Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Tartan Video DVD
Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film, The Magician (known elsewhere as The Face), occupies an important place in the Swedish director’s filmography. Immediately following The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and preceding The Virgin Spring and his “Trilogy of Faith”, The Magician lies (both chronologically and thematically) at the heart of one of the most creative and successful periods in Bergman’s career.
Along with all of his films from the 50s and early 60s, The Magician is intimately concerned with the search for God within a chaotic and seemingly godless world order. As in The Seventh Seal, Bergman presents this search allegorically, as a kind of modernist morality play in which the personifications of art, science, politics and religion vie for a definition of the spiritual in an increasingly atheistic universe.
When Dr. Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre arrives in Stockholm in 1846, the group is apprehended immediately by the police for interrogation. Their tribunal consists of the politician Egerman, the police commissioner Starbeck, and the medical councilor Vergérus. These characters are representatives of politics, law and science, and between them they seek to humiliate Vogler and to prove that his claims to supernatural powers of “mind animation” really amount to unscrupulous chicanery. As the man of science, Vergérus in particular is on a mission to explain the inexplicable and to prove that the magician’s offers of vision and transcendence are no match for rationalistic thought.
At least initially, these characters seem to function as archetypes. The rivalry between Vogler and Vergérus illustrates Bergman’s attitudes toward a rivalry between art and science. However, as the film demonstrates, appearances are always deceiving. Bergman’s morality play is performed in a distinctly amoral world where nothing is certain and the neatly instructive solutions of allegory are nowhere to be found.
The old witch, Vogler’s grandmother, may say, “I see what I see and I know what I know,” but for most of the characters in the film (and for the audience) things are never so simple. The film is a period piece and we are immediately presented with images of actors in costume: wigs, false beards, and sideburns. Ingrid Thulin is dressed as a young man, and the patently Nordic Max Von Sydow is made up in a black beard and wig. Bergman subtly breaks down expectations of what constitutes the reality of his film-world: is Thulin playing a man, or is her character playing a man? Is Von Sydow wearing a black wig, or is his character wearing one? As almost all of the characters are heavily costumed, none is quite what he seems to be. For example, when Police Commissioner Starbeck’s wife reveals that her husband wears a hairpiece, she is confirming what the audience has intuited all along.
More than any of the characters, Dr. Vogler resists easy definition, and the film’s central question asks whether he is a true mystic and miracle-maker or simply a charlatan — a mere magician. With his black costume and his feigned dumbness, the magician projects a mysterious persona, like a vision from his “laterna magica”. Consequently, most of the characters see only what they want to see in him. His inscrutable face becomes a mirror wherein they can read their deepest fears and desires. Mrs. Egerman, the consul’s wife mourning the death of her daughter, believes that Vogler is her soulmate, her confessor, and a messenger from God. “I’ve longed for you. My thoughts have been with you, I’ve lived your life… I understand why you have come… You will tell me why my child died. What God meant. That is why you have come. To console my grief and lift the burden of my guilt.” She then invites the magician to her bedroom, and although she later claims that it was Vogler who seduced her, it is clear she is seducing herself. She has projected onto Volger’s face the likeness of a savior. Later in the film, when she sees the real Vogler, dressed in rags, stuttering and groveling for money, she recoils in horror.
Thus, Bergman characterizes the relationship of the “Magnetic Health Theatre” to the other characters, and more generally, that of the artist to his audience. Vogler and his troupe do not have any real magical powers, nor are they all unscrupulous charlatans, rather the other characters believe what they want to believe about the magician and his fellow performers. Enticed by the prospect of contact with the supernatural, or of the erotic potency promised by Granny’s love potions, the other characters are not the victims of Vogler’s deception but of their own. This is illustrated by Sofia the cook, who falls for Vogler’s assistant, Tubal, even though she knows him to be a swindler. “The main thing isn’t the faith, but the power,” Tubal surmises. “Sofia felt the power.” It is not important that she believe in magic in general, only that she let herself believe in his trickery.
Nonetheless, there are at least two characters who are able to look past the enigmatic Dr. Vogler’s façade and see him for who he really is: an embittered and misanthropic artist whose career and faith in himself are in serious doubt. One is the moribund actor, Johan Spegel, who is the only character to see that Vogler is disguised behind a false beard and make-up: “Are you a swindler who needs to conceal his face?” Spegel recognizes that Vogler is a fraud because Spegel himself is one, a performer whose career has been spent in search of great transcendence, “a large general truth somewhere in the backdrop,” but who has only found failure and ruin. The two characters are deeply connected: Spegel (whose name translates into “mirror”) becomes a foil for Vogler and an image of what he might become. He is a ghostly reflection of the magician himself “in disintegration,” with his patchy beard and ragged stovepipe hat, decaying versions of Vogler’s own features. Bengt Ekerot, who plays Spegel, played the role of Death in The Seventh Seal, but here he is a less spectral presence and more of a figure of very tangible, very human decomposition.
There is another character able to see the real Vogler, and that is his wife, Manda, who disguises herself as the magician’s apprentice, Aman. Unlike Spegel and Vogler, Manda has not quite started down the path to disintegration and failure. She is still a “believer”, as the shrewd, yet callous Vergérus observes, still clinging to the hope of the “just once” when real transcendence will occur. She has not quite ruled out the possibility of miracle over magic that Vogler has all but abandoned.
Yet even in the film’s climax — a maelstrom of ghoulish visions with which Vogler terrifies and chastens the pompous Vergérus — Bergman carefully avoids any direct affirmation of the transcendent. Vergérus’ visions are induced by Vogler using entirely theatrical means — “devices, mirrors, projections” perhaps, but chicanery nonetheless. This is magic, and not miracle; it is the human approximation of the transcendent, not the genuine article.
So, whereas the medical councilor is shown the full extent and talent of the magician’s “magnetic theatre,” Vergérus is right to say that Vogler has inspired in him “the fear of death — nothing more.” Even in this small victory of fantasy over rationality, the film still denies that there is anything truly supernatural in Vogler’s bag of tricks. Bergman, like Vogler, is merely a magician with a few tricks up his sleeve — smoke, mirrors, Erik Nordgren’s eerie soundtrack, or the chiaroscuro of Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography. But if the artist cannot present his audience with the inexplicable, he can at least remind them of it. The specter of death lurks in every corner of Bergman’s work; the alluring threat of oblivion is the nearest approximation of transcendence that his film-world depicts. As the mural painter of The Seventh Seal noted, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.”