THE MAGICIAN (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)

Ingmar Bergman has a reputation for making stubborn and difficult films. However, his Magician (Ansiktet—literally, The Face) is widely regarded as one of his most accessible works. Because it provides an analysis of human fear, possibly Kierkegaardian dread, it draws upon the familiar genre of the horror film that Bergman’s hallucinatory Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967) would also draw upon. Like so many other Bergman films, moreover, The Magician conjures a black-and-white atmosphere betwixt brooding and fairy-tale menace and enchantment. Formally remarkable, but perhaps not so forthright as some think, the film is lesser Bergman, although intriguing nevertheless.

In Sweden, the first half of the nineteenth century is drawing to a close. In the eighteenth century, Swedish scientist, mathematician, inventor and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg represented the intellectual marriage of rationalism and religion (to Swedenborg, being useful to others constituted worshipping God), but now, a hundred years later, battle lines have been drawn between rationalists and religionists, each group feeling and being threatened by the other. But Bergman isn’t content to let this background to his film rest. Each side in the contest is made contradictory, with each camp waging its own interior battle as it confronts the other camp. The results are a quandary and ambiguities that reflect Bergman’s own time rather than the past. The Magician is an existential nightmare in which a cultural war is riddled and clouded by human uncertainties cloaked in clearly defined theatrical garb.

A performing troupe, Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater, is at the center of the action, thus linking The Magician to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1956) two years earlier, in which, in medieval Sweden following the Crusades, a company of actors also figures prominently. In that film, a plague ravages the homeland upon a knight’s return from war—this, a sign of impending Apocalypse to believers, but, at bottom, a meaningless medical event and a projection of the knight’s horror of war and his disillusionment. The irony is perfect: in leaving home for war in the East, the knight, Antonius Block, had left his homeland unprotected; in doing God’s bidding rather than his fellow man’s, the knight is left to bear the burden of Christendom’s catastrophe. In The Magician, Albert Emanuel Vogler, who heads the itinerant group, seems to the eye a throwback to a time of faith. Among his company is his grandmother (Naima Wifstrand, in a bravura performance), a witch who dabbles in herbs as of old. In a Europe infected by scientific rationalism, Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater offers instead magic, magnetism, mesmerism, in sum, “cerebral animal magnetism”—the promise of spiritual and mental restoration. It’s all a throwback to something else: the therapeutic illusions propagated by theater.

En route to Stockholm, the troupe is detained at a customs post by provincials representing the rationalism that has gripped those of a loftier station than the ordinary folk who frequent Vogler’s demonstrations of psychic phenomena. They have heard of seizures and fainting attacks in audiences at Vogler’s appearances, and they may even be worried about popular uprisings. These officials intend to unmask Vogler as a charlatan, causing his influence to evaporate. That’s the plan. Thus Vogler and the town’s medical officer, Dr. Vergérus, become adversaries, one, an in-effect prisoner who is being compelled by the consul and the chief of police to put on, for their perusal, one of his “performances,” and the other, an arch skeptic poised to expose Vogler as a fraud. But Vogler arranges an elaborate, private, unannounced performance that strikes retributively at Vergérus for the humiliations to which the latter has subjected him and his troupe. In the process, the rationalist will be brought face-to-face with his own quaking fear of the unknown. The one who sought to reveal Vogler’s true nature will be shown to be, underneath his rationalist façade, a childish believer in dreadful supernatural forces. He will be reduced to primitive impulses; it is he who will be exposed as a fraud.

This tables-turning accounts for the greater degree of fun that The Magician, compared with other moody Bergman films, is able to generate. One of its principal assets is the lead performance by Max von Sydow as Vogler—and not just his acting, but also his appearance. Vogler—von Sydow’s hair has been blackened—is the very image of a strong Christ, suffering yet Stoical, composed and compassionate, otherworldly yet accessible. (Von Sydow would also play Jesus, in George Stevens’s 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told.) But this Christ can’t spread “the gospel” in the usual way; a mute, he is perpetually silent. Bergman thus makes comical sport of Jesus’s garrulousness as a preacher, at least as “recorded” in the Gospels. (Undoubtedly he is also taking aim at his own father, a Lutheran parish priest, whom Bergman despised and regarded as a hypocrite.) But everyone is eventually “unmasked” in this film (the beautiful boy, Vogler’s “ward,” is really, in disguise, Vogler’s wife, Manda), and, when Vogler at the last drops the mute-act, his voice, we discover, is that of a harried, insecure man! (One wonders whether a playful Bergman had in mind the Wizard of Oz.) Vogler’s “confidence” was only, then, a theatrical mask. It is left to us to draw the conclusion that, in some sense, the same, according to Bergman, is true about Jesus, on whom Vogler has modeled his persona.

Vergérus, nicely played by Gunnar Björnstrand (who was the atheistic squire of von Sydow’s freshly agnostic knight in The Seventh Seal), is, if anything, an even more interesting character. He represents the arrogance of civilization that denies those primitive impulses that humanity has suppressed. From the start, Vergérus is fascinated by the adversary, Vogler, whose downfall he seeks; he is as drawn to the man as he is repelled by what he regards as Vogler’s psychic horseshit. Curiously (wittily, on Bergman’s part), Vergérus introduces the idea of opposite poles with reference to Vogler, but on a different score; he accuses Vogler of vacillating without scruples between the extremes of two versions of himself, the “idealistic physician” and “sorcerer.” Vogler’s scheme at Vergérus’s expense will expose the latter’s simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the unknown, reducing him to a puddle of babbling terror. (It is this aspect of the film that is indebted to the horror genre.) Thus will Bergman suggest the origin of humanity’s belief in God: fear—fear of death; fear of the unknown. The next year, Bergman would make one of his most visually entrancing films: The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällen, 1959), a sparkling medieval ballad whose characters religiously, although variously, interpret a natural occurrence, the gushing up of a spring from the ground. Misinterpreted in the States, initially, as the work of a religionist (Bergman is an atheist), the film is Bergman’s probe of Christianity’s mythmaking tendencies. It can be seen as the final installment of a possibly accidental trilogy consisting also of The Seventh Seal and The Magician.

Whatever its limitations as a work of art (it is especially flimsy alongside The Seventh Seal, which is one of Bergman’s towering achievements), The Magician rightfully claims one of the most magical opening movements in the Bergman canon—a stretch of cinema invaluably assisted by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s cinematographer from The Seventh Seal. (Bergman was in the process of replacing Fischer with the younger Sven Nykvist, who would become more closely identified with him.) The film opens in the twilit countryside; in a long shot is a horse-drawn carriage that has come to rest. A closer shot confirms this, and we see Grandma, on a hill, replenishing her store of magical herbs. We hear a crow speak and then flutter its feathers when Grandma spits on it. Now, a long shot discloses that the wagon is moving again, sleepily, between two fabulous trees—harbingers, because, the next thing we know, the carriage is traveling through thick woods. Inside the carriage, seated on one side are Vogler, smoking a pipe, and the boy (in reality, Manda) and, on the other side, Vogler’s crude assistant and Vogler’s mischievous, ancient grandmother. Another exterior shot reveals shafts of falling light and rising volumes of fog penetrating the dark forest. Inside the carriage, Grandma hears a shriek; no one else does, including us. From experience, Vogler knows that what Grandma alone knows is no figment of her imagination. Having alternated between outside and inside the carriage, in a masterstroke by which he connects reality to Grandma’s intuition and insight, Bergman devises an inside-outside traveling shot as Vogler looks outside the carriage as the landscape passes by. The next thing we know is that Vogler is outside the carriage, exploring the ground for evidence of whatever Grandma heard; he traverses a river, using a log—a witty debunking of Christ’s walking on water. (The film abounds with such visual jokes.) He discovers a man on the ground, who is groaning. The stranger, ill, asks for liquor, explaining, “[B]randy is not only my illness but also its cure.” The stranger, an actor, asks Vogler if he also is an actor; what else might explain what is obvious to the stranger, that Vogler is “made up” and projecting a persona? The stranger gets right to the point: “Are you a swindler or a thief that you have to hide your true face?” In Vogler’s arms, and apparently unfazed by his dumbness, the stranger speaks of life’s meaninglessness. Bergman continues his outside-inside alternation by not showing Vogler bringing the stranger into the carriage; with a cut, the stranger is all of a sudden inside. There is continuity in his speech as he announces that there is no universal truth. Vogler is drawn to this dying man. “Have a good look, sir,” the stranger says to him. “I shall open my face to your curiosity.” The implication is that we all wear masks because we are in hiding—from life’s meaninglessness, our own fears, death. The stranger’s speech alternates with closeups of Vogler’s focused, mesmerized, inquisitive face. The stranger hopes to share what is now before him; “Death is like—,” he announces, but dies before he can complete the sentence. The opening movement holds us, from start to finish, as a coffin holds a corpse.

Ingrid Thulin plays the disguised Manda. A beauty as well as a great actress, Thulin proves to be a boy we can’t take our eyes off of, even in shots where tall von Sydow towers over her alongside her. There is much that’s Shakespearean in this film, including various masquerades and low comedy, but this tweaking of the theatrical tradition wherein males played female characters is most delicious.

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