The Magic Flute and After the Rehearsal: Stages of Life

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

The Magic Flute and After the Rehearsal: Stages of Life

On Film / Essays — Nov 16, 2018

By the time Ingmar Bergman reached middle age, he had long since established parallel careers in film, television, and the theater, and he often blurred the boundaries between these mediums. His playful 1975 adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the stripped-down chamber piece After the Rehearsal (1984), for example, are both heavily theatrical productions made for television that were eventually shown in cinemas around the world. While the first is something of a comedy and the second, ultimately, something of a tragedy, both—having been conceived for the screen but set within the confines of theaters—make a point of foregrounding their hybrid natures. Whereas The Magic Flute delights in the possibilities of the theater, After the Rehearsal examines the relationship between life and performance. As a result, viewing these two films together allows for a pleasurable and singular insight into Bergman, his aesthetics, and his devotion to the stage. 

Bergman’s drive to stage The Magic Flute may even have made him the artist he became. In Images, he writes of how he fell in love with the opera at the age of twelve, and how, after an attempt to have it put on at the puppet theater where he worked failed, “The Magic Flute became my companion through life.” Soon after, the young Bergman wandered into a restored eighteenth-century theater in Drottningholm: “In my imagination, I have always seen The Magic Flute living inside that old theater, in that keenly acoustical wooden box, with its slanted stage floor, its backdrops and wings. Here lies the noble, magical illusion of theater.  Nothing is;  everything represents.  The moment the curtain is raised, an agreement between stage and audience manifests itself. And now, together, we’ll create! In other words, it is obvious that the drama of The Magic Flute should unfold in a baroque theater.” His entire film is set in a replica of this theater, built on a soundstage. There’s a wonderful intimacy to the production, and while the main action has, at times, the feeling of an opera playing out in a jewel box, it is as if we are watching an enchanted version of The Magic Flute, one that allows us to see the backstage, the stage, and even the audience as part of the same performance. 

At the beginning of the film, the camera scans the audience as the orchestra plays the opening themes in what at first seems like a meditation on that feeling of waiting for a show to begin, stopping on a series of faces in various states of anticipation, many of them Bergman film regulars and family members. The camera’s focus eventually returns only to a young girl with red hair and green eyes (Helene Friberg, perhaps familiar to Bergman fans from her role in the following year’s Face to Face)—and she soon becomes a stand-in or guide for the audience, the camera returning to her reactions throughout.  

The Magic Flute, one of the most popular operas in the world, has a puzzlingly modern plot, at least as far as eighteenth-century heroic operas go. We begin with Tamino (played in the film by Josef Köstlinger) being chased goofily and gamely through a forest by an adorable dragon, then fainting just as three sorceresses (Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding) appear and slay his pursuer. The sorceresses have been sent by the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) to find a handsome young prince to rescue her daughter, and are so taken with Tamino that they spar, wittily, over who will remain with him and who will go to inform their mistress of this find. He awakens, alone, to find the queen’s bird catcher, Papageno (Håkan Hagegård), and the dead dragon, and mistakenly thanks Papageno, who happily takes credit, as the sorceresses reappear and lock up the bird catcher’s mouth with a device like something straight out of a Berlin sex club—a punishment for his lies. They then present the hero with a portrait of the queen’s daughter, Pamina (Irma Urrila), kidnapped by the wizard Sarastro (Ulrik Cold), and ask if he feels strongly enough for her to undertake the quest to free her. He does, and so the queen appears and makes this promise: should he succeed, Pamina will be his reward—his bride.

Fans of quests unfamiliar with this opera may feel prompted to ask: Why choose a young man who has failed at confronting a dragon to go and rescue a princess? Why would a magic flute make the difference in a battle with a wizard at the center of a Temple of Reason? These questions flutter lightly in the background and are never quite answered, and soon they don’t matter. I once believed that this opera was nonsensical, but I was taking it too literally—it is almost a light romantic comedy, perhaps even a satire, about heroes and their failures. I learned this from Bergman’s film, and this insight is, to my mind, his greatest achievement here. Tamino, the handsome if unclever young man, we soon see, is capable of inspiring much more magic than his flute ever does when Sarastro is seduced by the very possibility of him as an initiate in his Temple of Reason, something Tamino agrees to immediately, abandoning his quest to rescue Pamina for the queen. 

An excellent example of the Bergman touch appears when, a little later, we glimpse the dragon backstage during a cigarette break, along with the Queen of the Night—and seeing her take a drag, with that thirst perhaps only Bergman actors feel for smoke, rings both comically and dramatically true. It’s as if Bergman had been given an episode of that other backstage fantasy for television, The Muppet Show, to direct, and the effect is charming, and entirely at home in Mozart’s material.

Bergman’s Queen of the Night, as played by the Swedish soprano Nordin, is perhaps my favorite incarnation of the character: pitch-perfect in every scene, she is seductively beautiful in her first appearance, dressed modestly in her robes of night instead of the usual outrageous, overwhelming splendor, and in her final appearance, dressed for war, in a Greek hoplite helmet with black horsehair crest and a gleaming black breastplate—Amazonian and campily glamorous, all at the same time. Hagegård, as Papageno, nearly steals the show—he displays so much erotic appeal and humor in his scenes, you almost forget he is not the center of the story. Even minor characters, like the Spirits of the Air, played by three waifish soprano boys in a hot-air balloon and wearing roadster caps, do their part to fill out the spectacle perfectly. 


Bergman on the set of The Magic Flute

Top of post: After the Rehearsal

The spectacle in After the Rehearsal, on the other hand, has no magical animals or camp. A film with only three characters, it begins when Henrik (Erland Josephson), a famous director, wakes alone on a stage where earlier he was rehearsing a production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play. “As I look around, I don’t recognize the room. Something has changed, mysteriously and elusively,” his voice-over inner monologue tells us, just as a young actress, Anna (Lena Olin), walks in, searching for a bracelet. Anna is his Agnes for this production of A Dream Play, a play he has directed to great success several times before. They begin a review of their working relationship that turns into an argument that is also a flirtation, albeit one with very high stakes that go only higher as the argument continues. Right away, they also come to the subject of Rakel, Anna’s mother—and, we learn, one of Henrik’s greatest stars, certainly his greatest Agnes, as well as one of his lovers—now dead, after succumbing to alcoholism and despair. And Anna loathes her.

As Henrik argues with Anna, he also criticizes himself, in voice-over, for being overdramatic to the point of playing a false role, even as he accuses Anna of the same, upbraiding her when she asks why he always upbraids her. Our horror and despair at what feels like the cliché inevitability of their affair—between a powerful artistic older man and a talented but inexperienced younger woman—dissipates when we see that this is also what Henrik feels. This will not be that story.

Roughly a third of the way through the film, Anna, as part of her argument with Henrik, performs a scene of herself accusing her mother of playing a role in her fights with her father, “crying out of one eye and monitoring the effect with the other,” and as she intones her mother’s reply—“This is how I express myself. I have no other way”—you can’t miss that she’s doing what she accused her mother of. Henrik, meanwhile, is thrown back in time. Rakel, played by one of Bergman’s great stars, Ingrid Thulin—who in fact was his own Agnes, in his 1963 television film of A Dream Play—is suddenly on the stage, alive, drunk, and hoping to seduce him. The child Anna sits unmoving on the couch throughout this recollection, an uncanny silent witness not unlike The Magic Flute’s red-haired audience member. As Rakel enacts her seduction, in abrupt eddies of either happy nostalgia and gentle flirtation or horrified grief and withering self-hatred, he rejects her; she mourns her beauty, asks whether she has destroyed her “instrument,” by which she means her ability to act, though she also seems to associate it with her body—which she bares for him. Thulin was quite unable to disassociate herself from the role at the time, to Bergman’s frustration, and he notes in Images that she cried every time she delivered the instrument line, instead of offering the cool delivery he hoped for. 

Rakel leaves only when Henrik agrees to meet her at her apartment, a gesture that seems like a lie told to get rid of her, and after her affectionate farewell, the older Anna returns, and the conversation between the director and his new lead begins again. Unnerved by the resemblances between mother and daughter, Henrik warns Anna bluntly of all that will befall them should they embark on an affair. At the end, as at the beginning, he is left alone in the theater. We’re reminded of something Henrik says to Anna earlier in the film: “Listen to the silence on this stage. Imagine all the spiritual energy, all the emotions, real and make-believe, all the laughter, rage, passion, and who knows what else. It’s all still here, enclosed, living its secret, uninterrupted life.” And we can feel the younger Bergman who found his “life’s companion” in The Magic Flute, a man in love with that “noble, magical illusion of theater,” asking us to understand how much that silence matters.