Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin
In The Seventh Seal, Max von Sydow comes across Bengt Ekerot. The knight, strong and tall with a noble face, meets Death himself, who is one of the most distinctive characters in movie history, a two-tone figure with a white face and an enormous black sheet to cover the rest of him. In The Magician, Max von Sydow runs across Bengt Ekerot again, although they look rather different. It’s been nearly five hundred years, for one thing; for another, the men appear to have changed places. Von Sydow, as the conjurer Vogler, is the one who looks like he escaped from the circus. He has strings of black hair and a thin, obviously false black beard. He wears an earring and a face that suggests he’s been watching his girlfriend break up with him on a loop for the past six months. Ekerot, as the dying dipso actor Spegel, is a stubbly mess. His hat is broken. His hair is greasy. He speaks in a rasp about brandy, about the clutches of death, about wishing to be cut open. The carnivalesque role has shifted from Ekerot to von Sydow; the avatar of a man walking into oblivion with wide-open eyes is no longer von Sydow’s, but Ekerot’s. I sort of like the switch. Ekerot is no knight, clearly, but all the same he is earthier than the gaunt, deep-voiced von Sydow. It takes serious effort to reduce von Sydow’s kingly bearing, more than it takes to make Ekerot a step up from a bum. Yet that is, in the end, exactly what happens: Vogler, reduced by slight and misfortune, is brought low in the face of his critics, able to do little more than indulge in the pleasure of making fools of them for moments only.
There is an upstairs plot to go with a downstairs plot in The Magician. Charming as it is to watch Bibi Andersson work her magic on Lars Ekborg while he believes he’s wooing her, their subplot (which can be folded in with Ake Fridell, Naima Wifstrand, Birgitta Pettersson, Oscar Ljung, etc.) doesn’t resonate. As Vogler’s somewhat inexplicable grandmother, Wifstrand is probably the best of the lot. Claiming to be about 200 years old and full of actual magic—a claim backed up by Tubal (Fridell) in a different conversation—she manages to interact with just about everyone. Like Tubal, she believes in the basic charlatanism of Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater and does not apologize for it. In one scene, an amorous young servant, Rustan (Axel Duberg) buys a potion off of the backstage members of the theater. But that’s rat poison! Tubal objects. Grandmother Vogler is unconcerned, guessing that what she’s giving him isn’t enough to kill him. She tells Antonsson (Ljung) that he will hang himself, a prediction which she witnesses the effect of later on. She terrifies young Sanna (Pettersson), but later sings her to sleep with an unusual sort of lullaby during a thunderstorm. If this were a football game, she would be a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, intercepting people and taking them unawares. Fridell, for his part, plays a useful foil to von Sydow as much as Ekerot does. Where Vogler does not speak for the vast majority of the movie, Tubal has the curse of gab, making him charming to a point and useless afterwards. With old maids and susceptible young women, he has a certain je ne sais quoi. For the sophisticated, or at least worldly, men of the little town he rides into, his words are totally ineffective; worse still, Tubal seems to think that he is able to smooth talk his way through conversations with a local consul named Egerman (Erland Josephson without a beard), a police superintendent (Toivo Pawlo), and most imperious of all, a man of science named Vergerus (Bjornstrand). While the police superintendent is the most obviously hostile, it is Vergerus who is the most dangerous. Egerman, whose wife is extremely open to the possibility of psychic phenomena and has been since the death of her daughter, seems interested in the troupe. The police superintended is mostly annoyed by the presence of people like the Magnetic Health Theater in his town, flustered a little by the possibility that they might make trouble for him later on. (They certainly do. During a demonstration of the act, the superintendent’s mistress, under hypnotism, lets slip a series of revelations and insults concerning the lawman that put him into a not unearned rage.) Vergerus would not be satisfied with merely kicking them out of town or sending them to the kitchen for supper, like Egerman does. He must disprove their entire act, show them for tricksters, and in so doing evince the superiority of his reason for everyone else to see.
Bjornstrand is slippery and difficult in this role, one of his better ones. Although the doctor is clever, he is hardly infallible; he finds Vogler’s wife combing out her hair and is too taken with her, and too drunk, to leave this potentially useful discovery alone. Vergerus would be unrelentingly smug in his scientism in our own time; in the 1840s, that’s at least a novelty, and he makes it his personal mission to prove that a little troupe of mesmerists and showbiz folk are in fact just playing out an act. But it’s not that simple. In one scene, he plays off Vogler’s powerful gaze, saying to the group at large that he was totally unaffected by the magician, but he does not appear totally unmoved even to the other people in the room. When it appears that Vogler has died, Vergerus cheerfully undertakes the autopsy and finds nothing special about the corpse. Except, of course, that a hand has crawled its way onto the paper.
Trapped in the attic, Vergerus is put under a spell by what appears to him to be the ghost of Vogler. He becomes nauseated and sweats profusely. He loses his glasses and then fumbles, occasionally crawling, through the dirt among the boards. He looks into the mirror and Vogler, out of costume, is suddenly there.
He tries to catch his breath, luminous in his white shirt, and then a face appears rather like that of Death from a few years ago, as Vogler coolly slides into a small chamber with his victim.
This sequence makes The Magician; it is a masterpiece of atmosphere, choking-thick and fascinating. It is only the intercession of his wife, Manda (Thulin), which prevents Vogler from taking the final steps of his revenge on the man who doubted him, laughed at him, insulted him, and believed he had cut up his body. Later on, Vergerus will attempt some comeuppance of his own, but as much as he tries, we cannot forget the man bowed in terror from the attic; even if nobody else saw, Vogler must know that he managed to convince the scientist of a phantom. He half-does the same to us.
Of the movie’s characters, it might be Manda who holds the greatest fascination for me. In an effort to throw cops off the scent of a group that is not exactly popular, Manda travels as Aman, a male assistant to Vogler who has short, jet-black hair. (The movie doesn’t act as if anyone is terribly convinced by Manda’s disguise, which is right, because there’s no pretending a woman as beautiful as Thulin is some fresh-faced dude in his early twenties.) When she is discovered by Vergerus, she is brushing her long hair out and seems more or less unperturbed by his investigation. You and your husband are “inexplicable,” he tells her, which drives me mad. “Our entire act is a fraud,” she replies. It relies on “pretense” and “double bottoms,” which is mostly true. There is a sadness in her voice more moving than the forced melancholy on von Sydow’s face or the wry wisdom on Wifstrand’s. It is as if she would very much like to be able to say otherwise, as if she has seen that other world of real magic and feels cheated being unable to enter it herself. Manda and her ability to see all of the dimensions, from ruse to artifice to half-truth to empiricism, are the movie’s most important elements. One wishes for more of her and her grim practicality, especially at the expense of horny stable boys and frivolous maids.