Film review: The Magic Flute

27 July 2018

Stephen Brown revisits Bergman’s Magic Flute


Håkan Hagegård as Papageno in The Magic Flute

Håkan Hagegård as Papageno in The Magic Flute

THOSE stereotyping Ingmar Bergman as a gloomy Swede mustn’t have seen The Magic Flute (Cert. PG). Coinciding with the film director’s centenary, it has been re-released in cinemas along with a Blu-ray and DVD Dual Format version.

Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were Freemasons. It is widely thought that their 1791 opera promoted that philosophy. The hero’s undergoing trials and rituals before reaching a state of enlightenment, personified by Sarastro and his followers, lends weight to this view. Thus, in such an interpretation, the Queen of the Night can be seen as representing the reactionary forces of superstitious religion, notably the Roman Catholic Church.

Maybe so; but in Bergman’s hands, together with those of the poet Alf Henrikson, it is translated into a celebration of love, forgiveness, and humanity. Any negative associations with religion seem remarkably to have vanished. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963) are among Bergman’s films that wrestle with its painful or sinister aspects. By 1975, when the opera was filmed, it would seem that he had given up talking to God and was working on less ambitious projects. Or was he?

The whole piece is an exploration of finding authentic ways of being alive in a world charged with metaphysical grandeur. It is an incarnational exposition. The concentration on human relationships which is to be found in films leading up to this one (e.g. Scenes from a Marriage, 1974) needs placing in that perspective.

Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) is overawed by the various ways in which his life is affected, even saved, by divine intervention. Josef Köstlinger as the tenor hero Tamino, unlike Adam and Eve, is miraculously spared the serpent’s venomous influence. Instead, he undergoes the classical endurances of a pilgrim to become who he truly is.

This aspect would be even plainer if the current disc included the various backstage scenes where the actors scurry around generally indicating that the fairy tale on stage closely resembles our (frequently chaotic) real-life aspirations. We need all the help that we can get, equivalent to the talisman flute accompanying Tamino and Pamina (Irma Urrila) to where “Earth is a heavenly kingdom, and mortals become like the gods.”

Ostensibly, the opera is set in the Baroque Drottningholm Palace Theatre, Stockholm, where the director first saw The Magic Flute when he was 12. The enchantment of that performance never left him, and he replicates the experience through repeated shots of a child of similar age (Bergman’s daughter) immersed in what is happening. It is an illusion, as the film was actually made in a studio.

During the overture, a rapid succession of close-ups reveals an audience of various races and ages. They, too, are enchanted. It is as if Bergman is inviting the whole world into paradise. This production is never simply filmed theatre. As in a Busby Berkeley musical, action frequently transcends the limitations of stage sets. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist transports us to wondrous places with shots conveying meaning in ways that theatre cannot. If it is true that those who sing pray twice, then Bergman’s production, allied to sublime music, is one resounding Alleluia.

The discs are available from the BFI Shop, BFI Southbank, Belvedere Road, London SE1. Phone 020 7815 1350.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Lift up your hearts download

Weekly spiritual sustenance from the Church Times. Download the free PDF to print at home:

No. 10 | 29 May 2020

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)