The Magician (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
‘I am either an imposter or in the case where the audience is willing to be taken in, a conjurer. I perform conjuring tricks with a conjuring apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any performer in history would have given anything to own or make use of it.’
- Ingmar Bergman on directing and making movies
A magician Albert Vogler (Max Von Sydow), wilfully mute for years, and his troupe (including his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin) disguised as a boy assistant (apparently to avoid detection by the authorities on their trail) travel by horse and carriage to a small town where they are scheduled to perform, only to find themselves taken as ‘guests’ to the mansion of the lead councilman Egerman (Erland Josephson) where important town figures police chief Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo) and head Doctor Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand) ‘politely’ demand they provide a private performance to examine if the supernatural disturbances the troupe is said to offer are real… or if they are the charlatans the officials suspect them to be.
With its scenes of comic antics in the kitchen between the lascivious travelers in the troupe and the mischievous female servants, including the whimsically spirited Sarah (played by eye candy fave Bibi Andersson), passing about a ‘love potion’ in the kitchen to see what happens (which they naturally all willingly fall under the spell of) and the more fantastical moments of possible supernatural hijinks (including levitating tables, the re-appearance of the sick, alcoholic disregarded actor who the troupe stumbles across on the side of the road and watch die, showing up as a wine-swilling ghost), The Magician is parts light and engagingly theatrical… but then its merged, almost incongruously, with an exploration (taking part in the higher floors of the mansion) revolving around the severe and austere countenance of Von Sydow’s cynical and dispirited Vogler, defiantly refusing to speak, having had enough of the ‘humiliation of the performer’ (as well as of the untrusting audience he despises), putting on a performance of nightmare and embarrassment to shame his doubters.
The Magician, coming as it did at the end of the 1950’s, plays as a bridge film from his lighter comedies of that decade dealing explicitly with trials of love and marriage (which tend to merge in my mind, even though still populated by characters led by an underlying existential angst and a perspective of relationships as bitter, humiliating and untenable – it’s Bergman, after all) into the stunningly austere, unforgettable, deeply personal (and at times overtly horror film frightening) explorations into isolation and despair that would define his work going forward (crystallizing, almost immediately, in the purest of forms, with his two 60’s unofficial trilogies that audaciously cemented his international reputation; namely, the faith trilogy – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence — and the Fårö island trilogy – Hour of the Wolf, Shame and The Passion of Anna which also happened to be the first six films of his that I saw). It’s also, I believe, the last of his films taking place in the past. Going forward, he would drop the distancing device (while remaining experimental, with lots of meta-style play) and bring the drama closer to (his) home (though he’d argue he still would have loved to do more period pieces, but his budgets couldn’t afford it).
It’s interesting to see The Magician playing as a larger canvassed and less avant-garde version of the later (from 1971) four character piece Bergman made for television, “The Magician” The Rite from 1969. That film was also about the interrogation of a small troupe of performers for committing acts not considered socially acceptable, but there Bergman is much more minimalist, and the much more openly confessional filmmaker he’d become.
Re-exploring Bergman again, if I be entirely honest, as much as I remain in awe of his accomplishments, there’s also a growing (and somewhat niggling) sense of him as wallowing, with almost childlike petulance at times — too indulgently circling about the angst of the ‘artist’ — a bit up his own backside. While his ever-present existential angst — the decrying against an indifferent silent universe — remains relevant to a humanity that violently fights still over the existence of a God, Bergman otherwise offers little in the sense of political or social context. His isolation remained almost complete in his cinema and, not surprisingly, in his life (as he relocated to that small island of Fårö for the last decades of his life).
Bergman’s particular cinema perhaps offers less insights than it does stunningly raw, personal portraits of humiliation, fear, angst and despair (even in the comic bits!). Such an insular perspective from the artist might grow less meaningful in a world cascading towards shared mutual destruction (and scientific extinction), but it nevertheless remains profound, sublime even, at the very least from the sense of an artist perfectly merging his creative voice with a form (while, in the case of films like The Magician, also allowing some nice gazing upon that youthful image of female perfection known as Bibi Andersson as she flutters about, so carefree).