The Magic Flute (1975) | Criterion Collection
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Inside the Box

The Magic Flute (1975)

The way the story goes, it could almost be a fairytale: Once upon a time, a boy set out to seek adventure. When he arrived in the city, at the royal court theater, he found an unlocked door; curious, he opened it, and went inside. Standing in the velvety darkness, he felt transported by “the effect of chiaroscuro, the silence, the stage.” Below him, queens and princes and sorcerers and birdcatchers sang of love and vengeance, wisdom and triumph. The boy went home, but the experience haunted him. He reenacted the story with his puppet theater; he slipped bits and pieces of it into other stories he made up. As he grew older, he learned tricks that could make it happen again—not precisely the same way he had seen it when he was a child, but close. Better yet, he could capture the experience, using something like a lantern, and something like a box. Finally, one summer night under a full moon, he sat in an old barn on a quiet island far from the royal court with a gathering of people who had come to see the experience he captured. The lights went dark. The story began, again.

The boy was Ingmar Bergman, age 12; the royal court, Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace, its theater an 18th-century opera house; and what he saw happen there was Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. “I remember distinctly,” he says, “what a bewitching experience it was.” When Bergman published his second autobiography, Images, in 1991, he referred to the opera as “my companion through life.” Those early reenactments in his childhood puppet theater grew into a career in stage, then film directing. His experience inside the Drottningholm never quite left him, and he dreamed of one day directing the opera for stage or screen. In 1975, Sweden’s TV2 granted him the chance to create his own adaptation—Trollflöjten.

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“A naive text—in short, a commissioned piece,” says Hour of the Wolf ‘s Baron von Merkens about Mozart’s opera. “And yet the greatest manifestation of art.” The Magic Flute was the second-to-last piece Mozart completed before his early death, and an aura of fate hangs around many critical interpretations of the work, the way a haze of smoke floats over a dinner table after a candle has been blown out. The story’s provenance is murky: librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, a good friend of Mozart’s, adapted the first part of the text from a fairytale by A.J. Liebeskind called Lulu, or the Magic Flute, but the second act and its three-challenge trial sequence grew from a range of influences spanning from medieval romance to the secret rituals of Freemasons. Despite—or perhaps because of—its motley origins, the show was a hit. Since its debut in Vienna in 1791, The Magic Flute has become one of the most commonly produced operas in the world.

Trying to relate what happens in The Magic Flute is like trying to explain a dream you’ve had. There are parts that seem ordinary—recognizable character archetypes, familiar fantasy settings—but the action follows a surreal, shifting logic. A prince named Tamino enters, pursued by a dragon; his cries for help are answered by three ladies, who slay the dragon and fawn over the prince as he lies in a helpless swoon. When he wakes, the ladies have vanished to fetch their mistress, the Queen of the Night, so a passing bird catcher, Papageno, accepts credit for the noble deed. The queen arrives and deems the prince worthy of a quest to rescue her captive daughter, Pamina, from the wicked sorcerer Sarastro. With help from Papageno, and a magic flute from the queen, the prince sets out to save the princess.

But partway through the first act, a twist complicates the simple moral framework of this fantasy tale: Tamino, at the door to Sarastro’s temple, encounters a priest who tells him the Queen of the Night cannot be trusted. She, not Sarastro, is the wicked one. When Tamino finds Pamina, at the end of the first act, they elect to switch sides and become initiates of Sarastro’s brotherhood. Tamino and Papageno face three trials: silence, fire, and water. Papageno fails, but he finds his true love Papagena anyway; Tamino succeeds, but largely because Pamina guides him safely through, with the help of the queen’s magic flute. The two couples then live, one assumes, happily ever after.

Bergman used a Swedish translation of the libretto; the English subtitles have gone through an additional stylistic translation into rhymed couplets. Aside from this obvious textual change, he altered one significant narrative detail: Sarastro has become Pamina’s father. This decision has the effect of turning the conflict over Pamina’s captivity into a kind of metaphysical custody battle. (Perhaps it makes sense that Bergman, himself married five times and responsible for a considerable number of child support payments, would see in the opera’s villain an ex-wife.)

The Magic Flute | Criterion

As with any opera, the story lives as much in music as it does in text. “Musically it is insanely difficult,” wrote Bergman in Images; at least one conductor turned him down before Eric Ericson signed on to oversee the musical side of things. The Queen of the Night’s second aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” or “Hell’s Vengeance,” features a high F—Josepha Hofer, Mozart’s sister-in-law and the performer for whom he wrote the role, is said to have possessed an exceptional soprano range. When sung well, the note is high and cold and pitiless as the stars. (On that note: the aria now in fact resides in the stars permanently, as a recording of “Der Hölle Rache” was one of the tracks selected to represent humankind on Voyager’s Golden Record, launched into space two years after Bergman’s film premiered.) Despite the phenomenally challenging score, Bergman looked for “warm, sensuous voices that had personality” over technically powerful singers. Opera critics seem to agree that the film’s vocals are comparatively weak, but what voices lack, onscreen presence delivers. Papageno’s broadness makes it easy to play him as a lecher or an oaf, but Håkan Hagegård is neither, enlivening the role with irrepressible joy and the same warm energy as Sean Astin’s Sam Gamgee. Birgit Nordin’s Queen of the Night glows with moonlight-toned coolness whether she’s exhorting her daughter to commit murder or smoking a cigarette backstage under a sign that reads “No Smoking.”

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Whether Bergman’s production is musically brilliant, particularly faithful to Mozart’s original vision, or a particularly radical reinvention of it seems almost beside the point. What the film does do—beautifully—is impart the experience of watching opera inside an actual opera house.

“In my imagination,” wrote Bergman, “I have always seen The Magic Flute living inside that old theater, in that keenly acoustical wooden box.” Initially he hoped to shoot his adaptation in the Drottningholm itself, but the logistics proved too challenging and the venue too fragile. The theater still operates using its original wooden machinery, built in the eighteenth century, which is not unlike the technology in the theater where The Magic Flute was first performed: “a slanting floor, side flies which could be pushed in and out, backdrops which could be raised and lowered, trapdoors, a billowing sea, arrangements for effective fires, ramps with sunlight and oil lamps, elevators for the messengers of the gods or other celestial appearances.”

Instead of risking damage to the historic structure, Bergman and his crew constructed a precise copy at the Swedish Film Institute—a puppet of the theater, rather than a puppet theater—and filmed there. Mimicking the Drottningholm’s acoustics proved another challenge. In his essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, Peter Cowie details the process of recording the score in “an old circus building” and then linking the resulting audio to the lip-synced footage, paying “meticulous attention to the tempi, phrasing, and dynamics.” The completed soundtrack, replete with whispers and echoing footsteps, feels nearly three-dimensional.

When it comes to camerawork, Bergman’s film excels at formally recreating the shifts in attention one undergoes while watching a production from a theater audience. As the story picks up, the clunky trappings of stagecraft recede into the background and focus narrows on the action. Classic Bergman close-ups linger on the actors’ faces—the painted backdrops a soft wash of color behind them, like studio portraiture. During dramatic entrances or set changes, the camera pulls back, calling attention once again to the functional space of the theater. When the boys who play the Three Spirits descend from the ceiling in a mechanical balloon, accompanied by puffs of white smoke, the camera cuts to a full-frame shot of the proscenium, reminding the viewer of the stage’s tiny size. The marvel of the balloon comes from imagining how it fit up in the fly, and hearing the squeak of the pulley that drops it down. It doesn’t look realistic, and that’s exactly the point. “Here lies the noble, magical illusion of theater,” wrote Bergman. “Nothing is; everything represents. The moment the curtain is raised, an agreement between stage and audience manifest itself. And now, together, we’ll create!”

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And so we come to the girl.

The film’s opening montage features five full minutes of human faces against a black background as the opera’s overture plays. Faces of all races and ages and genders, expressions curious or indifferent, mournful or mirthful, alert or withdrawn, appear for a long moment before passing on to the next. The first face we see belongs to a girl, about 10, with pale red hair, a slightly puggish face, and sleepy sea-green eyes. She is uncredited. A few international critics mistakenly identified her as Bergman’s daughter, Linn Ullman, but she is actually Helene Friberg, who later acted in Face to Face. No other faces reappear after the overture ends, but we see her again and again: seven times during the overture, and at least nine throughout the show itself. She never speaks, and her reactions are minimal, but each time she appears we remember she’s watching—a vivid representation of “the agreement between stage and audience.”

Why her? Why not a more typical opera-goer—older, visibly wealthy? I like to think she hearkens back to Bergman’s first indelible childhood encounter; I like to think, too, she reminds us that opera is foremost a form of entertainment. The Magic Flute was written for the Singspiel style of popular theater, which was arguably the closest thing 18th-century Austria had to television, and Bergman’s adaptation was made for the small screen before the silver one.

Opera—like Bergman films, nowadays—carries the unfortunate baggage of high culture. For a person encountering a work for the first time, the volume of specialized academic and critical discourse can be enough to deter engagement. But so-called expertise is not, and should not be, a prerequisite for enjoyment. Knowing a dramatic from a lyric coloratura can deepen one’s appreciation, clarify it, but it isn’t where appreciation begins. That happens earlier.

I had a picture-book edition of The Magic Flute as a child—a narrative adaptation by Anne Gatti, featuring illustrations by British artist Peter Malone. I can’t remember how I came by it, but I treasured it. I can still picture its colors perfectly: the dull tawny back of the lion who comes to hear Tamino’s flute; the poisonous green faces and white-ruffed livery of the lizard-headed footmen who served as Sarastro’s servants; the sky on the cover a deep, frescoed blue. In first grade we were given a blank white hardback book in which to write a story, and I used mine to retell a dream I’d had: as I sat in my room turning the pages of The Magic Flute, the characters leapt out of the book and became alive. Sarastro’s footmen chased me over the creaking floorboards of my house and I fled into the fields, calling for help, until at last a host of angels descended to answer my cries.

The Magic Flute | Criterion

The stories we encounter as children never quite leave us; they shape and color everything that comes afterward. Richard Evidon, writing for The Musical Times in 1976, addresses how the “characters and themes of Mozart’s musical fable…have been elemental in Bergman’s work.” Meandering narrative, moral ambiguity, and surreal, fantastical iconography occur throughout Bergman’s oeuvre, but the most direct allusions to the opera appear in Hour of the Wolf. Evidon posits that the starring couple, Johan and Alma, represent a sort of darkest-timeline Tamino and Pamina, fractured rather than united by the trials they face. In one scene, when guests at a sinister dinner party gather to watch a puppet show, it turns out that the puppet theater is a tiny opera house and the “puppet” who materializes onstage is Tamino, singing his aria “Oh Endless Night.” A row of candle flames flicker as footlights. The camera passes over the faces of the listeners, resting for a long time on Alma (Liv Ullmann), whose stillness demonstrates how intently she’s watching. It’s not hard to imagine her as a grown-up version of the girl in the audience.

The puppet theater itself appears again, too, in the overture of Fanny and Alexander—the film Bergman calls his most overtly autobiographical. We first see an inscription on the proscenium: EI BLOT TIL LYST, translated as “Not solely for pleasure.” The camera pans down, over an intricately painted backdrop, which rises to reveal a stage populated by miniature paper-doll figures in costume. Then the whole back of the theater lifts out, too, and Alexander’s face appears in the resulting frame, frowning slightly, looming above the motionless cutouts. The moment is brief, but there’s a section devoted to it in associated documentary The Making of Fanny and Alexander. “I reconstruct, in detail, a few moments from my childhood 60 years ago,” says Bergman, via the documentary’s interspersed subtitle cards. “It’s a strange feeling.” One wonders if Alexander was, moments earlier, working on his own production of The Magic Flute.

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Lena Bergman, Ingmar’s eldest daughter, wrote an essay for BFI about Bergman’s “three-o’clock rite”—a movie screening in his home cinema on the island of Fårö:

Stepping through the rust-coloured door of the barn—leaving the blinding Fårö light for the embracing gloom of the cinema—is a special experience. At first, the darkness seems compact. You grope your way to your seat, sit down and let your eyes adjust to the sparse light. Now the huge tapestry depicting The Magic Flute on Fårö slowly emerges. One August evening in 1974, beneath a full moon, Ingmar’s opera film The Magic Flute had its very first screening in the old barn, whose transformation into a cinema had just been completed.

Her story is remarkably similar to her father’s: the door, the darkness, the show itself. The tapestry she describes was made by an artist named Anita Grede, who wove the characters of The Magic Flute into the landscape of Bergman’s island home. Sarastro, who appears as a face hovering above a stone wall, bears a striking resemblance to Bergman himself.

It is not unusual for someone to try and recreate the stories beloved in childhood, but it is unusual to have the technical skill, time, and money to do such a thorough job. “Having your own cinema—is that as enjoyable as having your own puppet theater?” Lena wrote to her father. “As being able to open up your magic box whenever you like?” With The Magic Flute, Bergman fit one inside the next, like nesting dolls: Drottningholm into puppet theater into the small bright box of the screen. Now we, too, can open up his magic boxes whenever we like.