Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Magician" by Ingmar Bergman

A fair selection of identities in the Ingmar Bergman canon serve as metaphorical projections of the director’s own inner workings, but none confront his thinking as directly as Dr. Vogler does in his mysterious “The Magician.” The great French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, a champion of those cathartic sensibilities, once referred to it as his “first self-portrait,” and perhaps in that statement it is apropos to consider the central implication in greater context. While the emerging artists of international cinema were still discovering their identity in the 1950s, their endeavors reflected a negation of the melodramatic tendencies of Hollywood, and instead sought to challenge the sweeping deceptions by telling stories that existed close to their eager (and often weathered) hearts. The examples left behind by Ozu, Clouzot, Kurosawa, Goddard, Fellini and even Truffaut were the embodiment of that sentiment, an anchoring dose of evidence in perpetuating the concept of auteur theory. But by the time Bergman got involved in the movement, it was no longer just a matter of recognizing those sentiments in a mere yarn; to him, they had to be visualized in the sincere faces of his actors, all of whom didn’t so much occupy space in a narrative as they exemplified a personal thesis within the framework of his meditative thought process.

Some of them, like Vogler, existed as direct and timely mirrors of their creator. Others, like the aged professor in “Wild Strawberries,” played more loosely with the concept. In many cases, they became an outlet that Bergman used to deal with paralyzing questions about the enigma of mortal sensations. As the years went on those sorts of avatars would slowly move beyond the sphere of mere considerations, but there is a collective abstruseness in them that make his movies such continually fascinating subjects, even apart from their striking visuals. One gathers, in this perspective, we learn just as much about the creator as his creation. “The Magician,” one of his more obscure, came and went in fog between the successes of “The Seventh Seal” and “The Virgin Spring,” but its silence through the decades has only given it a tenuous momentum. Today it comes to us in a rush of new and exciting wonders, and strikes a chord that is equal parts fascinating, disturbing, frustrating and comical. Like the subject it portrays, it is a movie that genuinely seems to sense the guilty delight of life’s unending irony.

Aficionados of the Bergman doctrine might find that prospect outlandish in relation to his more popular endeavors. Similar to some of the more important European voices of the time, this was a man that rose to art-house infamy on the laurels of later and more serious accomplishments, obscuring the realization that his earlier work was, at the heart, more optimistic in nature. There are distinct divides between the stylistic implications of, say, a movie like “Smiles of a Summer Night” (one of his most cheery) and “The Silence” (a more morose example), but in a sweep of consideration they reveal the full character of their author, a man who once sensed the hidden pleasures of the human experience but then allowed his assurance to erode under the weight of apathy, loathing and spiritual frustration. His later films are celebrated for their artistic austerity, but without the neo-realistic prowess of his earlier endeavors solidifying that confidence, would he have been brave enough to take such a daring plunge into existentialism?

“The Magician” shows us that internal engine dancing on the jagged edges of such a transition. The story tells the tale of a troupe of showmen collectively known as the “Magnetic Health Theater,” who wander aimlessly from town to town using colorful oratory to sell fake potions and cures, concoct enthusiasm for sumptuous illusions and inspire responses that are beyond the sphere of the conventional. Their falsehoods are implied visually in the movie’s opening shot, a framing device of silhouettes against a gray sky backdrop that suggest enigmas in the grand scheme of nature (the image also mirrors one contained in “The Seventh Seal,” involving a dance between Death and his collected souls). What types of people are they, and why is their arrival punctuated by a series of shots that imply foreboding nuances? The impulse of the audience is to fear that which it does not understand, and Bergman establishes his characters on the fringes of the story because we must consider them outside of that dread, lest we get caught up in the narrowed vision of the observing pessimists.

Their arrival in Stockholm, the latest destination on a tour of sardonic deceit, is stirred by dense foreshadowing. Travelling near a riverbank, their carriage picks up an enigmatic drifter on the verge of death, who boldly announces “I think I make a better ghost than human being – something I never was as an actor.” His implication is reflected in the faces of those that seem weathered beyond comprehension, and they arrive in the company of science-minded town supervisors who enhance those feelings with their own brand of scorn. At a meeting preceding their settlement, they cross paths with Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who scrutinizes their presence in a public display of subtle ridicule (“You represent what I despise most of all: the inexplicable”). While they are assigned to stay at the residence of a town merchant, their interactions – both jolly and serious – are bereft of serious considerations. They are seen as clowns, comedians, detached manipulators who can’t be taken at all seriously. The tragedy is that these figures are fully aware of their reality, as if resolved to it by repeating histories; some of them (like Vogler) regard them with deadened eyes and purses lips (not to mention total silence), while others like the sarcastic Granny (Naima Wifstrand) simply bemuse the point by perpetuating their eccentric notions, usually while convincing others to fear or detest what is possible under their command.

Why do they continue to do what they do, even after the movie alludes to years of eroded optimism? If we are to consider their mindset from the angle of their author – who fashioned himself a magician behind the moving camera – then it is because they find a responsibility in the opportunity to inspire emotions, however meaningless or deep. Like a conjurer of tricks in more populist examples, it is not simply about the accuracy or the plausibility of the illusion; it is about inspiring some level of thrill in the observer, who for a brief time is transported beyond the boundaries of reason to question the reliability of their vision, and admire the skill of those manipulating it. The more whimsical personalities – namely Granny and Tubal (Ake Fridell), a smooth-talking ladies man – find decisive results early on among a gathering of female kitchen servants when they attempt to pitch them a love potion, but their jovial reactions and lighthearted banter, however precarious, are meant to emphasize a more central context. Simpler minds are more likely to consider the ideas of others with pleasing sentiments, but others more cynical – and harder to convince – require a deeper level of trickery, and often must be brought to the brink of outright horror in order to feel anything substantial.

Using a perceptive screenplay that he fashioned out of the remnants of an old stage play, Bergman brings together personas that adopt the conviction of artists and their judges, each representing the thought process (or the cynicism) of the human mind as it considers the placement of certain creative values. Vogler’s troupe is assembled out of characters that each exemplify the varying stages of artistic defense, and the observers (many of them male) are sarcastic, biting and unpleasant sorts that refuse to comprehend the philosophy of “magic,” because to do so would violate their acceptance of scientific reasoning. If peripheral voices offer only soundbites worth of critique, then it is because their spearhead, Dr. Vergerus, must stand as the primary voice of dissent. The first interactions between he and his new arrivals are patient but antagonistic, and his dialogue is of a shrewd quality; it suggests hostility under the mask of respect. Because Vogler does not speak, that only exacerbates his nemesis’ sense of vitriol, and once the film brings them to a moment where they must engage in physical exchanges after Vergerus throws himself at his wife, one gathers that their shared dislike is made so by the rudiments of their egos rather than any sense of personal grudge.

Many modern films about similar subjects share these commonalities, ranging from Chris Nolan’s “The Prestige” to Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” and if they work against the misconception that magicians must be silly carnival sideshows, it is because they come into the grasp of filmmakers who attach some level of striking audacity to the narratives. Not to be undone by any of the immense secrets possessed by the central players, “The Magician” marks a critical moment when Bergman, a facilitator of bold risks, began stretching the possibilities of his art. This was essentially the first film out of European cinema to include a sequence in which a character suggestively woos a woman into her bedroom (“It makes one hot under the corset,” she announces suggestively), and another where we see two young lovers drift under the camera frame while playfully removing articles of clothing from one another. Volger’s wife, who appears in the early scenes as his male assistant, essentially gives birth to the notion of androgyny; some have called the actress, the lovely Ingrid Thulin, cinema’s first cross-dresser. And though not necessarily a gamble, Vogler’s impenetrable silence in the early scenes operates as an indicator of what would be used a decade later in “Persona,” also about someone who goes mute in protest of the flawed human condition.

The movie conveys all of these prospects not just in the power of oratorical persuasion, either. Gunnar Fischer, who was Bergman’s trusted cinematographer for many of his earliest endeavors, matches them in evocative imagery that recalls the deep and menacing contrasts of film noir. Notice how stark many of the scenes involving Vogler are compared to the ones involving Tubal and Granny; because he is an enigma shrouded in uncertainties, Fischer objectifies him in moments of impenetrable shadow, suggesting an almost supernatural quality. The final sequence, involving an autopsy and the subsequent emerging of a ghostly apparition that may or may not belong to the deceased, is innovative in the way it takes the dramatic intensity of the previous hour and twists it into a moment of genuine terror and uncertainty. There are no musical cues or abrupt edits to muddy the moment, and Fischer’s gradual tracking of a lone figure in a cloud of darkness carries an undeniable power to raise emotional stakes. And Max von Sydow, usually so present in his roles, literally disappears into the persona because of how clever the lighting and the camerawork are at redirecting our curiosity. Behind the elaborate mask of fake beards and mustaches, deep eyes and dejected facial expressions is a man of intent conviction, but to know the identity of the actor is, perhaps, a violation of the story’s core sentiments. “The Magician” doesn’t want to just tell us how ambiguous the circumstances are – it wants us to sense them in the eyes of those pulling the puppet strings.

Bergman dealt with a lengthy history of Vergerus types in his tenor as a filmmaker (Harry Schein, the famous film critic, was said to have inspired the character), and from nearly every perspective he challenged those perceptions not with vitriol or spite, but with empathy. In nearly every movie that contains those sorts of cynics, they are often at the center of personal uncertainties, even fears; they are the emotions that restrict them from embracing more informed perspectives. For the most famous of Swedish filmmakers, however, satire and mocking inclinations were only the baseline chords in dealing with those types, and in a career that offered consistent metaphorical rhythms, characters like Vergerus eventually overwhelmed his thoughts, leading him down a road of paralyzing melancholy. If it is true, as Francois Truffaut suggested, that cinema should be about the joy or agony of the filmmaking process, then “The Magician” is Bergman’s division between those sentiments, a film that shows a man at the mercy of his art because of the demanding wars placed upon him by those who could not comprehend it.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"The Magician" is the fifteenth article in this series.

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