Ingmar Bergman: The Magician (1958) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Nov/100

Ingmar Bergman: The Magician (1958)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYIngmar Bergman's follow up to Wild Strawberries is the sort of strange experiment that is difficult to classify.  The Magician seems to be reaching for the same kind of thematic depths as The Seventh Seal, but is content keeping things on a smaller scale.  Instead of working with the Dark Ages and the plague, he is working with types that suggest a Victorian setting and various "magicians".  It's a satisfying film, but in the hallowed filmography of Bergman it's a sorely lacking one.

The Magician (also known as The Face in Sweden) doesn't give us much in the way of an set up for its characters, and for the opening twenty minutes or so almost all of the dialogue comes from one man.  We open on a small, garishly decorated carriage framed against the darkened grey sky.  For a moment it almost seems like we've slipped in a sequel to The Seventh Seal, and the next few moments don't do much to dissuade from this idea.  Much like the earlier film, they are all circus performers, witches, and magicians of varying degrees of faith in their own abilites.

Their mute leader, later revealed to be named Mr. Vogler and brilliantly played by Max von Sydow, stops his carriage because his travelling companions are scared of a ghost rapping on their carriage.  Mr. Vogler steps outside to find a dying drunk wandering the countryside, and is invited in by the troupe to stay out of the cold.  The drunk reads Mr. Vogler's intentions clearly, they both know he is going to die but Mr. Vogler wants the drunk to describe every sensation he is having as he leaves this world.  He dies just short of saying what finally passing feels like.

Max von Sydow is a patient observer throughout much of The Magician, and lends moments like the death of this poor drunk a surprising amount of poignancy.

Bergman's fear of death previously expressed in Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal is reversed here.  Instead of a supernatural figure who may represent something but isn't telling, we have a potential supernatural figure looking for the answers.

The plot comes in slowly, and we find that the troupe has been summoned to the home of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson making his Bergman debut).  He, along with the chief of police Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo) and Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) have been assembled to try and figure out the meaning behind the various supernatural rumors that have been forming around the troupe.  It has been said that some who witness the performance are experiencing visions, and others still have been nearly frightened to death by their antics.

Vogler and his crew have been asked to put on a performance for the skeptical crew and they will do everything that they can to disprove any of the supernatural allegations surrounding the show.  The troupe is neither helpful nor discouraging, staying perfectly within their roles and allowing the investigation to run its course.

Gunnar Fischer's final collaboration with Bergman leads to beautiful moments, even if they are with the slight creepiness of a 220 year old witch.

The plot ambles along in The Magician and makes a few unneeded detours, and has helped me appreciate those little touches in The Seventh Seal a bit more.  In The Magician we end up with several long sequences that add a bit of flavor to the text but don't really serve much of a solid purpose.  There's an embarrassingly long sequence where a young man from the circus troupe resists the seductions of a housemaid after the two of them have imbibed the "love potion" of a 220 year old witch.  Their eventual collapse into each other's arms is pretty obvious, and since the whole sequence is not terribly amusing it just makes for a very long stretch of overacting and heaving.

The film does it's best to keep up a solid mystery around whether or not the troupe really is mystical or not, and this does result in some interesting sequences.  The 220 year old grandmother for instance, who wanders around the film casting spells and brewing potions to sell to the skeptical household.  Far more practical is the mouthpiece of the circus troupe, a boisterous man named Tubal (Ake Fridell) who has his eyes set on conquering the older maiden of the house.  Then there is the character of Mr. Aman played by Ingrid Thulin.  Benefit of the doubt has to come into play, and I must assume that the name of "Aman" must be a joke because Mr. Aman is clearly anything but a man.  The androgenous nature of Mr. Aman is another interesting mystery, but not one that drives the film to any real interest.

Two aspects of The Magician are very successful.  The first is the battle of wits between Sydow's Vogler and Bjornstrand's Dr. Vergerus.  Sydow spends nearly the entire film mute, and produces some of the most intense silent postures against Dr. Vergerus and his Nazi-esque interrogation techniques.  The second is Gunnar Fischer's amazing use of shadow.  Much depends on the films ability to keep certain visual facts secret from the characters, and Fischer let's the shadows act as another character in the film.  They conceal like an old friend shielding some of the characters from certain harm, and rescind long enough to let them gaze in wonder at the beauty of creation.  Sadly, this will mark the end of Bermgan's collaboration with Fischer but fret not!  Next week we will see the initial gems of Bergman's solo  collaborations with Sven Nykvist, who will work with Bergman until his Ingmar's passing.

You might almost think this is a team movie with the way the shot's of each group are composed. These folks are ready to work some magic.

The Magician is not one of Bergman's better films.  It has the feel of a director who knows he has something that he wants to say with the film, but could not find the correct way to express it.  Bergman's love for the dazzle and spectacle of theater and film, here analogous with faith and magic, is palpable but the film spends too much time treading ground that had been better covered with previous features, and enjoys taking rambling detours when it should be extending the existing mystery.  It is still a good film, but doubles as a disappointment for Bergman, and never quite reaches the ambitions of its own main character.

Next week I'll be discussing The Virgin Spring, a film that not only won Bergman an Oscar, but has accidentally inspired a number of horrible slasher films.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Magician (1958)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, and Gunnar Bjornstrand.

Posted by Andrew

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