The Magician Review
What makes a director 'difficult' ? Perhaps it's their personal obsessions, which are so far away from our own as to be incomprehensible. Maybe it’s that they are complex visual stylists whose images carry far more weight than their narratives. It could simply be that most audiences can't be bothered to think about the films they are watching and simply want entertainment to wash over them like a comforting shower of rain at the end of summer. I raise this question in addressing the work of Ingmar Bergman because there seems to be a perception, often among people who have never watched one of his films, that he is well nigh impossible to understand and must therefore be approached with caution. It's undeniably true that some of his work is willfully obscure on first viewing and that his own concerns are sometimes so personal that its hard to grasp exactly what he's getting at. Yet his films remain - give or take a few failed experiments - gripping, exciting and often unbearably moving on a simple, kinetic level of cinema. The only items of equipment required to enjoy a Bergman film are eyes, ears and a receptive mind.
If I sound like an evangelist, that's because watching his work in sequence over the past month or two has persuaded me that Bergman is the greatest European filmmaker I have ever encountered, and I want other people to see what I've seen in films which are sometimes derided as 'pretentious' or 'cold'. Like David Cronenberg, another great and 'difficult' filmmaker, Bergman's coldness is all on the surface, covering emotion so extreme that it can be hard to watch. If you feel a frosty distance when watching his films then look deeper, think more broadly and experience his extraordinary ability to hot-wire into your emotions. This evangelism is all the more significant for me because I used to be in the 'pretentious' camp. When I was younger and even more foolish than I am now, I thought that anything I didn't understand must be pretentious or overreaching - because, of course, my own range of understanding was the be-all and end-all of art and like most young people, I thought I knew better than anyone else. But as I get older, Bergman speaks to me and I'm much more inclined to listen. I don't always understand every little part of the films - indeed, I have read several great writers on Bergman and still failed to understand parts of The Rite and the wonderful, baffling Persona. But, as T.S.Eliot once suggested, understanding is not an essential part of appreciating art. Basic emotional connection and response can be just as important as comprehension. If one watches Wild Strawberries and worries about teasing out the significance of every image in the dream sequence but fails to be moved by the endlessly beautiful sadness of Victor Sjostrom's face, then one has 'understood' everything yet missed the entire point of the film.
The Magician, made in 1958, is a case in point. This is Bergman at his most iconoclastic, full of private jokes and self-reference, but it's also a very funny sex comedy, the tragedy of a man without a face, a study of science versus magic and one of the most effective exercises in Gothic terror on film. Switching genres at will, Bergman creates an extraordinary atmosphere of the fantastic, so much so that the film becomes an illustration of its own point.
Max Von Sydow, by this time a regular in Bergman's films, plays Albert Vogler, a travelling illusionist who hawks his ramshackle Magnetic Health Theatre around Europe, playing for royalty and constantly on the run from those elements of the state who consider them dangerous fraudsters. The year is 1848 - two years before the illusion of an ordered Europe will itself fall apart in a series of revolutions - and the film takes place over the course of one night and the following morning. Arriving in a small town, the troupe - consisting of Vogler, his cross-dressing wife Manda (Thulin), the barker Tubal (Fridell), the Grandmother (Wifstrand) who may also be a witch, and young Simson (Ekborg), who works the mechanics of the illusions - is caught at the border and taken in for questioning by three officials. These men, all products of a particularly unpleasant bourgeois complacency, are medical examiner Vergerus (Bjornstrand), police chief Starbuck (Pawlo) and consul Egerman (Josephson). Vergerus, a rationalist who regards anything even hinting at the supernatural to be dangerous to society, is determined to demonstrate that Vogler is a fake, and his determination is sealed by a bet with the superstitious Egerman that all magic is fraudulent.
So begins one of Bergman's most teasingly suggestive films. What appears to be a straight clash between science - Vergerus - and magic - Vogler - is immediately complicated when we discover that Vogler doesn't believe in his magical powers any more than Vergerus does. His own refusal to speak is as much part of his act as the sleight-of-hand illusions he performs so brilliantly and he is disturbed when Egerman's wife takes him for a genuine shaman who can explain God's purpose in taking her son from her. Bergman is certainly seeking to debunk the madness of believing everything can be explained. Through the character of Vergerus - a name, which recurs in his work and is always associated with, at the very least, lack of emotion or sometimes total heartlessness - he satirises scientific tunnel vision and small-mindedness. It's also suggested that Vergerus' own belief in the ability of science to explain all is a kind of superstition in itself. But Bergman also demonstrates how an illusionist, seeking to persuade others of magic while being strictly rational himself, can become imprisoned in his own illusions through the belief of those others. Indeed, the name Vogler has also been repeated, in a related context, as the name of the actress in Persona.
This idea of the illusionist who manipulates others connects with another great Bergman theme, the 'silence' of God. At one point, we are reminded that "God remains silent and the people speak" and life seems to be a downward spiral of unknowable emptiness - "One goes step by step by step by step into the darkness". If we take God to be the ultimate illusionist then he may also be caught up in his illusions, existing because people believe in him and constantly asked to provide miracles which he can't (or won't) supply. To extend the metaphor even further, film itself is an illusion based on a trick of the eye, the persistence of vision, which convinces us that still pictures move. We are conned into believing 24 times every second and we love it, want more of it. We connive in our own deception perhaps because we want to believe so intensely, just like the wife wants to believe that Vogler has a hotline to the almighty or Vergerus wants to believe that all in life is rational.
This idea of illusion versus reality extends into the other characters. Mr Aman, spokesman for the mute Vogler, is really Vogler's wife, played by the remarkable Ingrid Thulin, and it is Vergerus's discovery of this - and his opening of his heart to her - that leads to his eventual undoing. The actor that the theatre meets along the road, Spegel (Ekerot), appears to die but then returns as an all too corporeal 'ghost' before dying once again. The coachman Andersson succumbs to the illusion of being wrapped in chains but is unable to escape from it so hangs himself. The barker for the illusionists, Tubal, appears to be an obnoxious showman but is really a man who longs for a quiet life by the fireside. Even the seemingly dead may return to life, as they appear to in the terrifying climax. Duality erupts everywhere; illusion/reality; body/spirit; life/death; light/shadow; sanity/madness; rational/irrational. Bergman makes his theme clear in every moment of the film and is at his least obscure despite trying to lure us away from the scent.
The Magician has more ideas than it knows what to do with, but Bergman suddenly draws us straight back into the narrative with horrifying immediacy as the tables are turned on Vergerus, and Vogler exacts a terrifying price for his humiliation in front of the Consul. Forget the ideas, forget the metaphors and simply relish the way that Bergman demonstrates his ability to genuinely unnerve you. It's almost as if he's tired of the intellect and wants to get back to the basics of film. A creaky bag of tricks perhaps, once you get your breath back, but as pure cinema it is one of the great moments of horror. Then, to top it all, the film ends with a witty piece of irony that may be a joke at Bergman's own expense.
The performances are note-perfect throughout. Max Von Sydow, sometimes a rather cold and unsympathetic actor, is perfectly cast as Vogler, required to be mute for the first hour and then to have something approaching a quiet nervous breakdown. His first words are "I hate them" - them being all the people he meets, believers and debunkers alike. Gunnar Bjornstrand is also at his best here, playing Vergerus with just the right degree of self-satisfaction to make us heartily satisfied when he gets his just reward. His performance was a particular joy to Bergman who had patterned the character after an unsympathetic critic, Harry Schein. It would be a shame to neglect to mention Ake Fridell who makes Tubal just obnoxious enough without rendering him unwatchably hammy.
The Magician - sometimes known as The Face - is a joy to watch because it's an example of a great filmmaker and his collaborators in complete control of his material. The monochrome images are beautifully created by Gunnar Fischer. Moment to moment the imagery is extraordinary, especially in the theatrical illusions. Oscar Rosander's editing is heartstoppingly precise during the Gothic climax. If some of Bergman's work can be considered pretentious - although I will be challenging that assumption in later reviews - The Magician is far from pretention. It is a fully realised, consistent work of art.
In the absence of a full special edition of this film, Tartan's release (part of their Bergman Collection) is well worth a look. It's a very good presentation of the film despite being sadly lacking in the extras department.
The film is presented in its original Academy ratio of roughly 1.33:1. This is not a mistake incidentally so don't worry that you're not getting the 'proper' widescreen presentation. It's an excellent transfer in virtually every way. The contrast is superb, bringing subtle shadings to the black and white images. Shadow detail is beautifully sharp and there are no artifacting problems. The only criticism is that the print used for the transfer seems to be slightly damaged, with white speckling occurring from time to time.
The soundtrack is equally pleasing. It's Swedish Mono, as you would expect, and it is pleasingly short on hiss - the main problem with The Seventh Seal - or distortion. Nothing spectacular but exactly what is required.
There are English subtitles provided but these are not burnt in and can be turned off.
The extras are almost all text based. There are some helpful film notes by Ronald Bergan and a lengthy extract from the book "Images: My Life In Film", which is a series of conversations from 1994 with Bergman about his films. If you really want to explore Bergman's films then this book is essential reading, along with his 1987 autobiography "The Magic Lantern". We get also filmographies for Von Sydow, Thulin, Bjornstrand and Bergman and a pointless image gallery consisting of five badly chosen stills. There is also a lengthy trailer for the Bergman Collection.
I recommend The Magician without hesitation and Tartan's DVD offers a very good presentation. It's a little expensive for what it offers but if you are collecting the whole series or can find the disc discounted (it's under £15 from several online retailers) then it's unlikely to be a disappointment.