Review: The Magic Flute

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

While in the past I’ve been struck by a certain, sometimes openly self-conscious interplay between roles and “reality” in Bergman’s films—and while I’ve often felt sorely put upon to endure its exposition—it’s a similar sense of an interface between what is real and what is staged in The Magic Flute that prepares for one of the film’s most delightful achievements: to have us thinking, by the time it’s all over, that all the seemingly different shadings of both Bergman’s and our perception finally rotate in the penumbra of Art. In other guises, maybe that has been Bergman’s “message” all along. The kingdom, though, is not self-enclosed this time, as it was in Cries and Whispers, nor is there that sometimes uneasily taut polarization between the stiflingly realistic overtones and the undercurrents of pure poetry running through the dialogue of Scenes from a Marriage. Nor, for that matter, is there much hint of existential parlor tricks à la Passion of Anna, wherein each of the four main characters, at some point during the movie, takes a moment to sit back, not as the character he/she portrays but as the performer he/she is, and reflect upon the part’s genesis within him-/herself.

The closest Bergman comes to anything like that in The Magic Flute is when Erland Josephson’s face is momentarily caught among the members of the audience that Nykvist’s camera is doing its best to transform into an expressive visual counterpart of Mozart’s musical overture. There is no real point to be made. Josephson is simply there to hear The Magic Flute like the rest of them. And yet one can’t help but feel a twinge of life-meets-art headiness at seeing a regular Bergman actor—and sometime writing collaborator—in a Bergman movie watching Bergman make that movie while at the same time partaking of the emotions and responses contained within it, and hopefully extending beyond it, touching the surface of our own expectations of art. For during that opening sequence of briefly glimpsed faces something happens, or should happen, to us: as we watch an audience listening to the overture of The Magic Flute, our act of seeing comprises an overture in itself. We are struck with the perhaps obvious but nevertheless suddenly reaffirmed importance of what it can mean to people to sit before a work of art and derive meaning, pleasure, and sustenance from it.

In that sense the audience in the movie certainly mirrors the audience in the movie theater—or hopefully does so; but the image is not so much a simple reflection as it is a distillation and translation of something we are seeing into something essentially about what we see. The people in The Magic Flute‘s audience are not just there, but there radiating all the variables of complexity, wonder, and even (maybe especially) innocence that ought to define what it means to be moved by an opera, a movie, a painting, a song, or whatever you happen to meet up with. As the movie progresses, and as the opera gets under way, we begin to glimpse the actors offstage; but again, as with the audience that is more than just an uninvolved sea of prettily photographed individuals, what we glimpse is charged with just enough stylization to carry the momentum of illusion off into the wings and leave a residue of our suspended disbelief to settle around the characters. Ulrik Cold/Sarastro reads from a folio of Parsifal; Josef Kostlinger/Tamino and Irma Urrila/Pamina play chess and caress each other while they wait in the dressingroom for the next act; Birgit Nordin/The Queen of Night takes a drag from a cigarette and lazily proffers a hand to a makeup girl who brushes it with powder; Hakan Hagegard/Papegeno wakes up from a nap just in time to tumble downstairs, insert a perfectly timed trill on his reed flute, and wander onstage not a moment too late or too soon.

The performance, obviously, is not confined to the stage, although Bergman trusts the proscenium when what it shows seems a sufficient chunk of the action, and, like Olivier in the best of the Shakespeare movies (Henry V), makes no big issue of shifting from one narrative plane of reality to another. (Indeed, Olivier too used a “live” audience to create a similarly layered texture comprised, in an ordering that moves progressively towards a reality that could be most handily termed cinematic, of the movie audience, the audience watching Shakespeare’s play, the actors in the play as they exist on stage, and those same actors swept into a stageless context of pure illusion.) Bergman, happily, manages to capitalize on his prerogative to cast a cinematic spell and at the same time to stay out from under Mozart’s feet. His stylistic intrusions into the whole affair are unprofound but significantly reflexive. For instance, the first face we see on screen is that of a young girl, golden-haired, round-cheeked, lips a-glistening as though she is tasting the first notes of the overture that has just begun. We see that little girl a lot during the course of The Magic Flute, and if the subtly shifting tonalities of her expression are not a part of the performance, they are at least an index of our own sensitivity to what is going on up there under the lights. Bergman seems to relish the idea of such an intimate exchange being presupposed by our honestly felt response to Mozart’s opera.

THE MAGIC FLUTE
Direction: Ingmar Bergman. After the opera by Mozart and Shikaneder; adaptation by Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Music conducted by Eric Ericson.
The players: Ulrik Cold, Josef Köstlinger, Erik Saedén, Birgit Nordin, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Elisabeth Eriksson, Ragnar Ulfung, Britt Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, Birgitta Smiding, Urban Malmberg, Erland Van Heijne, Ansgar Krook, Gösta Prüzelius, Ujf Johansson.

© 1976 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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