Friday, March 25, 2011
Bergman's The Magician (or The Face, a more accurately translated title) is a strange film. It’s also a brilliant one. It’s beautiful and enigmatic. A mix between supernatural horror, ribald comedy, and philosophical meditation. It came in the middle of a fantastic run of films for Bergman, right after Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal and just before The Virgin Spring and his Trilogy of Faith. The Magician doesn’t get nearly as much attention as these other films, but that is probably because it was previously unavailable in the U.S. for quite some time. But, in its own right, it is a great film and deserves attention. It fits nicely in with those other films, as all are true testaments to Bergman’s greatness as a filmmaker. As a narrative, The Magician fits closest to The Seventh Seal. Both feature wandering performers, bawdy comedic scenes with the lower classes, and drama centered around large philosophical questions. I’d say both are also critiques of rationalism, as they both suggest the failures of reason to generate certain knowledge in the presence of overwhelming uncertainty. While The Seventh Seal mostly focuses on questions of god and death, The Magician is largely centered on questions of truth and illusion.
There are many interpretations you can take of the film, but I think when it is viewed as a debate between scientific rationalism and art, it works quite well. Dr. Vergerus, in his determined pursuit to make everything explainable, takes on the magician Vogler and demands that all his tricks be revealed (or made rational). For Vergerus, all illusion must be exposed as a lie and made into truth. There is a wonderful scene in the beginning of the film where Vogler and his team come before Vergerus and the other officials, and Vogler is basically put on trial before them. Vergerus becomes set on exposing Vogler as a phony; he is determined to explain his “tricks” on a purely scientific basis. With this scene, there is a greater sense that science is placing art on trial. Vergerus, the scientist, wants to expose Vogler, the artist, as a fabrication. He wants to remove the mystery of his art and affirm it as a lie. The interesting thing, in this scene, is that Vogler is entirely mute; he cannot speak about his own art or defend himself. I read this as the silence the artist is forced to take when his/her art is made public. When art is made public, the artist loses his/her authority over that art; it then belongs to everyone else to be interpreted and criticized. This may not be the right interpretation, but what do I know...
There is an awesome reading of the film that places Bergman as Vogler (this very well could be Bergman’s intention). This makes for an interesting interpretation . Self-conscious Bergman sees himself as a sort of ambiguous illusionist. Is he a phony, using cheap props and tricks to manipulate his audience? Or is he an artist, able to affect his audience by making unreality a reality? The film doesn’t seem to decide on either one. It seems to suggest both, which is one of the reasons why it is so great. It is quite ambiguous, and it opens itself up to numerous meanings. If the film is meant to be a self-aware examination of Bergman himself though, then it fits nicely with 8 1/2 as a brilliant example of self-criticism.
This is a film, apart from it’s big ideas, that is also beautifully photographed and filled with enjoyable and impressive scenes. I love the opening scene with the drunken actor and Vogler’s fascination with his death. I also love the comedic scenes between the lower classes that lighten the mood (these are similar to some scenes in The Seventh Seal and, well, Shakespeare).
Of course, the film also features an awesome and famous sequence in which Vogler torments Vergerus. The cinematography in this sequence is fantastic. Very well done.
I love Max von Sydow as Vogler. He is mysterious and strange, and he never reveals too much. You have no idea whether he’s a charlatan or a genuine talent or whether he believes in what he’s doing or if he’s disillusioned by it. The photo above of him says it all. What a face, indeed.
Watching The Magician is like watching a great play or reading a great novel. Bergman films usually make me feel that way. They are so rich in content that I feel I could never stop musing over them. This one is certainly not his greatest film, but it is a great film on its own and one that only makes me appreciate the master Bergman even more.