Illusion, faith and rationalism are all explored in Bergman’s fascinating musing on performance
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Aman/Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Birgitta Pettersson (Sanna), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendent Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan)
He who tells the truth may be the greatest liar. So thinks Mr Aman (Ingrid Thulin), in the carriage carrying him and the rest of Albert Emmanuel Volger’s Magnetic Health Theatre to a performance in a village in nineteenth-century Sweden. It’s fitting for Aman to thinking about it, since he’s actually Vogler’s wife Manda. The mute Vogler (Max von Sydow) claims powers of healing and mesmerism. But perhaps he’s making it up? If we peek behind the curtain, what is the truth?
Peeking behind the curtain is exactly what their clients want to do. The troupe is due to perform before a trio of rationalists, practically falling over themselves to debunk every step Vogler takes. Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a chilly health official who only believes what his own hands touch. Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) wants to prove it’s rubbish to his wife Ottila (Gertrude Fridh), while Police Superintendent Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo) is a swaggering bully who just likes making people feel small. But can the imperious Vogler turn the tables on these would-be myth busters?
Bergman first struck upon the idea for The Magician after observing how much audiences at the theatre wanted to go backstage and meet the actors – and how they were invariably disappointed when they did at how everyday it was. Based on a GK Chesterton play, The Magician is a multi-layered musing on the relationship between performance and viewing, and the conflict between rationalism and faith. At heart it sympathises with the plight of the performer, presenting their work to an unsympathetic, uninterested, unengaged and unimpressed audience.
The theatre troupe look all sorts of glamourous, with the eccentric costumes and their intriguingly unknowable personae. They offer a carnival of the weird and wonderful that fascinates the rationalists, in spite of how much they want to debunk it. But, as they strip down the acts, they find plainer, simpler, less mysterious people below. Despite their eagerness to know how the trick is done, they are disappointed to find out. They barely watch the acts, or listen to the skill of the performers, because they are focused on unpicking the minutia and detail (Bergman having a pop at pretentious critical writing like the material here perhaps?).
Our rationalists are, to a man, an unpleasant, smug and often insufferable bunch. They have a clear world view and anything unscientific doesn’t fit in it: even God is “totally out of date”. Tovio Pawlo’s Starbeck is a crude, jumped-up bully, who feels barely more than a step or two higher up the social pyramid than Vogler. Egerman (a wonderfully nervy and insecure Erland Josephson) is so in awe of facts and statistics he can barely think for himself. Really controlling things is Dr Vergerus, a masterful performance of arrogance and self-satisfaction masquerading as open-minded scientific enquiry from Gunnar Björnstrand.
Far from inquiring, Vergeus’ mind is rigidly closed to anything outside of his world view. People are categorised and little more than objects of curiosity – he even speaks (ominously it turns out) of an eagerness to dissect Vogler. Flashes of the supernatural or inexplicable are met with blank terror which Vergeus swiftly covers with cold impassivity. He has made up his mind well before Vogler arrives. Like the rest of the rationalists, he preaches absolute truth but only on his own terms.
And perhaps he’s right to, in a way. The troupe are liars – but at least they are honest about it. They claim magical skills of healing and love potions (“what the bottle looks like and the colour” is far more important than the contents) which they merrily flog to the credulous. Their magic tricks are dressed up in elaborate costumes and quasi-mystical business. Their promoter Tubal (another impressive, bombastic performance for Bergman from Åke Fridell) shamelessly peddles exaggerated stories of their mastery. They may be a glamourous, but they are also cheap.
And then of course there is Vogler, who has practically dressed himself as a prop. Coated in pale make-up, Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing black wig, von Sydow presents Vogler as an enigmatic showman. Bergman makes fabulous use of his riveting stare – surely he doesn’t need any flim-flam to hypnotise when he can glare at you like that. There is a sadness to Vogler though: his faith in himself has gone. Encountering a dying actor on the road (a neat cameo from Bengt Ekerot – and a nice call-back to his and von Sydow’s Seventh Seal team-up), Vogler’s face leans forward in fascination, curiosity and a strange longing as the actor faces death, as if he is longing to touch powers beyond once more. Manda is adamant his powers used to be real, but behind the contemptuous and defiant stare it’s unclear if Vogler knows where he is going.
Not that it matters. He’s still got the star quality to leave Mrs Egerman weak at the knees, desperate to seduce him to touch a part of his magic. And the powers are still there – even in their first meeting, Vegeus feels a flash of discomfort as Vogler’s fixed stare causes his mind to drift (a fear he dismisses in seconds). Its only as Bergman’s film strips down the performance qualities of Vogler – his costume, his make-up, his stage persona – and leaves an off-duty actor, that the dark fascination of his clients finally snaps all together into smug, rationalist contempt.
But that’s not before Vogler turns the table on Vergeus with an unsettling confrontation in a locked loft, after a performance seems to have gone disastrously wrong. It’s Vogler’s intimidating “real performance” to prove he and his troupe can still engross and deceive their audiences. This horror-tinged, mesmeric sequence of reflections, shadows, distant sounds and small movements is another reminder of what a master of the cinema of terror Bergman could have been (imagine he had joined von Sydow for The Exorcist!). It’s a superb sequence that almost shakes Vergeus’ faith in his certainty, before becoming another confirmation of how dismissive audiences are when they find out how the trick was done (no matter the impact it had on them at the time).
The Magician isn’t perfect. The middle of the film spends a little too long with the servants in the belly of the house (a Bergman trope of delight for the love of simple, everyday pleasures among the working classes). But its exploration of rationalism and artistry is fascinating. There are masterful performances (in addition to the earlier named, Ingrid Thulin is outstanding). But there is a lingering sense underneath that perhaps Bergman is gently accusing us of being little better than the rationalists, eager to know how cinema works but then talking it down when we find out. Which I suppose means a review of it rather makes his point.