A Portrait of the Artist: Olivier Assayas on Bergman’s The Magician
This essay originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. Translated by Stephen Sarrazin.
The Magician is one of Bergman’s most enigmatic films, perhaps his underground masterpiece, one of the keys to his cinema.
Traveling actors, maids flirting about, a love potion, a happy ending, and diabolical apparitions—Bergman gives himself to the vertigo of quoting himself. Mourning his past, he makes an inventory of his themes in order to proclaim their end, bringing back all his characters, all his actors, who return for a bow. Everything is there, everyone is there, but beneath, abstraction is at work, mystery rumbles, doubt is gnawing at the whole. For in the center of his moving universe, this baroque forest of signs and symbols, we find a figure, the mesmerist Vogler, Bergman’s first major self-portrait.
It should matter that at this moment in his work he represents himself as—or rather, as wearing the mask of—a mute illusionist who’s lost his faith in his power and knows only how to perpetuate appearances. All that is left for Vogler, the impotent magician who’s unable to invoke his magic, are the accessories of the part: his beard and wig, pathetic subterfuges.
It’s the author, devoured by doubt and taking refuge in silence. He’s isolated, having shut himself off, facing his conscience and demons. Facing the secret of his art, which he’s the only one to know doesn’t exist, that there is no secret, that the king is naked.
Haunted by his imposture, which could be revealed at any instant, his only way out, his final entrenchment, is his work, its artifice, its ritual, make-believe as long as possible. For when he’s able to make others believe, there is a possibility that out of nothingness, won from emptiness, magic happens.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful images of the artist, carried by the irrational, by the mysteries of his private life, unaware of the nature of his power, building on a void, endlessly challenged to explain and justify himself before reason, which takes on the form of Dr. Vergérus’s materialism.
Vergérus, obsessed with the desire to unmask Vogler, to publicly humiliate him, harbors a dark and secret purpose under the guise of scientific truth. This cold, rational mind initially hates Vogler for what he holds and what he, Vergérus, will never possess. He is envious of Vogler’s access to the irrational, which escapes him, just as he covets, as sordidly, Vogler’s wife, Manda.
Vergérus does not doubt; he believes in Vogler’s art, he’s convinced. But he also knows Vogler’s torments, his uncertainty and how vulnerable it makes him, how much control he abandons to him.
Beneath this hideous figure, one of the worst incarnations of Bergman’s phobia of criticism and exegesis—which he nonetheless frenetically feeds in The Magician—we find the first sinister incarnation of the kind of evil that moves throughout his cinema, and that we will reencounter bearing the same name, appearing each time more terrifying, as in The Serpent’s Egg, already growing in The Magician, and of course in the very similar Fanny and Alexander.
Like the Vergéruses, the Voglers haunt Bergman’s cinema, and the confrontation between them makes for one of its major axes. In Persona, Elisabeth Vogler will be the doubting artist plunged, again, in silence. In Hour of the Wolf, Veronica Vogler will be the instrument of painter Johan Borg’s humiliation (“I thank you. Shame has finally been attained”). And, in closing, but it was coming, Erland Josephson will be the director Henrik Vogler in After the Rehearsal.
But it’s the pastor Ericsson from Winter Light who answers the magician first, four years later. He has also lost his faith; he no longer has anything to say and is carrying on only for the sake of appearance. But meanwhile, the illusion has disappeared, there is no magic, and the miracle doesn’t happen. The gestures in the ceremony are an end in themselves. Religion has become a mechanical ritual, yet necessary in easing the suffering of some disinherited who are not unlike ourselves, a few tormented souls who’ve found refuge in it. But there’s nothing behind, and nothing beyond. And this time, Bergman has made a clean break with the idealism of his youth. In The Magician, he hasn’t taken that step. Vogler dominates, he wins over Vergérus, faith has a meaning, magic exists. Bergman says so, but he no longer believes.
And with this cathartic film, profoundly mysterious, violent, and cruel, he signals the work to come, confronting risk, abstraction, abandon.