In the carriage we find a troupe of traveling showmen: a mute mesmerist in a corny fake beard, a beautiful woman in drag, and a bespectacled, hunched-over crone who claims to be a 200 year-old witch. Call them mystics, entertainers, or businessmen like anyone else, they’re still fugitives the lot, wanted on charges of fraud and blasphemy, which makes you wonder just what it is their audiences were expecting. It’s the middle of the 19th century and all over Europe are towns not big enough for both science and the spirit.
The troupe offers a lift to a fellow thespian found starving in a wood, an alcoholic seemingly on his deathbed. His name is Spiegel, the Swedish word for mirror, so when Vogler (Max Von Sydow) hovers over him closely, smelling the despair on the man’s breath, there’s much to imply that he might as well be looking at himself, or what he’ll become just a few more miles down the road.
The troupe arrives in Stockholm, where they’re to perform for a small, elite audience, among them the chief of police and the royal medical advisor (Gunnar Björnstrand), a righteous rationalist determined to prove irrefutably that their magic show is a sham. Though his more intimate struggles would be dramatized numerous times over the coarse of his long career, The Magician (1958), newly available from Criterion, is probably Ingmar Bergman’s most unabashedly autobiographical film about his professional life, pitting artists and critics against each another to see who can out-humiliate who. Björnstrand’s debunker was based on the critic Harry Schein, who Bergman felt persecuted by. Schein was the husband of actress Ingrid Thulin, and this knowledge injects a delicious audacity into a scene where Björnstrand simultaneously iterates his distaste for the troupe’s hocus-pocus and confesses his attraction to Thulin, who plays Von Sydow’s wife. Björnstrand has a line here that’s terribly on-the-nose yet somehow more potent for it, as though he himself were mesmerized and felt compelled to utter some naked truth: “You represent what I despise most of all: the inexplicable.”
The Magician was made during a transitional point in Bergman’s career: between The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring; between anxiety about death and anxiety about godlessness; between collaborations with cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist; between staging his films as, to some degree, extensions of his theatre practice, and transforming his aesthetic into something more wholly cinematic, driven as much by the characters’ internal states as their external dramas. It’s never been an especially beloved installment in Bergman’s oeuvre, and critics fret every now and then about whether it successfully adopts one genre or another, since some sections are comic, while the climax borrows conventions from horror. I can’t get too worked up about regarding any Bergman film’s genre status, but I find it tremendously interesting to see how The Magician so casually dismantles the obligatory narrative conventions used in every genre. It starts out focused on the troupe and implies that Von Sydow’s the hero. Yet we gradually become more invested in Thulin, who’s character and performance are more sympathetic and dynamic. (Von Sydow, usually so very good in Bergman, is a little hammy here, his character’s silence prompting him to overact with his face and hands. This overcompensation for silence would be memorably corrected some years later by another Vogler: Liv Ullmann in Bergman’s Persona .) Regardless, a third of the way into the film we abandon these characters and their adversaries both and pass an extensive digression with two younger, minor characters hungry to bring excitement to their lives: the troupe’s coachman and a servant girl, played by a very sexy yet subtly sad Bibi Andersson, who each drink from an ostensible love potion and await the results with a certain desperation. It’s as though Bergman conceived The Magician not as a propulsive drama or even a character study, but rather a sort of ensemble-driven essay on precarious ambitions under constant threat of having the rug pulled out from under.
We gradually come to the troupe’s performance, thoroughly pulled apart and laughed at, as promised, and to a series of deaths or seeming deaths, one being that of a man we already thought dead, another being a man we can’t quite believe is dead, and still another being a death already foretold by the crone, who may be the film’s one genuine mystic. These deaths set the stage for a carefully devised haunting meant to shake up Björnstrand. It’s a wonderful display of trickery, much of it dependent on mirrors, shadow and imagination, none of it ultimately capable of persuading Björnstrand that he was wrong in his initial assertions. Not that it matters. The troupe comes and goes and want only to amuse us, and perhaps move us, for the short duration of their stopover. As Bergman himself writes in his memoir Images: My Life in Film, which is excerpted in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s disc, “I had often felt that I was involved in a continuous, rather joyous prostitution. My job was to beguile the audience.”