Tuesday, 1 March 2011

AFED #59: Ansiktet [The Magician] (Sweden, 1958); Dir. Ingmar Bergman

Recently I've been reading a book called Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. It's an engrossing history of the Golden Age of magic in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the key figures in the development of the artform, from John Nevil Maskelyne to Harry Houdini.

The title derives from a spectacular illusion first performed by Houdini circa 1918, an illusion which in Houdini's hands turned out to be something of a damp squib. You see, although Houdini remains a legend for his feats as an escapologist he was by all accounts a lousy magician; he lacked the finesse to make illusions seem subtle and ingenious. It's not enough to simply present a trick, you have to make the audience believe in the impossible.

Ingmar Bergman was fascinated by this subtle alchemy and saw an analogy between the illusionist's talent for challenging our rationality and his work as a stage and film director. The Magician was loosely inspired by G.K. Chesterton's play Magic but more specifically by his own early theatrical experiences, struggling to make end's meat as a young theatre director in Malmo.


Bergman stalwart (not to mention alter ego) Max Von Sydow stars as Dr Vogler, the seemingly mute hypnotist and magician who leads a troupe of travelling performers who have acquired a reputation for the uncanny nature of their act. When they arrive in a small town its officials, including cynical medic Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), demand to see a sample of the troupe's routine before permitting them to ply their trade. Angered by the humiliating treatment they are subjected to, Vogler decides to play a terrifying trick on Dr Vergerus that will challenge his skepticism.

The film has been described as a kind of horror but it's closer to a black comedy, ironically making it one of Bergman's lighter pieces. Much of what ensues was, by Bergman's own admission, a caustic dramatisation of his experiences at the hands of certain critics, making this a revenge fantasy.

And yet as Vogler's character becomes demystified (predictably he was never really mute) in the latter stages he becomes pitiful and desperate, pleading for recompense for the performance he's given Dr Vergerus. Perhaps the point being that we're happily enthralled and provoked by an entertainment, yet ultimately hold the performer in contempt for not being what we know they're only pretending to be. A strange paradox.

Bergman could do no wrong at this stage of his career and although The Magician can't compare to the power and poignancy of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries it's still a thought-provoking piece of work; impeccably filmed in crisp monochrome and a fine cast including many regular Bergman collaborators.

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