In his 1958 dark comedy, “The Magician” Ingmar Bergman makes comparisons between his experiences as a movie maker, and the adventures of an itinerant magic troupe from the 1840’s headed by Dr. Albert Emmanuel Vogler. An interesting side note: from about the middle of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th, my family trekked across America’s heartland with their big top show called The Eells Family Circus, replete with snake charmer, contortionist and disappearing act, so Bergman’s movie hits close to home.
Traveling entertainment became popular a few thousand years before the printing press and was an early form of mass media. Storytellers, from acting troupes and solo troubadours to freaks and medicine shows, were prime sources of information and culture for the common folk. In Bergman’s film, Vogler and a handful of collaborators are on a tour of neighboring lands. As the story opens, we encounter magician and crew, down on their luck, working their way home.
On well-worn tracks wanders the enigmatic Vogler and his ragamuffin regiment, calling themselves the “Magnetic Health Theater”. Our magician arrives by carriage to the latest village. His reputation has preceded him. Disturbing reports from the south suggest the stranger may exert an unsavory influence.
A bewigged police chief and monocle-ed coroner interrogate Bergman’s hero on suspicion of skullduggery. Vogler pretends to be mute, while his wife presents herself cross-dressed as his manservant. Vogler provokes a good deal of suspicion by playing games but also avoids having to answer their awkward questions. Bergman, the filmmaker, is demonstrating the importance of silence and obfuscation in spinning a good yarn.
Through their own projections, conscious and unconscious, it seems that everyone becomes part of Vogler’s web. That includes us, the audience, but only for awhile. In act one we are left in the dark. By the time Vogler starts his manipulation in earnest we are allowed to watch behind the screen. In the third act, by showing the audience more than all the other characters but not as much as the magician himself, Bergman manages to bamboozle us once more.
The most magical moment for me is when an itinerant actor, whom Vogler regards with great tenderness and respect, dies in the opening scene and appears quite alive again in the third act, only to die for real this time in Vogler’s arms. The magician manages to fulfill the dead fool’s dying wish by weaving him into his web of illusion.
Bergman, the storyteller, displays a knack for cooking up surprise, so that in this moment, we cannot tell that we are observing a secret. From the outset, the story keeps us off balance making sure our expectations are continuously upended as we watch the game played out. Things only add up after the spell is broken.
Of course the magician’s luck has improved by the end. This is a comedy after all. By the time Bergman’s film is over, his magician is summoned to the court to entertain the King and Queen–an obvious promotion, but we’ll never know the fate of the magician after that. Perhaps he went on to become a movie director in the dawn of cinema. One of Dr.Vogler’s contemporaries was motion pictures’ first great pioneer. I mentioned his name in the last post. He will be the subject up next.