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20 December 2013

Trollflöjten (1975)

Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Starring:  Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urrila, Birgitte Nordin, 
Håkan Hagegård, Ulrik Cold, Ragnar Ulfung,
Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel,
Birgitta Smiding
I love the opera. I'm fascinated not only by its music, but also by its dramatic presentation on stage, and the grandeur of its sets. The many moods the music evokes thrill me, even if my knowledge of Western Classical music is limited to knowing only what I like. I'm not the only one, I assume, whose knowledge of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte was restricted to its most famous aria - Der Hölle Rache (Hell's Vengeance) sung by the Queen of the Night. I'm eternally (and damnably) curious however, and I love knowing the stories of the operas I listen to, since most of them are sung in languages with which I have but a superficial knowledge. 

Briefly then, a note about the original Die Zauberflöte: Mozart's last Opera, the music was set to a German libretto (in the form of Singspiel, with both spoken and sung dialogue) by Emanuel Schikaneder. (In the film, the lyrics of the libretto were translated into Swedish.) Mozart himself conducted the opening night of the opera at the prestigious Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna in 1791. The premiere was an astounding success, and Die Zauberflöte went on to mark its hundredth performance. Unfortunately, Mozart was not alive to celebrate that triumph. It is today, the fourth most-frequently performed opera worldwide. The Queen of the Night was allegedly based on Empress Maria-Theresa, the Empress of Austria, the last of the House of Habsburgs.

When the overture begins, we are aware that we are watching a performance on stage. The camera pans on the contemporary audience to underline the fact that the film is, in fact, a play within; then, as the curtains rise, it moves slowly back again - this time, to the stage with its painted backdrops and sets.  
Tamino (Josef Köstlinger), a handsome prince, is lost in a distant land and, being pursued by a dragon (a serpent in the original libretto), asks the gods to save him. He faints in terror and the three attendants (Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, Birgitta Smiding) of the Queen of the Night who appear there, kill the dragon. (It is a slightly befuddled dragon, actually, and while Tamino may have been frightened, the audience certainly isn't.)
After an argument about who should go tell the Queen about the handsome stranger, they all leave, and Papageno (Håkan Hagegård), a bird catcher, appears on stage singing about his happy life but bemoaning the lack of a wife, or at the very least, a girlfriend. 
When Tamino comes to, he assumes that Papageno had killed the dragon. Slightly nonplussed, Papageno is however quick to accept credit for his 'bravery'. 
Unfortunately, the Queen's attendants have returned and overhear him; they punish him by padlocking his mouth. They then give Tamino a locket with a portrait of a lovely young girl, Pamina, who has been kidnapped by a wicked sorcerer named Sarastro. Her desperate mother, the Queen of the Night, would be more than obliged if he would help to rescue Pamina. 
Tamino, who has promptly fallen in love with Pamina (just by looking at her portrait), agrees to set out on the quest, vanquish Sarastro and rescue Pamina. He is encouraged by the Queen of the Night (Birgitte Nordin) herself, who promises that if he succeeds, then Pamina will be his wife. 
The queen leaves, and her attendants present Tamino with a magic flute on her behalf; it will help him on his journey, they claim.
The three women convince Papageno to accompany Tamino, and present him with some magic bells, which have the power to bring happiness to anyone who hears them. As they leave, Tamino and Papageno are enchanted by the appearance of three spirits, who promise to guide them to Sarastro's dominion. (In the original opera, the spirits are introduced to the two men by the attendants of the Queen of the Night. Like the three women, the spirits are also in her service. In the film, it is not clear that the spirits serve the queen. Besides, they are shown as three little boys, who are capable of acting independently of the queen or her attendants.)
Meanwhile, Pamina (Irma Urrila) is in Monostatos' (Ragnar Ulfung) power. 
Papageno, who has been sent ahead by Tamino, stumbles into the house where Pamina is being held prisoner. Monostatos throws him out threatening to kill him if he ever saw Papageno again. (In the original story, Monostatos is as frightened of Papageno as the latter is of him, because Papageno is dressed in bird feathers and looks very strange.
But Papageno is either very brave or very foolish. He springs up again as soon as Monostatos has left the garden room, and informs Pamina (all the while eating the pastries on the table) that Tamino, sent by Pamina's mother, is on his way to rescue her. 
Pamina is thrilled to hear that Tamino is in love with her. (And proceeds to decide that he is her 'one true love' - all without knowing anything else about the man!) Tamino, meanwhile, has arrived at Sarastro's temple, only to discover that entering the temple is not going to be too easy. His first two tries, through the doors to his right and left, are unsuccesful.
When he finally gains entry through the middle door, he meets a priest of the brotherhood, who tells him that Sarastro is wise and benevolent and that he should not trust the Queen of the Night. Tamino is confused. Whom should he believe?

The night passes slowly, and Tamino plays his magic flute to while away the time. In the morning, he hears Papageno's pipes and hurries off to find him. Has he found Pamina? But Papageno and Pamina are captured by Monostatos' slaves before they can respond to Tamino's calls. Papageno remembers his magic bells - perhaps they will help them escape? As he plays the bells, their captors cannot help but dance to the music. Pamina and he try to escape, but before they go very far, they hear Sarastro and his retinue arrive. 

Pamina tells Sarastro (Ulrik Cold) that she was the target of Monostatos' unwanted attentions. Sarastro comforts her, but when she requests that she be sent back to her mother, he demurs. The Queen of the Night is proud and headstrong, he tells her, and he will not send her back to that dark influence. 
Meanwhile, Monostatos who has come after Pamina, requests that Sarastro reward him for bringing Pamina back. Instead, Sarastro banishes him for his lecherous behaviour towards Pamina, thus earning Monostatos' enmity. 

The next morning, Sarastro explains to the other priests of the Temple of Isis and Osiris that should Tamino successfully complete his trials, then he shall hand over the leadership of the brotherhood to Tamino and Pamina. Sarastro too desires that Tamino win Pamina's hand, but only after Tamino has proved himself worthy of her. Tamino and Papageno are brought in, and told what to expect at each trial. Papageno is not very sure he wants enlightenment. All he wants is food, sleep and a woman. The priests promise him that he will be rewarded with a wife, Papagena, if he completes his tasks. 

The priests impose a vow of silence on both of them and warn them to be wary of women's wiles that will tempt them from their path. The warning comes in handy when the Queen's attendants find out that Tamino is now Sarastro's ally, and exhort both him and Papageno to break their vow. 
Papageno answers them, but Tamino stands firm. The attendants leave in dismay. Hearing the news, the angry Queen of the Night comes at night to meet her daughter. She gives Pamina a dagger and demands that she kill Sarastro.  Otherwise, she says, Pamina can forget they are mother and daughter.
Monostatos, hidden in the shadows, overhears the conspiracy, and threatens to reveal the plot if Pamina does not become his. 
Fortunately for Pamina, Sarastro enters her room just then. Pamina confesses the plot to Sarastro and begs forgiveness for her mother. Papageno, meanwhile, has made the acquaintance of  Papagena (Elizabeth Erikson) who, disguised as an ugly, old woman, informs him that he will be freed only if he promises to marry her.
Papageno promises to do so, and is rewarded by the sight of a young and beautiful Papagena. Unfortunately for him, she vanishes into thin air just as he tries to hug her. The priests forbid him from going in search of her since he has not completed his tasks, and therefore, is yet to prove himself worthy. 

Pamina, who comes to talk to Tamino, goes away in distress because the bound-by-his-vow Tamino does not speak to her. She is sure that he doesn't love her anymore and, grief-stricken, runs away from there.
The three child-spirits prevent Pamina from committing suicide (amongst themselves, they are sure she is insane, and their asides to this effect are very humorous) and assure her of Tamino's love. They escort her back to Tamino who, after he successfully completed the first trial, has been freed of the vow of silence. Pamina, happy again, is determined to face the other trials along with him. With the help of the magic flute, they successfully complete the trials of fire and water. 
The Queen of the Night and her army, accompanied by the rebellious Monostatos, plot to destroy the temple, but Sarastro casts them out into the eternal night. Tamino and Pamina's true love has triumphed. 
Papageno has been reunited with his Papagena, now in her 'real' form. 
And the brotherhood is happy that a new era of reason and wisdom will prosper under the new leadership. 

If, in the first act, the Queen of the Night was a distressed mother seeking to rescue her daughter (or pretending to be one), she is evil personified by the time the second act rolls along, and Sarastro, the alleged evil sorcerer of the first act, is actually the leader of a brotherhood sworn to protect the virtues of truth, beauty and wisdom. Tamino switches sides very suddenly, based on nothing but what is told him by Sarastro. But, suspend disbelief, and it is very satisfying to realise that true love can triumph, especially if you have a little magic to help you along.

Good opera is like a good Hindi movie. Honestly. (I know I'm over-simplifying the description, but seriously, you have romance, you have drama (and melodrama), you have the battle of good vs. evil, you have sin and redemption, guilt and repentance, love and death, and above all, you have music - and singing.) Funnily enough, you also have the same lack of logic and loopholes in plot. But to western eyes, what is considered masala in Hindi films is high art when it becomes the Opera. Me? I love both.  I had loved the music of Die ZauberflöteI thoroughly enjoyed watching Trollflöjten as well - Bergman does more than justice to this beautiful opera, and does it with intelligence, charm and wit. His treatment in Trollflöjten is a (rather whimsical) doffing of the hat from a cinematic genius to a musical one.

Bergman's adaptation of Die Zauberflöte is also an ode to its theatrical roots. Fostering the illusion that we are actually watching a stage play is the frequent cuts to the audience reaction. The expressions of one little girl in particular (Bergman's granddaughter in real life) reflects the action on stage, her face changing from laughter to sadness to fright as the drama unfolds.
It is also a tribute to the art of film making in that, often, we are taken directly into the scene, without background or audience or sets to distract us. Witness the scene where, as Tamino gazes upon the portrait of Pamina in the locket, she comes to life. Or when the Queen of the Night, her face transformed into a mask of fury, descends upon Pamina.
The difference in how she looked in this scene in Act II and her appearance in Act I is amazing...
 There she was the sorrowful mother grieving for her missing daughter. The change is not just in her expression. Bergman's clever use of make up and lighting emphasises the Queen's transformation from a regal beauty to an evil, bitter, hag. 

 While we are constantly encouraged to be a part of the action, however, there are intermittent scenes where we see the painted backdrops come down to create a new scene, as in a theatre. And when the first act finishes, the scenes during the 'intermission' serves to emphasise that it is indeed a play, not a film. Sarastro's men collect on the stage, chatting; Sarastro is busy reading the script of Parsifal (Ulrik Cold was actually rehearsing for Parsifal when they were shooting this film.) while a young boy in a jester costume is reading a Disney comic (in Swedish); Pamina and Tamino, the young lovers, are playing chess, while the Queen of the Night and her attendants have pulled up their skirts and are smoking cigarettes. 

Among the cast, the one person who impressed me most is Papageno. Actor Håkan Hagegård played the clownish role without letting it descend into buffoonery. He was amazing as the simple bird catcher who is looking for a wife - any wife. Besides that, all he wants is some food, some wine and a place to sleep.   
The other is  Birgitte Nordin as the Queen of the Night. She was beautiful, fiery, and arrogant. She is also bitter and deceitful, and not above deceit and manipulation to attain her ends. 

Tamino and Pamina were rather bland, and to describe either Tamino as 'handsome' or Pamina as 'beautiful' required a larger stretch of imagination than I was capable of. (Of course, they were probably chosen for their singing ability, not their looks.) It didn't help that their characters were also rather wishy-washy and don't really make you want to root for their 'true love'.  Sarastro, on the other hand, was played rather capably by Ulrik Cold, but he was so self-righteously right that I disliked him on principle. Not even the fact that he looked like Sanjeev Kumar helped me overcome that.
Originally made for Swedish television, Bergman's vision fills this adaptation with such wonder that one sits through the entire opera rivetted to the screen lest you miss  a moment on screen.  Bergman exerted quite some effort in getting everything just right. Wanting to recreate Vienna's Theater auf der Wieden, which was where the original opera debuted, he had hoped to shoot in the  Drottningholm Palace Theatre. Unfortunately, he was denied permission because the stage was too old and fragile to cope with the filming equipment, and so, he painstakingly recreated the stage, wings and curtains on a set at the Swedish Film Institute. He also worked with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra to painstakingly record the entire soundtrack before filming. The actors then  lip-synced to their own songs.

A review of this film would not be complete without a mention of its music. It is the magic of Mozart's compositions that elevate what is a simple enough and clichéd story to one that leaves us reacting, responding, experiencing the trials and tribulations that are playing out in front of us. As I said before, I do not understand the nuances of Western Classical music. I do love listening to it, though, and I know what I like. But the greatness of any composition lies in its ability to touch your heart, mind and soul. The Magic Flute can make me weep. And laugh. 

Bergman, though he made changes in the plot of the original libretto (moving the setting from the Egypt of the original, and therefore making the plot more universal, making Pamina Sarastro's daughter, and removing a lot of the original sexism), stayed faithful to the music of the celebrated genius. Die Zauberflöte is considered Mozart's most famous opera; Trollflöjten is definitely the most famous and the most critically acclaimed of its adaptations.


  1. Once again you have managed to evoke my interest. Great, all you bloggers keep doing this and I will never get any work done. My 'to watch' list is getting longer and longer.

  2. :) Funnily enough, I feel the same way. I don't know when, if ever, I'll get the time to watch all the movies I want to watch, read all the books I want to read, listen to all the music I want to hear, see all the places I want to see...

  3. Anu, I echo Shilpi. You've made my 'to watch' list longer! (Incidentally, I like opera a lot too. I haven't ever seen it live, and I don't know too much about it, but what I have heard and seen clips of on Youtube, I've liked. In fact, just the other day, Bawa, Harvey and I had a very long - and for me educational - discussion on opera on Facebook. More specifically, about the tenors we really like. It began with me posting about Juan Diego Florez, and from there we went all the way to Caruso and Krauss and Pavarotti and Domingo and loads of other men, most of whom I'd never heard before. Bliss).

    I have to try and get my hands on this one.

  4. :) Thanks, Madhu.

    I haven't yet seen an Opera live yet, either, but I have had the opportunity to listen to a lot of it, because S listens and he introduced me to many of the operas - audio, of course. This one, I have always liked, ever since I first watched it many, many years ago. Young A loves the aria by the Queen of the Night, and has watched the clip many times on YouTube, so we thought we should introduce him to the opera as well. So we all watched Trollflöjten recently. Perhaps one day, we will be able to see it live. One lives in hope. :)

    As for your watching it, it is available on YouTube. There are two versions - the first one that comes up doesn't have sub-titles.

  5. Thanks so much, Anu. Will bookmark it and (hopefully) watch it soon.

  6. I saw this ages back and it left such a nice feeling behind. Love it. Should watch it once again.
    BTW the setting of the original is not in Egypt, although Isis and Osiris are called upon. The background has much more to do with free mason traditions and rituals. Its a joy to see a young Håkan Hagegård play Papageno before he took heavier roles.

  7. Harvey, how nice to see you back! :)

    Yes, it does have to do with Masonic rituals and traditions, but the story itself was set in Egypt - the libretto, I mean. And with typical Caucasian attitudes, the 'villain' Monostatos just happens to be a Moor.

    But such a beautiful opera, no?


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