The Magician (1958)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 40min

The Magician has neither the severity of Ingmar Bergman’s more metaphorical dramas nor the light-hearted grace of his comedies, and yet there is an offbeat blend of both here which thrives in the performative scams of one travelling troupe. Max von Sydow is their bearded leader, Albert, specialising in ‘animal magnetism’ and conducting an aura of mystery through his apparent muteness. He is joined by his talkative assistant Tubal, his wife Manda who publicly presents as her male alter ego Mr Aman, and Granny Vogler, an old crone with an affinity for potions. Their driver Simson guides the company’s carriage through stark landscapes and misty forests, wary of authorities who may be tracking them down, and yet as a collective they nevertheless relish their bohemian lifestyle.

Bergman opens The Magician with these gorgeous long shots, framing his sharp horizons and misty forests to perfection.

Their arrival in a small, Swedish village headed by the curious Consul Egerman offers them an audience of varied interests. Public officials bet on Albert’s apparently supernatural abilities, with Dr Vergerus leading the sceptical charge against them. Elsewhere, the consul’s wife Ottilia desperately requests that the travelling charlatan contact her dead daughter, and a pair of naïve maids fall easily for Granny’s stories. While Sanna fearfully submits to the lie that the old woman is a 200-year-old witch, Sara wilfully consumes rat poison that Granny has disguised as an aphrodisiac, and ventures off to dark room with Simson in tow.

If these are the spectators of Albert’s grand lies and performances, then the magician may be representative of Bergman himself – an artist who is as equally frustrated by his blindest followers as he is his harshest critics. Perhaps he lumps himself in that latter category as well. When Albert steps away from the stage, his insecurities rise to the surface, peeling off his fake beard with quiet regret and recognising the hollowness of his act. There is little reward to be found in this profession, eventually leading Granny to abandon it altogether, and Manda to confess her guilt to a smarmy Dr Vergerus.

“Pretense, false promises, double bottoms. A miserable, rotten lie through and through. We’re the most pathetic rabble you could find.”

Bergman stages his actors across multiples layers of the frame with a magnificent depth of field, crafting tension in his ensemble.

With an ensemble as rife with conflict as this, The Magician’s deep focus photography flourishes in its tensions and alliances, visually dividing them into units which themselves are internally fractured. Such rich illustrations of character relationships are not unusual for Bergman, who just the previous year delivered his strongest films to date in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, but new to his stylistic repertoire here are the dolly shots pushing in on his actors’ faces. It is a fitting match for these characters who demand the attention of audiences. The shadows that Bergman elegantly passes across their features in these cropped close-ups draw us even deeper into their shame, fear, and menace, though he reserves his greatest plunge into an unstable mind for Albert’s greatest con.

Cropped close-ups and sharp lighting drawing us into Max von Sydow’s largely silent performance.
Bergman’s blocking of faces is always on point, casting Sanna in a soft light and Granny’s with harsher lights as she looms over the young maid.

After briefly humiliating the Police Superintendent’s wife and a local stableman with his hypnotic tricks, the charlatan appears to collapse onstage, dead from a heart attack. Dr Vergerus takes on the task of his conducting the autopsy, though soon he begins to feel the presence of some unsettled spirit. Bergman’s cinematography and storytelling here moves directly into the realm of psychological horror – disembodied hands creep slowly into frames, dirtied mirrors catch skewed angles of ghostly apparitions, and the production design itself seems to trap the doctor in its dusty, Gothic clutter. Albert lurks in the shadows, often cast in either pale light or complete darkness, eventually leaving his indistinct profile to loom over the face of a terrified Dr Vergerus.

Bergman submits to psychological horror as Albert haunts his the sceptical Dr Vergerus, pulling out some magnificently eerie shots with his Gothic production design and lighting.

This isn’t just an act of revenge for Albert, but an attempt to definitively prove that even the most hardened cynics can be duped with the right spectacle. Even then though, this struggle between faith and reason is not so easily put to rest. The arrival of police in the film’s final minutes might seem to be the end for these fugitive performers, giving Dr Vergerus good reason to gloat over their defeat – until they are extended an invitation to perform at the Royal Palace by the King’s own request. Bergman’s sharp and sudden veer into comedy at the film’s conclusion marks a final victory for his seemingly indestructible artists. They are scapegoats, bohemians, and cheats, but to root these parasitic entertainers out of a free society is an impossible task in The Magician. It is a nifty metaphor that the Swedish director uses here to turn a critical eye towards his own craft, and in his underhanded visual and narrative manipulations, he lightly exposes the fraud that unites him with his critics.

The Magician is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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