Home Video Hovel: The Magic Flute, by Craig Schroeder
The lines between television, film, and performance art as a whole continue to blur with each passing year. With the Academy’s recent decision to uphold its stance and allow Netflix to contend for Oscars, the paradigm in which viewers consume film could have to evolve. Examining how an audience experiences art can often be as fascinating as the art itself. This is the realm in which Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film-opera The Magic Flute exists. Ostensibly, it’s a cinematic interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ambitious opera created two centuries earlier. As evidenced by the film’s opening sequence, which wordlessly pans across an auditorium full of theatergoers waiting for the curtains to open on The Magic Flute, Bergman’s interests are in the similarities and differences of how audiences digest theater and film.
The Magic Flute, cast entirely with renowned Swedish operatics, is a fantasy-romance with star-crossed lovers, dragons, witches, revenge, and passion. Prince Tamino and his hapless companion Papageno (played by baritones Josef Kostlinger And Hakan Hadegard, respectively) are on a quest to rescue Princess Pamina (soprano Irma Urrila) from the clutches of the sinister priest Sarastro (bass Ulrik Cold). Shot as a stage production developed for a film audience, the effect of Bergman’s The Magic Flute is hypnotic and intentionally unsettling, confusing the boundaries of what makes a film a film and the theater the theater. Mixing static wide shots of the entire stage—how you would see the opera if you were in the audience—with close-ups of faces, Bergman is both heightening and deconstructing the artifice of film and theater.
The Magic Flute is a fascinating look into Bergman’s thoughts on the pretense of theater and film and the shared DNA between the two. Shots of on-stage actors are often angled in ways that show crew members waiting in the wings. A musical number is punctuated by a back-stage cutaway of an actor playing a wood-wind instrument. Special effects are used to make the image in a locket come to life, but when the Magic Flute appears, it’s lowered to the actors with fishing line. Bergman’s camera is equally interested in exploiting the combination of film and theater. Using a number of close-ups—a technique that can never be afforded in live theater—the actors still frequently address the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall in film but a normal presentation to theater goers. The editing (by frequent Bergman collaborator Siv Lundgren) transports the audience out of the theater by employing simple edits like shot/reverse-shot. And while the opera film isn’t an invention by Bergman, it’s hard to ignore his fascination of the relationship between the cinema and theater. In the mid-act break, Bergman cuts to a few vignettes behind the curtains: shots of actors taking a smoke break, making small talk, and—in the film’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment—an actor in a dragon suit shuffling down a backstage hallway.
Throughout the film, Bergman’s camera returns to a single audience member, a young girl with bright red hair (played by Helen Freiberg, who would also appear in Bergman’s Face to Face the following year), often without announcement or prompting, allowing the on-stage action to be heard but not seen, as the girl reacts accordingly. The girl’s reaction is often incongruous to the action playing out in front of her, sometimes looking on with bemused fascination at more serious moments. The initial reaction is to think this young girl is the film audience’s surrogate, prompting the film viewer to place themselves in front of the boards rather than in front of a screen. But there’s something more to Bergman’s haunting visits to the Girl with the Red Hair. The shots are always unprompted and appear without any predictable pattern. Bergman’s filmography is an examination of the existential nature of the human condition, and while The Magic Flute, the opera, is sweeping and grand, its themes are about as subtle as a man walking nonchalantly in a dragon suit. But Bergman’s The Magic Flute is far more understated and the Girl With the Red Hair is its central enigma. Like Bergman—a playwright turned filmmaker, who often adapted his own stage plays; for the screen—the girl is a paradox caught between two mediums, trying to map the ligature connecting the theater to cinema.