Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician relates the story of Dr. Albert Vogler (played by the wonderful Max von Sydow), the eponymous magician, coming into town to perform with the rest of his troupe. After the leaders of this town (believers of science rather than magic) hear of Vogler’s arrival, they request a small performance before the public is allowed to see their full magical act. These scientifically-minded leaders try to reveal Vogler and his troupe as impostors, but Vogler has a few tricks up his sleeves. This is a wonderful film, a much darker tale than I expected (though there are still some moments of comedy, especially from Granny Vogler), and it shows a different side of Bergman. I feel that it is quite a personal film; it’s probably not as personal as Fanny and Alexander (which, I must say, I began but couldn’t finish), but one can easily tell that Bergman equates himself with Dr. Vogler.
Just like The Night of the Hunter, light and shadows play a particular role in The Magician; it’s almost like its own character. And, just like Laughton’s film, this film is quite gothic, becoming an amalgamation of horror and romance. The majority of the film takes place within a single house, and so we get characters from the troupe interacting with characters within the house, which helps create the romance and comedy found within the film. The horror is seen mostly towards the end of the film when Dr. Vogler feigns his death and comes back to “haunt” Dr. Vergerus, the Minister of Health (who is strictly thinking in the scientific sense). An interesting thing that I found within the film, besides these shadows, is that von Sydow does not speak until there is only 35 minutes left in the film, which I find to be unquestionably cruel on Bergman’s part. Dr. Vogler is not mute, but he pretends to do so, along with disguising himself physically by use of a wig and fake hair.
Dr. Vogler certainly looks brooding here, doesn’t he? It’s also very off-putting (at least to me) because we don’t see von Sydow’s iconic white blond hair. His stark white face is unnerving as he lurks out of the shadows. The Swedish title of the film, Ansiktet, translates to The Face, which means much more so than The Magician does. In Peter Cowie’s visual essay on the Criterion release of the film, he explicates that this film is about the many faces a person dons, and how those faces crumble when one gets closer to someone else. This is undeniably true when considering Dr. Vogler. We only see his true face when he takes off his wig and begins speaking to his wife, Manda (who, ironically enough, is posing as Dr. Vogler’s male apprentice, Mr. Aman, donning her own “face”). Von Sydow looks very stoic here, and yet also quite threatening. The shadows upon his face truly create a feeling of panic and fear. His eyes look dead, too, which is interesting because I certainly feel that he is tired of this magic act (until he is invited to perform his act for the King on July 14th, which is, coincidentally, Bergman’s birthday).
The picture above is from a scene in which the woman of this house, Ottilia Egerman, is declaring her love for Dr. Vogler. This scene really stood out for me, for multiple reasons. Perhaps the most prominent reason is the use of the hand. Knowing that Dr. Vogler cannot speak (or, rather, he chooses not to), all we need to do is look at his hand to know what he is feeling. He is digging his fingernails into the palm of his hand because he is already married, and yet Mrs. Egerman is stating how much she loves him but he cannot respond. This is Vogler’s way of communication; though you cannot see it, he is wearing a wedding ring, so either Mrs. Egerman just doesn’t see it or just doesn’t care. What’s even more heartbreaking is the fact that Mr. Egerman is watching all of this play out:
Now, this is a fun shot because Mr. Egerman is both in a bright light from an 1846 projector-like machine and in intense shadows. Both men are suffering in this scene because neither can communicate to Mrs. Egerman their feelings about the situation: Vogler literally can’t and Egerman is too shocked to comprehend.
This last scene is at the end of the film in which, after believing he had just done an autopsy on Dr. Vogler, Dr. Vergerus sees that this is not the case. This is at the climax of the film where Dr. Vogler is chasing after Dr. Vergerus to give him, and us, a good scare (which he most certainly does). I got a very dark Hitchcockian vibe from this part of the film because it is truly suspenseful and fearful. Just when Vergerus believes he is safe, we discover that he is not out of the clear. Now, don’t worry, Vogler doesn’t kill him or anything: it’s merely a frightening trick, that’s all. Not only does it have a Hitchcock essence, but I’m also reminded of those great Universal monster films and German Expressionist films of the 19-teens and twenties (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I truly love this section of the film because the lighting and the shadows created from it certainly evoke fear, panic, suspense, and terror.
I did feel that the ending of the film, otherwise being perfect, was a bit odd whereas the music is concerned. There isn’t much music in the film to begin with, but in the very last scene we hear a triumphant fanfare; it seems out of place for me, but I think I know what Bergman was getting at. If we believe that Vogler and Bergman are one in the same, and that Bergman feels that he cannot communicate what he wants to (at least to the film studio), then we can get a triumphant feeling when Vogler begins to speak again and is invited to perform his magic act for the King of Sweden. Vogler is getting verification of his ability to perform as a magician and to be who he is, and that’s what Bergman is looking for as well (there have been many Bergman films before this film was released, and audiences, according to Peter Cowie, were growing a bit tiresome of them). That’s the only real reason I can think of for the sort of out of place fanfare music we get at the end of the film.
This really is one of my favorite films that just begs to be watched more than once. I’m sure it contains much more symbolism than I’m picking up (I have only watched it once).
Has anyone else seen this Bergman masterpiece? Share your thoughts if you would like!
Thanks for reading!