Wednesday 28 December 2011

Bergman filming Trollflöjten

That’s The Magic Flute in Swedish as the greatest of filmmakers (pictured on the left in the above photo) saw it, for me the best opera movie ever. Fellow Bergman buff David Thompson had kindly put together for me a few bits and pieces I’d never seen, and the other evening we got round to watching the Swedish one-hour documentary on the making of Trollflöjten with French subtitles. Would you believe the film itself still hasn’t been issued on DVD in the UK, despite talk last year; I treasure all the more my Criterion copy, and I was pleased to pick up the soundtrack in an Oxfam shop - the libretto is interlaced with further Bergman commentary.

What comes across in these loosely-filmed ‘backstage’ scenes – as in the similar documentary on Fanny and Alexander – is the approach of a passionate enthusiast as well as a skilled practitioner getting right in there, with lots of laughter and freewheeling speeches, plenty of affectionate laying-on of hands (we see the director walking rather comically with the Sarastro, Ulrik Cold, and chivvying a dubious Josef Köstlinger in Tamino’s crucial later trials). It all reinforces the film’s greatest quality – that these are real people delivering their homilies and their humanity to us at very close quarters: chamber-cinema opera, in short. And that’s clearly part of the quality Bergman wanted to reproduce; one of the many magical moments is when he gets Tamino and Pamina at their first actual meeting to stare into each other’s eyes very much face to face, nearly touching but just not quite, at least not until she grasps him when Sarastro punishes Monostatos.

The other magic comes from the way the stage action moves from the truly pretty to the scarily metaphysical, but with a weather eye on all the backstage business Bergman loves to conjure in films from Sawdust and Tinsel to Fanny and Alexander and After the Rehearsal. It’s telling both that we see him examining this watercolour showing the cast preparing for a Weimar performance in 1794 under Goethe’s leadership, and that it graces the cover of the recording booklet. I didn’t find its representation anywhere else.

The documentary jumps between the sound recording, where Bergman seems to have delivered his rhapsodic observations on Mozart unselfconsciously to all and sundry

and the filming. The heart of the film, stitched together from both, is when Bergman tells the assembled company in the recording studio that the trials of fire and water remind him of Leverkühn’s meeting with the devil in Mann’s Doktor Faustus. He freely paraphrases what the devil actually says of hell – that it’s two vast rooms, one hot enough to melt granite, the other unbearably cold, between which the inhabitants rush frenziedly.

So we have the souls crying out in silent agony as they roast, and writhing at the bottom of the ocean, while all the while the flute weaves its solemn magic in total contradiction of all that visual frenzy.

Curiously the one moment that had the greatest significance of all for Bergman doesn’t figure in the documentary, though he deals with some of its points in general. This is Tamino’s questioning, after his disorienting encounter with the Speaker, whether the darkness will ever end, when the light will come, and the two answers. You may not agree with everything Bergman says here in the commentary accompanying the libretto, but you can see how deeply it affected him:

For me this is the most agitating music there is. These twelve measures involve two questions at the outermost limits of life - and two answers. When Mozart wrote this music, he was very ill, and he felt the touch of death [make of that what you will]. In a moment of despair and courage, he shouts his question: 'O dark night, when will you disappear? When will I find light in darkness?'

And then comes the answer from the chorus, clear and ambivalent: 'Soon, soon or never more'. Mozart, fatally ill, asks his questions in darkness and from this darkness he answers himself - or does he get an answer? I have never felt so close to the deepest secret of spiritual intuition as just here, at this moment.

And then the other question: 'Does Pamina still live?' The music translates the little question of the text into a big and eternal question: Does Love live? Is Love real? The answer comes quivering and hopeful: 'Pa-mi-na still lives!' Love exists. Love is real in the world of man.

It can't save the protagonist of Bergman's most frightening film, Hour of the Wolf. Here, some years before he filmed The Magic Flute, Bergman puts his own sentiments into the mouth of one of his creepiest characters. The puppet-theatre scene occurs at 5'36 into this 'dining with vampires' sequence.


Susan Scheid said...

So pleased to see this. I was thinking just yesterday how much I’d like to watch more opera on film. I'd begun trolling in search of something to pick out, then there you were with this. Hard to believe, but over here it's on Netflix, and now is due to arrive tomorrow. The trail of associations you put together here is rich and deep. That Hour of the Wolf clip is certainly full of horror, heightened by the eyes-wide-open look on Liv Ullmann's radiantly young face. I don't know the movie—not sure I'd have nerve enough to see it through.

David said...

How I envy you your first viewing of Bergman's Flute, Sue. Some people react violently against the 'face-choreography' of the Overture, but if you don't care for that, or for the pretty early stages, do stick with it. Not all the singing is top-notch, but Hakan Hagegard should charm you: never seen a better Papageno.

I hated Hour of the Wolf first time I saw it, but steeled myself to watch it again, and - there's something there. Bit like von Trier's Melancholia: a world is created. Liv, as the artist's young wife, is of course supposed to be 'Pa-mi-na', you gathered.

David Damant said...

I am not sure that I agree with changing the plot of The Magic Flute. It is a work of manifest genius and trying to make the drama more logical, or just different, seems likely to cloud the insights of genius. Still, not too dangerous a fault

One explanation of the plot is that the Queen of the Night is the Empress Maria Theresa, who on acceding to the throne was at once attacked by Frederic the Great ( Sarastro) who took Silesia ( Pamina) from her - hence the wronged woman at the commencement. Then Maria Theresa expelled the Masons and Frederic took them in.....thus explaining the change in Sarastro from baddie to goodie

Well, I suppose I fall into the fault I criticise above...........

David said...

David refers to some messing-around with the Act 2 finale, and having Sarastro and the Queen as Pamina's inimical father and mother (the only other change is that the three ladies' music diverges to the boys in the Act 1 Quintet 'cos Bergman clearly had a problem with the Queen's retinue giving Tamino the flute and Papageno the bells).

Worst production of Magic Flute I've seen was Miller's for Scottish Opera, which took the Queen as Maria Theresa and set the whole thing in an enlightenment library, round which the lovers seemed to take a leisurely stroll (with no lighting change) for their 'trials'.