The Compleat Ingmar #27: The Magician (1958)

What is the perfect Bergman movie for Halloween, if that’s how you roll? Is it Hour of the Wolf, with its surreal phantasmagoria? Wild Strawberries, with its uncanny dreamscapes? Through a Glass Darkly, perhaps – think of the spider-god monologue. Or what about Bergman O.G., The Seventh Seal, with its sardonic personification of Death stalking a band of Bergman regulars, if that gets your ghoulies going… or even Scenes from a Marriage, which I expect will play like horror to anyone whose biggest fear is a failing marriage?

The film we ended up watching on Halloween was The Magician, made one year after The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries and two years before The Virgin Spring (which, come to think of it, also has a moment or two of ghoulish atmosphere). And, reader, I’d say that it was a pretty good match.

That’s not to say that The Magician is outright scary, though it does like its creepy imagery: coffins, skulls, hanging men, chopped-off limbs. If anything, it’s a bit like a haunted house ride at a fair or an amusement park, and its overt horrors are as cosy and cheesy as those would be. Its apparent scares are all fake, and they’re supposed to be: they’re delivered by a troupe of performers known as Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre, led by Albert Vogler (a mascaraed Max von Sydow), who claim they have supernatural abilities – but, obviously, it’s all a sham, and that’s what the audience expects, even appreciates. The illusions that Vogler and his troupe peddle are threadbare, laughable – and perhaps it is exactly because of this that Vogler and his fellow performers are perfect screens that the audience can project onto.

Like The Rite before it, thematically The Magician is about the relationship between a bourgeois audience and a group of artists. More specifically, while Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre puts on a hodgepodge magic show, sprinkled with parlour tricks, hypnotism and supposed magic potions sold by Albert’s grandmother off the back of their cart, all of this is easily read as standing for the art of cinema: the troupe uses a magic lantern (also called laterna magica – which, incidentally, is the title of Bergman’s autobiography), an early image projector, and many of the magic tricks they end up performing are about images that aren’t what they appear to be in ways that are only possible through cinematic means such as projection and editing.

Earlier films by Bergman have depicted troupes of artists travelling the land to entertain, amuse and baffle audiences that, in turn, have little more than jeers and mockery for the performers, such as Jof and Mia in The Seventh Seal, or the circus in Sawdust and Tinsel. In those films, though, Bergman showed a lot of affection for performers and their art, regardless of how ridiculous they might look to others and even to themselves. The Magician doesn’t change this entirely – Vogler and his fellow performers are still the protagonists, and they are allowed a surprise triumph in the end – but Vogler, yet another stand-in for the director in many ways, may be one of the most self-doubting of artists in Bergman’s oeuvre.

Vogler is a figure of pretend mystery for much of the film, with his dark eyes and his jet black hair and beard, top hat and ornamental earring – and especially his eerie silence. He doesn’t talk, so one could assume that his show speaks for him. Yet all of this is a stage disguise only: once he’s stripped it all off, Vogler looks like regular von Sydow, and he speaks like so many Bergman personas (no pun intended). He barely believes in his art any more, he doubts that he still has the love of his wife, and his opponents – here mainly the smug materialist Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) – have the conviction in their banal view of the world that Vogler himself can no longer muster with respect to his art.

And yet, there are moments – fleeting ones, but no less real for this – where Vogler and his troupe successfully ply their magic. It is different from The Rite, though, where a tacky performance can kill the hypocritical old official who both laughs and leers at that film’s troupe of actors. In contrast, Vogler and his band are constantly on the verge of ruin and dissolution. One minute, they can be desired by an audience as they work theatrical magic, the next they are left to beg for a coin or two so they can survive for another few days. They can be lucky and receive a letter inviting them to perform for the King of Sweden – or they can lose half the members of the troupe in one accursed night to the lure of a warm bed and the stability of a bourgeois existence. The troupe’s life on the road is only attractive, it seems, to those who don’t actually know it, while those who have lived this life for years are all too keenly aware of how precarious their existence is.

Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre puts on a show of shopworn magic tricks for its audience, eliciting laughs of derision rather than wonder and awe. The audience members that are more kindly inclined instead project onto them their wishes and needs, seeing only what they want to see. The haunting that Vogler performs to get back at Vergerus has an effect, but only a temporary one. Even the King’s invitation, a deus ex machine the film plays as a hollow gag, is a temporary fix only, because Vogler doesn’t need an external audience to prompt his doubt in his abilities and in the purpose of his art.

And so, his Theatre always remains one step away from penury, while, figuratively (and sometimes literally), death waits in the wings. For these performers, fear does not lie in the coffins and skulls that they use as props, but in the art they live by and the magic they attempt to conjure up on stage every night. What scares them is that what they have dedicated their lives to is entirely dependent on the belief (or, if you want to be cynical about it, the gullibility) of an audience no longer likely to believe. In all the Bergman films we’ve seen to date, none seem as bleakly disillusioned about the everyday existence of being an artist dependent on an audience as this one.

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