; Wed 22 May 18:20 (+ intro by Simon McCallum, BFI National Archive Curator); Thu 30 May 12:10
Bluebeard’s Castle Herzog Blaubarts Burg
Wed 15 May 18:10 (+ intro by Alex Prideaux, Marketing and Events Manager – Our Screen Heritage); Fri 31 May 18:10
Mon 20 May 18:05; Thu 30 May 20:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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