The Magic Flute Review

Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) is charged by the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) to rescue her daughter Pamina (Irma Urrila), who has been kidnapped by Sarastro (Ulrik Cold). So Tamino heads off in search, accompanied by birdcatcher Papageno (Håkan Hagegård), with just musical instruments – the magic flute of the title for Tamino and bells for Papageno – for protection...

In Ingmar Bergman's final film for the cinema, Fanny and Alexander, young Alexander makes himself a toy theatre. Like much of that film, this was autobiographical: Bergman did indeed make his own toy theatre and put on plays in it with his sister. One of the ones he wanted to put on was Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, which he had first seen performed at the age of twelve, but being unable to purchase a recording put paid to his plans. However, forty-four years later, by now well established as one of the great living filmmakers, he made his own film of the opera, something he had intended to do since the previous decade.

If you typecast Bergman as one of the cinema's supreme dramatists of existential fear and dread and anatomist of the relations between men and women, then The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten) will certainly seem an anomaly. Bergman made a lot of films, several comedies among them, but with the major exception of Smiles of a Summer Night they're among his least-regarded works. Yet The Magic Flute is one of his warmest and most joyful films. By returning to this clearly formative work, Bergman is reuniting himself with his own childhood, and he wants us to do the same with ours.

Bergman had more than one career, running in parallel. He made, for many years, a film a year, but also had a long career as a stage director, with productions following at a similar rate. The Magic Flute doesn't disguise its own theatricality. We begin with shots of the outside of the Drottningholm Palace Theatre, which dates back to the eighteenth century and is one of the few surviving Baroque theatres in the world. As the overture plays, Bergman shows us members of the audience: men and women, young and old, of different races: a universal audience. But one face in the audience recurs: that of a young girl (Helene Friberg, uncredited), as she watches the production. Bergman reunites with his own childhood, through the eyes of a child. We are in the theatre, but it's not the Drottningholm, as Bergman was unable to film inside it, so a replica of its auditorium was built as a studio set. We're left in no doubt that we're watching a stage production, as curtains rise and fall at the beginning and end, and in between the two acts. Bears and a dragon are clearly performers in costume, the latter brought to life by two of them pantomime-horse-style. The Magic Flute merges Bergman's two artistic selves, a man of the cinema and of the stage, in one. But while the film does not hide its theatricality, it's without doubt a work of the screen too: not least in its use of facial close-ups, and Pamina's picture coming to life as Tamino gazes at the locket containing her portrait.

As a filmmaker, Bergman had a third career, on the smaller screen. (He also directed some radio plays.) He had made films for Swedish television since The Rite in 1968, which had had a cinema release in other countries. Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Fanny and Alexander were made as both television serials and shorter big-screen features. After his retirement from the cinema with the last-named, Bergman directed four more films for television, two of which – After the Rehearsal and Saraband – had theatrical releases overseas. The Magic Flute was made for Swedish television, though it also had a cinema release.

The Magic Flute, premiered in 1791 in Vienna, was Mozart's last opera, and an immediate popular hit. It's often regarded as one of Mozart's greatest works. However, Mozart, whose finances had always been shaky, did not live to enjoy much of the success, as he died on 5 December of that year, aged just thirty-five. The libretto was written by Emanuel Schikenader – who played Papageno at the premiere – and was sung in German, when most of Mozart's previous operas had been in Italian. Bergman worked with a Swedish translation of the libretto by the poet Alf Henriksson. The cast and orchestra pre-recorded the soundtrack, which the actors mimed to on set, during the filming in April to July 1974. The Magic Flute holds the distinction of being the first made-for-television film with a stereo soundtrack. It was shot in 16mm rather than the 35mm Bergman used for his theatrical features, partly for reasons of economy and partly because his regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist convinced him the quality of new filmstocks was now good enough for features.

The film was first shown on Swedish television on 1 January 1975. In the UK, it was shown on BBC2 on Boxing Day of the same year, broadcast simultaneously on Radio 3 in stereo. It went on to a cinema release, and Henny Noremark and Karin Erskine's costume designs were Oscar-nominated.


The BFI's release of The Magic Flute is dual-format, with a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 PAL DVD. A checkdisc of the former was received for review. The Magic Flute had a U certificate on its original cinema release, but it has been raised to a PG for the scene where Papageno in despair prepares to hang himself, but doesn't go through with it. That's the reason for the PG certificate for Papageno, which had been given an A certificate back in 1936. In Mozart's Footsteps doesn't appear to have ever been submitted to the BBFC, and as a documentary has been exempted now, but it's U material. So is On Such a Night, which had a U in 1955 and doesn't appear to have been resubmitted either.

Bergman favoured Academy Ratio long into the widescreen era, until the end of the 1960s. The Magic Flute, being a television production, is in the ratio of 1.33:1. It may well have been shown cropped in many cinemas and if memory serves was when I saw it in the cinema the last time it was reissued. Given how tightly Bergman composes his shots in his films, especially the not-infrequent close-ups, watching in the correct ratio is a good idea, though this may have been protected for cinema showings in 1.66:1, given how few cinemas could show Academy by then. The Magic Flute was shot in 16mm (blown up to 35mm for cinemas) and I was surprised to find that out. While you can, if you look for it, find increased grain, and the lower definition is clear from the backgrounds of long shots, this is one of the less obvious 16mm-to-35mm blow-ups out there. The Blu-ray transfer is from the original 16mm elements and does this very colourful film, and Nykvist's cinematography, proud. The Blu-ray transfer is 1080p at twenty-four frames per second – a cinema speed, but not a television one, which would have been twenty-five in PAL countries like Sweden. What speed was The Magic Flute shot at? With a music-based film like this, that's a question that becomes especially relevant when we come to the soundtrack.

The sound mix on this disc is LPCM 2.0, the original stereo track which plays in surround. Bergman and his sound mixers seem to have made some use of the possibilities of cinema stereo, with the rear speakers used not just for music and audience applause, but also for some directional sound such as when the Three Ladies surround Papageno. Given that this film predated Dolby Stereo, it's most likely that the majority of cinemagoers (and television watchers, unless they simultaneously tuned to Radio 3 or its overseas equivalent) would have heard this film in mono. Four-track magnetic stereo was a possibility in cinemas, though I don't know if this film was ever shown that way. The question of the film's intended speed comes up here, and as I don't have perfect pitch so can't answer it, but if the film is 24 fps, a PAL television broadcast would be speeded up, and the pitch raised half a semitone, or it would be lowered in cinemas if the film was shot at 25 fps and shown at 24 fps. It's also possible that different sound mixes were available at the two different frame rates. This Blu-ray is 24fps and the DVD (not seen) is according to the press release 25fps, so I wonder if one is speeded up or slowed down. However, to these ears, the soundtrack sounds very good, the lossless audio helping out no end. English subtitles are available, presumably based on an English libretto, with Swedish rhymes rendered as English ones. There are subtitles available for the German-language Papageno but not for two other English-language short films on this disc. I compared this Blu-ray to Criterion's original NTSC-format DVD, and both play at the same speed and pitch.

The extras on the disc are three short films, with a Play All option. We begin with Papageno (11:07), a charming silhouette-animation from 1935 by Lotte Reininger (1899-1981). Displaying a talent for paper-cutting from an early age, Reininger entered the film industry in the 1920s as an intertitle designer. In 1926 she made the oldest surviving animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. She left Germany with the rise of Nazism and eventually settled in the UK. Many of her films were shorts, many of them based on fairytales or opera, including this one, set in its own miniature theatre, its tone modulating from the comic to just-averted tragedy to romance, in a short time, accompanied by the opera on the soundtrack (sung in German here).

In Mozart's Footsteps (11:03) is a travelogue. It's 1938, and we are in the company of Lady Dunn (Irene Clarice Richards, so ennobled due to her marriage to Canadian industrialist James Hamet Dunn, a second marriage for both) who speaks in the kind of cut-glass accent that would be parodied nowadays as she guides us round the Salzburg, the city of Mozart's birth. There's an emphasis on folklore, especially given the traditional costumes on display. This is a documentary from another era and there's a moment that's quite chilling with hindsight, as we see among several flying flags one with a swastika.

On Such a Night (37:10) is a three-reel short film from 1955, written by Paul Dehn and directed by Anthony Asquith. American tourist David (David Cornell) is in London to see the sights. On his way to Lewes, he finds himself at Glyndebourne, and a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Made by Screen Audiences and intended to promote English opera to a wider audience, this Eastmancolour short played on the same bill as the comedy Simon and Laura. The thin plot is not much more than an excuse to include chunks of the Mozart opera, but it's ably put together. All three shorts are presented in a ratio of 1.37:1, which is undoubtedly correct for the two items from the 1930s but I'm less certain it's correct for this one from two years into the widescreen era, given the amount of headroom in every shot. It's transferred from 35mm elements, beginning with the original U certificate, with some very saturated colour and cue dots on screen at the end of what would have been the end of each projection reel. Interestingly, the BBFC's site gives the running time of 44:27, possibly in error as the film on this disc is seven minutes shorter than that.

The BFI's booklet runs to twenty pages plus the cover. Much of its is devoted to an essay by Sameer Rahim on the background and making of the film. As you might expect from the author of a blog called 'The Opera Novice', there's much emphasis on its relation to Mozart's original opera. Also in the booklet are full film credits, John Gillett's original review from the Monthly Film Bulletin of January 1976, credits and notes on the extras, transfer notes and stills.

8 out of 10
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6 out of 10

Ingmar Bergman's film of Mozart's opera is one of his most joyful films and a clear labour of love.


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