Criterion | 1958 | 101 mins. | NR
I’ll admit I often have trouble understanding everything being conveyed in an Ingmar Bergman film. A deeply personal filmmaker, some have gone as far as to label his work as ‘cold.’ Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll realize that the coldness lies only on the surface. Look more broadly and you’ll realize that Bergman had the capacity to hotwire his audience’s emotions; something very few directors can ever hope to accomplish. Instead of letting his films wash over an audience, Bergman seems to want us to become part of the filmic experience—open our minds and sense enough to see deeper than just what we see on the screen.
1958’s The Magician is a case in point. Nothing is quite as it seems. This is Bergman at his most iconoclastic, full of private jokes and self-reference, but it’s also a very funny sex comedy, the tragedy of a man without a face, a study of science versus magic and one of the most effective exercises in Gothic terror on film.
The year is 1848, one Dr. Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow), is leading a traveling sideshow. Joining him are: the master of ceremonies Tubal (Ake Fridell), Vogler’s grandmother (who may also be a witch), (Naima Wifstrand), the androgynous Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin), and the carriage driver, Simson (Lars Ekborg). We are told the group are illusionists of some kind, but their explanations while numerous, remain unclear. They sell potions that are really interchangeable and have no actual effect. Or do they? Granny might be a witch, so maybe she knows some magic spells. Dr. Vogler is also said to be a master hypnotist who heals people with magnets. Tall, dark, and bearded, Vogler is an imposing figure; he is also mute.
carriage, where he dies before they are able to reach the next town. They take the body to the police, only to find they are wanted for questioning on unrelated matters. It seems the performer’s reputations have proceeded them. And they are brought before three officials—medical examiner Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), police chief Starbuck (Tovio Pawlo) and consul Egerman (Erland Josephson). Vergerus, a rationalist who regards anything even hinting at the supernatural to be dangerous to society, is determined to demonstrate that Vogler is a fake, and his determination is sealed by a bet with the superstitious Egerman that all magic is fraudulent.
Much of The Magician takes place over the night in custody at Egerman’s home. The various members of Vogler’s troupe interact with Egerman’s staff, seducing them and demonstrating their special talents. As all of this is going on, The dead actor wanders the house as a ghost, interacting with Granny and Vogler. A thunder storm brings strange portents. Passions are stirred. Mrs. Egerman (Gertrud Fridh) is drawn to Vogler. She claims to want the psychic to explain the recent death of her daughter, but her heaving bosom suggests she desires more. Likewise, Vergerus doesn’t hide his interest in Aman, though Aman proves more loyal than he expected—all the more frustrating, as what Vergerus perceives as Vogler’s charlatanism represents everything the scientist hates.
So, what appears to be a straightforward clash between science and magic is immediately complicated when we discover that Vogler doesn’t believe in his magical powers any more than Vergerus does. Vogler’s own refusal to speak is as much part of his act as the slight-of-hand illusions he performs. he is noticeably disturbed when Egerman’s wife takes him for a genuine shaman who can explain God’s purpose in taking her son from her. Bergman is certainly seeking to debunk the belief that everything can be explained. Bergman also demonstrates how an illusionist, seeking to persuade others of magic while being strictly rational himself, can become imprisoned in his own illusions through the belief of those others.
The Magician offers a lot to think about, however Bergman was able to deal with all the characters and wrap up all the subplots before the credits roll. Anyone who has seen this film will understand when I say that was no easy task.
The 1080p, full frame image on The Magician – Criterion Collection is brimming with clarity. The black-and-white photography looks gorgeous on this disc. There isn’t a scratch on the film, and the values between light and dark are wonderful. Every little detail comes through. Though made in 1958, The Magician looks like a new studio film.
The uncompressed mono audio track is also exceptionally clear. There is no hiss or any unusual sounds. There is even some subtlety, despite only being a single channel.
The new English subtitles are excellent. Easy to read and elegantly written.
The Magician – Criterion Collection comes with a 36-page booklet full of photos, credits, a chapter listing, and multiple essays: one from 1990 by director Olivier Assayas, a new piece by Geoff Andrew, and a pertinent excerpt from Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography.
The special feature section (all features are in HD) begins with two snippets of interviews with Bergman. The first, shot around the time of Persona (1967) and running 3 minutes and 37 seconds, briefly touches on The Magician, but is more of a defense of Bergman’s reluctance to explain his movies. The second piece runs over 20 minutes, and it’s an audio interview in English, conducted by filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Stig Björkman in 1990. Here, a conversation about the creative process covers Bergman’s transition from theatre to film and ends with a brief discussion of The Magician. The audio plays over a photo of Bergman, and there are subtitles to aid in deciphering accents and combat issues with the recording. The influence of Strindberg, Duvivier, and Renoir is discussed.
Critic Peter Cowie has constructed a new video essay about The Magician. Just under 15 minutes, Cowie uses vintage photographs and clips from the movie to explain the complexities of the film and decode some of the symbolism. Cowie compares The Magician to Bergman’s other works and reveals connections from the director’s greater filmography.
Alongside the usual chapter selection menu, Criterion also offers a “Timeline,” which lets you scroll through the chapters with information on what is happening in each, and you can create bookmarks for visiting later.
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