The Magician | Bergman’s truth

Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) and his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin) in "The Magician".

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out

“Draw, draw the curtain now. / You there in your seat, you there. / Here is the glance, between them, quick, the burning.” — American poet Jorie Graham, “The Lovers”

Artists often cannot resist commenting on their own craft through the craft itself. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, Francois Truffaut’s ruminations on film in “Day for Night”, poet Jorie Graham writing a poem as veiled reflection on the relationship between poet and reader, or director Ingmar Bergman torching his audience (and even himself) in one of his lesser-regarded works, the 1958 film, “The Magician” (or “Ansiktet”/”The Face”).

In “The Magician”, Bergman uses his craft to get at the central question of it means to make films, which are a type of illusion. Isn’t that what film is — everything through a glass (i.e. lens) darkly? Literally, “The Magician” is a film about a traveling troupe led by mesmerist Dr. Vogler (played by Max von Sydow), who claims to have developed and perfected the science of animal magnetism. With him is a gregarious manager named Tubal, the androgynous-looking Mrs. Vogler, and Grandma Vogler — a peddler of phony love potions. They are confronted by a group consisting of a policeman, a medical man (Dr. Vergerus) and a consul named Egerman, who are dead set on proving them all as charlatans, frauds — your basic snake-oil salesmen.

It’s a strange film, mixing odd comedy with digressions on what is indeed truthful or real. Bergman presents the debunking group as cretins, philistines and Doubting Thomas’ that must always see the nails in the hands to believe what is in front of them. It’s Bergman’s view of the detractors of his own films. Yes, “The Magician” does present grotesque simplifications of a type of unsophisticated film-goer, but Bergman doles out the self-criticism too. If not for the self-criticism, “The Magician” would lose its sincerest punch. Bergman reveals, later in the film, that the mesmerist’s performance is indeed a sham. The control of the illusion exists behind the curtain. There is no magic, only trap doors, concocted apparitions, pulley apparatuses designed to create the effect of levitation. In other words, Bergman is saying the craft of movie-making is one giant hoodwink. But a well done hoodwink can be a mighty illusion. And the illusions in this film are considerable.

Take for example the introduction of Vogler’s wife (Ingrid Thulin), disguised as his boy apprentice. (By the way, isn’t Thulin’s elegantly sculpted looks reminiscent of Robin Wright Penn?) Also, in the opening sequence, the traveling troupe stop in the woods upon hearing what they think are the screams of a ghostly creature, only to find a dying man with the last name “Spegel” — which in Swedish translates into the word for ‘mirror’? That’s just one of a number of mirrored characters and scenes in the movie. (Vergerus propositions Vogel’s wife, just as Egerman’s wife propositions Vogel.) Dr. Vogler finds the injured Spegel lying on his back, requesting a belt of brandy. The man tells Vogler he is an actor. He asks if Vogler is also an actor. Vogler shakes his head no (part of his act is pretending to be mute). The man notices Vogler is wearing a false beard. They take the man into the carriage where he dies with a gusto that can only politely be called theatrical. It’s a completely topsy-turvy sequence in the movie.

So what is illusion exactly? Grandma Vogler simply says, “I see what I see, and I know what I know.” Dr. Vergerus, one of the searchers for the “truth” behind the troupe’s magic, says that the group represents everything he hates, namely the unexplainable. Spegel and Tubal debate the meaning of ‘truth’ early in the film. Tubal says the search for truth is “damn interesting,” as he trusts only what can be seen as true. He says, “The head is on the neck, and the rump is on the back. That’s the kind of truth I like. Absolute truth.” Spegel cleverly jokes (like one of Shakepeare’s jesters) that in his case, the truth may in fact be the opposite.

It’s easy to see what confuses audiences about Bergman’s films. There are parts of “The Magician” that are the filmmaker’s conjurations, without any rationale in the real world. If you watch the film closely, there are things that don’t make much sense unless you take film for what it is. At the end of the film, there’s a scene where Vogel and his wife are trying to high-tail it in their carriage. It’s raining heavily. Before they can get away, they are called back into the home of the consul and it’s no longer raining. Movie-goers who nit-pick such things would say it’s a mistake in the film. But it’s clearly not. Bergman couldn’t care less what you think about it. There is a reason why it’s suddenly sunny outside, but the audience must wait until the proclamation made in the consul’s home to see why the filmmaker would do that. I imagine Bergman responding to those scientific kind of viewers with a quote from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream.”

Bergman notices something that has become more apparent to me nowadays: there is some kind of force out there that likes tearing down beautiful things. It’s a collectively dumb force, predicated on the notion that artists are frauds. That high-art and educated observation are somehow effete, or worse yet, devoid of real merit. There’s a scene in “The Magician” (that strangely reminds me of a line in “Fight Club”) where Dr. Vergerus says there’s just something beautiful about Dr. Vogel’s face that makes him want to punch it. It’s a bizarre monologue in the screenplay, perhaps a glimpse at what Bergman senses is our brutish, primitive nature. (In David Fincher’s “Fight Club”, the lead character says, after bashing a man’s face in,I felt like destroying something beautiful.”) Is that what some of us in the audience are like? When confronted with a beauty we don’t understand, do we become angered at its creator? It’s an interesting notion. Before you scoff, ask yourself how many people hear the name Bergman and groan, thinking, “No way am I going to watch this subtitled garbage. His films are exercises in pseudo-intellectualism.” And how many of those same people have a deep abhorrence for Bergman or foreign picture for that matter? I venture the number is very high. Or how many people have you heard, when looking at a Mark Rothko painting, say “That’s not art. It’s just a bunch of shades of red. This painter is a phony, trying to fool us into thinking he’s good. Really he just can’t paint any better than this.”

Film isn’t reality any more than painting. It’s all veneer. It’s nature mirrored, skewed, and distorted. But that’s also what gives it such power. Because it’s not a direct reflection of reality, a great film can present moments of transcendence often stronger than those in the real world. Bergman wasn’t an elitist simply bent on disparaging an unsophisticated audience — he also presented cinematic parallels in “The Magician” about those that love everything he does without critical analysis. At one point in the movie, Ottilia Egerman, the wife of the consul, falls under the spell of Dr. Vogler, opening up to him about her recently deceased child and promising him a night of passion if he will only meet her at night while her husband sleeps. She believes completely in the conjurer’s powers. After she leaves the room, Vogler punches a piece of furniture, showing his frustration at Mrs. Egerman’s insistence on believing the farce of his supernatural abilities. It’s a complex scene, with complex emotions, that shows Bergman dislikes the unbending devotion of acolytes about as much as the scorn of an artless audience. In both cases, neither truly understand the artist or the art.

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One thought on “The Magician | Bergman’s truth

  1. Wow, I hope you see this being you wrote it in 2011. I’m wondering what to make of the actor character found in the forest who dies, then comes alive, and dies again and the apparent magic ability and clairvoyance of the grandmother who seems to bring the dead man back to life and foretells of the laundry room hanging.

    Thanks
    D

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