The Magician: Through a Glass Drolly

On Film / Essays — Oct 12, 2010

Ingmar Bergman’s Ansiktet (1958)—the title literally translates as The Face, though in North America it was released as The Magician—is arguably one of his most underrated achievements. Its undeservedly lowly standing may perhaps be attributed to its chronological position in a remarkable filmmaking career. A number of critical hits—including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957)—had recently won Bergman an illustrious international reputation, albeit as a northern genius rather morbidly preoccupied with death. And the trilogy produced not long after The Magician—consisting of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963)—was so intense that it reinforced any notions that might already have existed of Bergman as a cool, cruel maestro consumed by his own profound anguish concerning a godless universe. The Magician struck some as a little frivolous in comparison to such work: much of the film was in the comic register, and what’s more, the sequence that constituted its dramatic climax sounded echoes of the populist horror genre. Even as late as 1969, Robin Wood, a very perceptive critic generally well-disposed to Bergman’s work, wrote in his book on the director: “Besides a horror sequence that doesn’t horrify, The Face boasts comedy that doesn’t make us laugh and anguish that entirely fails to move.” Well, finding things funny or scary is famously a subjective affair, and much as this particular writer admires the criticism of the late, often very great Mr. Wood, he here begs to differ. The first time I saw The Magician, I found the “horror sequence” deeply disturbing, and many years later, after repeated viewings, I still find much of the film funny, and its coda surprisingly affecting.

Surprisingly, perhaps, because one doesn’t necessarily expect to be moved by a film that’s part comedy, part pastiche of horror tropes. It’s not only in the aforementioned sequence that we find the Swedish master having fun with virtuoso chiaroscuro effects, unsettling compositions and cuts, and a stifling sense of menace, but also in the film’s opening, which boasts a witchlike crone murmuring of ghosts and devils and spitting at crows—creatures superstitiously linked to death. It’s a hauntingly moody overture—the misty forest glade (in actual fact a copse close to the Svensk Filmindustri building in Stockholm’s suburbs) is very deftly evoked by Gunnar Fischer’s lustrous monochrome photography.Within minutes, though, any suggestion that supernatural forces are at work is called into question when Spegel (Bengt Ekerot), an ailing, drunken actor offered space in the coach transporting the mesmerist Dr. Vogler’s traveling troupe, including the old woman (Naima Wifstrand), points out to Vogler (Max von Sydow) the obviousness of his disguise, which intriguingly (and, it transpires, fittingly) makes him look at once faintly Christlike and faintly diabolical.

Thereafter, the story proper begins, when the troupe—having already met with charges of fraud and blasphemy in various European cities—is commanded to appear at the mansion of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) and his wife (Gertrud Fridh), who, unlike their guests Dr. Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Chief of Police Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo), are keen to learn more about the kind of “animal magnetism” Vogler professes to practice. Starbeck, however, wants to test the veracity of claims made by the troupe in local advertisements and, in cahoots with the rigidly rationalist Vergérus, insists a performance be staged, at which, they wager, Vogler will be revealed once and for all as a charlatan. Their plan is largely successful; moreover, Vergérus discovers that Vogler’s assistant is in fact his wife, Manda (Ingrid Thulin), in disguise as a man, and when he tries to turn her against her husband, a fight develops that leaves Vogler bent on revenge.

Thus The Magician sits alongside Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), and The Ritual (1969) as one of Bergman’s portraits of the artist as an all too human, less than wholly honest manipulator of others. Acutely self-critical, he was highly aware that, as a director in the cinema and the theater, he was using tricks of the trade to persuade audiences that they were witnessing something “real” or “truthful.” Vogler, too, under­stands that his demonstrations of bizarre behavior and miraculous phenomena are in the end a matter of smoke and mirrors, and he’s racked by doubt and self-loathing, made all the worse by the gullibility of many spectators—Mrs. Egerman, for instance, her adoration stemming from a forlorn hope that he’ll somehow cure the enduring grief she feels at her daughter’s death. Many people, the film suggests, are to some extent complicit in the deceptions of which art is necessarily composed—though as Mrs. Egerman’s housekeepers, Sara (Bibi Andersson) and Sofia (Sif Ruud), amusingly reveal in their sly responses to the proffering of love potions by, respectively, Vogler’s cocky coachman and his philistine manager, not all those who are told stories are quite as susceptible in their rapid suspension of disbelief as they may first appear. One can never be entirely sure as to who’s most deceitful, who most deceived.

Like many of the critics whom Bergman and other artists are supposed to impress (at least according to those critics), Vergérus believes that he, at any rate, is invulnerable to Vogler’s mesmerizing powers of persuasion; as he tells the Egermans, were he to allow that some things are inexplicable, he’d be forced to accept that God might exist. As a royal medical adviser, he believes only in that which is demonstrable; indeed, it’s ironic that this deeply skeptical devotee of logic places far more faith in his own art—especially in autopsy, the dispassionate dissection of flesh and bone—than Vogler does in his. Wherein lies an unexpected opportunity for the humiliated illusionist to turn the tables.

It’s no accident, of course, that Bergman, in dramatizing the fraught relationship between rationality and superstition, reality and representation, art and science, has Vogler choose to try to persuade Vergérus, through his own special brand of magic, that the dead can return to life. After all, many of the films he made before and after The Magician—in addition to the titles already mentioned, we should certainly add Cries and Whispers (1972)—deal, with a rare and admirable directness, with the unavoidable fact of our mortality. At the very heart of this film is the conflict between Vogler and Vergérus, who differ primarily in the way they choose to confront life’s mysteries—and of all those mysteries, death is undoubtedly the greatest.

In that horror sequence, Vergérus, tired but reassured after conducting an autopsy on what he thinks is Vogler’s corpse, is suddenly confronted with the terrible possibility that the mesmerist is—as if by a miracle, just minutes later—still alive. While, as I said, I found the scene suspenseful and disturbing the first time I saw the film, I agree with Robin Wood at least insofar as subsequent viewings have diminished its capacity to scare. That’s probably par for the course with many horror films anyway; but the reduced fear quotient is relatively unimportant here, in that Bergman is not in fact making a horror film per se but reminding us how he and Vogler can and do deploy all manner of dramaturgical deceits to make us believe in things that are not only untrue but literally incredible. Even the ultraskeptical Vergérus is momentarily taken in, but anyone watching the film closely will surely ask (just as they probably asked earlier how nobody realized that Manda was very evidently a woman in men’s clothing) quite how this meticulous man of science managed not to notice, during his dissection of the cadaver, that its face belonged not to Vogler but to another: Spegel.

Still, unless we are as devout in our worship of logic as Vergérus, should that bother us so much? After all, Bergman has very purposefully been revealing how easy it is to deceive with a few well-chosen tricks, and this is just one more: call it poetic license, if you will. But it’s poetic in other ways too. Spegel is Swedish for “mirror”; the shattered actor with a desire for death—who not only asks Vogler, “Are you a swindler who must conceal his true face?” but also later tells him, “I didn’t really die, yet [. . .] I think I make a better ghost than human being. I’m finally . . . convincing. Something I never was as an actor”—is surely a reflection of the mesmerist, seen through a glass darkly. Perhaps Vergérus was unable to tell the difference between Vogler and his mirror image because he was blinded, either by his arrogant sense of his own certainty or by its converse: an awareness, deep but finally impossible to conceal from oneself, of one’s own ignorance, unimportance, and mortality. In short, perhaps Vergérus was simply unable, in the end, to take a proper look at the face of Death.

Doubles, echoes, prismatic reflec­tions, and paradoxes abound in The Magician—appropriate for a film about the charlatan nature of creativity that emerged from what Berg­man described as one of the finest times of his life, a period of great collaborative endeavor working in the theater. A slippery ambivalence inflects not only the film’s themes and motifs but also its form—which may not, of course, have helped its critical standing. Despite the widespread success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), many never quite took to the idea that Bergman could be funny. As for his working in genre . . . But it’s more complicated than that. The Magician is a comedy—but one about doubt, despair, humiliation, exploitation, vengefulness, death. It uses horror conventions to virtuoso effect, but with tongue carefully concealed in cheek, to expose the illusionistic deceits not only of that genre but of all film, theater, and art. Neither outright comedy nor straight horror, impossible to pin down simply as an art movie or as popular entertainment, The Magician is admirably rich and strange—and that’s probably why it’s seldom given its due. Time, then, to return to my assessment of its ending as surprisingly affecting. For all its generic slipperiness and its ambivalence toward an artist’s relationship with audiences, collaborators, critics, and him/herself, the film ends on a sudden, unexpected note of sunny (albeit temporary) triumph for Vogler and his partners in the art of illusion. And so it should. Notwithstanding the lies they’ve told, they have entertained us, and deserve our goodwill.