Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mozart on Film: Bergman's Die Zauberflöte

Bergman's opening scene to Mozart's final opera is itself a miniature masterpiece. We begin with the Three Ladies veiled and with spear in full warrior-maiden mode. A visually imposing presence, Bergman arranges the armed trio in a tableau bathed in flashing light and smoke. Their dark clothes against the light background emphasize the menacing sight and Bergman raises their dominant position further by shooting from a low angle.

Musically we now have a falling scalar figure alongside shouts of victory. Which will Bergman utilize? He chooses not to use the falling scales to emphasize the falling of the dragon but the calls of "Triumph!" to accompany close-ups of to the Ladies. These close-ups, preceded by a marching figure in the winds, further the Ladies' warrior look by showing us their flared nostrils and gaping maws. Yikes!

Tamino, looking equal parts comfy and conked-out, rolls around on the floor alongside the comically kicking dragon. In one smooth motion the camera pans up from the flaccid Tamino to the dying dragon to the victorious Ladies who now unveil to look upon their spoils: a handsome prince whom the camera dwells upon in closeup. With the shot fixed on Tamino the Ladies' hands enter the frame, emphasizing their agency and interest while contrasting the previous image of them as marauders. Those hands that had just thrust spears are now seen closeup in their silken femininity as they cradle and caress (and compete for) Tamino.

In the same unbroken shot they raise up Tamino and each Lady has a turn at his ear.

The relative stillness of the camera throughout the Ladies' movement in the shot gives the moment an ethereal quality.

Bergman holds the next shot in close on the two singing Ladies and pulls out to accomodate the third who joins them. This might seem more literal, with the camera mimicking the music, but it works because the joining Lady was the last to look upon Tamino and her delay makes it seems as if she lingered upon him longer, unable to tear herself away. This simple shot itself is worth lingering on a while longer. Do you notice the tension in the shot to the right? Where are we supposed to look? The left Lady attracts our attention because her blondness makes her brighter but the right Lady is taller, hence the introduction of the third Lady to the left and slightly lower feels like a resolution.

Bergman creates this scene with the barest minimum of movement but the fullest utilization of color, size, and spatial arrangement. It has life and energy without relentless motion. It is also the most sensual image so far, centrally displaying in close distance the Ladies' slender necks. Their heads then turn left to Tamino, first the right lady, then the left, then the center and in such order because our eyes must follow the center Lady. (Watch the clip trying to follow one of the other two and see how awkward it feels.)

The Ladies surround Tamino in another engaging tableau. Unlike before when they barely grazed him now the Ladies get handsy. Their caressing and wandering hands complement the music which here begins with an excited energy of quavers in the Ladies' voices against clipped quavers in the strings. This motion gives way to a throbbing iambic motion in two of the Ladies as the third is completely carried away. Visually and musically the Ladies are having their own private moment with Tamino. What could be less relevant here than the text about bringing him back to the Queen?

No sooner, though, do the ladies start eyeing the competition. The ladies enter one at a time, each offering to stay behind with the newfound stud and each in turn getting interrupted by one of the other Ladies who insists she be the one to stay. Musically this is handled with successive entries and visually Bergman has each entering Lady step in front of the other, blocking her competition from the camera. Bergman follows Mozart and repeats the pattern twice, the women working their way up to the camera until finally each thrusts herself forward, forcing the camera back.

Bear in mind that for this part of the scene the Ladies look directly into the camera, which is now at eye level instead of beneath them. Naturally this creates the impression that they are competing for us instead of what's-his-name. Bergman completes the moment with a cutthroat smile. If you're not drawn in at this point. .  .

The Ladies twirl their bodies away from us and start arguing about who will get to stay behind. ("I'm supposed to go?!") The camera quickly pans back and forth across the Ladies' faces as they argue. The staging of the Ladies here is quite brilliant. The two back to back have to turn their necks to argue, which adds tension, and the uppity response from the third who is left out makes way for a visual joke. Lastly, the continuous and close physical contact gives the scene a sensual charge.

Next each Lady how she won't leave Tamino for the others and Bergman is somewhat pressed to handle these musical repetitions with visual language. He arranges them as a pair discussing with the third separate, first in the foreground, then in the background, and with them joining all together to say "Nay Nay!" in between. This simple trick proves surprisingly effective at creating a sense of variety.

They join hands and circle around the dazed prince as if preparing for some more touchy-feely but instead they share a kiss amongst themselves: a truce. None of them will have Tamino. It cannot be.

Convinced of their defeat the Ladies move in front of Tamino and bemoan their loss, swooping forth one after the other like Mozart's stretti, first falling then rising. The Ladies turn and twirl until rising in proud acceptance and then collapsing in dejection. They return to him one last time, grasping him ever more boldly in knowing they'll get no further. . .

. . . before at last gracefully bowing out.

In short, Bergman's staging of Mozart is brilliant. Making use of all of his visual resources he is able to create a beautiful, effective and in fact quite simple visual vessel for Mozart's music. 

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