The Magician (Ansiktet)

The Magician
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus, Minister of Health), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara Lindqvist), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson, the coach driver), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendant Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson, burly stableman), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan, young manservant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: Sweden
The Magician Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The MagicianThe original Swedish title of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician is Ansiktet, which means “The Face.” Such a title should come as no surprise to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Bergman’s work because not only does he favor the contours and depths of the human face as his primary mode of expression, but the majority of his films have been thematically engaged in the idea that we all wear multiple masks to hide our true selves. The film is set in the mid-19th century, and Bergman labeled it a “comedy” when he wrote the screenplay, a descriptor that some viewers may find a bit confusing. While it does play with clever dialogue and features more than a few upstairs/downstairs scenarios in which maids and servants allow their lusty desires to turn them into objects of bawdy humor, the film as a whole is generally a dark, moody affair rife with tensions between the wealthy and the poor, science and superstition, and, most importantly, audiences and their entertainers.

Moreso than anything, The Magician is Bergman’s exploration of his relationship with his audience, a rather self-serving impetus that at times hamstrings the film into rather broad clichés that come nowhere close to the depth of character and feeling that Bergman invests in his best films. When he made The Magician, Bergman was finishing a seven-year stint as the artistic director of the Malmö City Theater, where he had absorbed more than his share of critical potshots. Following the playwright August Strindberg’s standard response to critics who drubbed his work--“See you in my next play, you bastard!”--Bergman populates The Magician with an assortment of petty and vindictive professionals, officials, and bureaucrats who make life hell for Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow), a traveling mesmerist and illusionist who also serves as Bergman’s on-screen surrogate. Garbed in a black cloak, longish mane of jet-back hair, and a fastidiously manicured black beard, the totality of which gives him a vaguely Asian appearance, Vogler is an enigmatic presence who commands both adoration and derision from others, depending on whether they view his act as a genuine spiritual experience or a carnival sideshow. The fact that it is essentially both reflects Bergman’s fundamental understanding of the cinema as an illusionistic play of light and shadow that can nonetheless reveal some of the deepest recesses of the human experience.

Vogler travels across Europe with a small troupe that calls themselves “Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater”: his wife, Manda (Ingrid Thulin), who disguises herself as a young man; Vogler’s ancient grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), a possible witch who sells various potions and remedies; Tubal (Åke Fridell), the boisterous huckster who sells the show; and their young, superstitious coach driver Simson (Lars Ekborg). After an opening sequence in which the troupe picks up a dying, alcoholic actor named Johan Spegel (Bengt Ekerot), who is not unimportantly the first person to see through Vogler’s make-up and disguise, the majority of the film takes place at the manor of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) and his wife (Gertrud Fridh), who have requested a performance. Also in attendance, along with the house’s rather large staff, is the local police superintendant Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo), and the local minister of health Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), both of whom are highly skeptical of Vogler’s brand of entertainment and do everything in their power to humiliate him both before and during the performance, including an impromptu medical exam to debunk Vogler’s claims of being mute and Starbeck literally raising the curtain at one point to display the hidden mechanics of a levitation trick.

For Bergman, Starbeck, Vergerus, and their ilk are representatives of a navel-gazing critical establishment that is less interested in understanding and critiquing art than using it for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Vergerus is a particularly troublesome character, not only in the way he attempts to seduce Manda out of spite, but also because his hatred for Vogler is fueled by his frustration at not being able to understand Vogler’s act and thus explain it rationally. In other words, he is the critic who loathes an artwork because he doesn’t understand it and therefore must destroy it. Thus, it is not surprising that Vogler, who remains silent through the film’s first hour, uses his first spoken words to utter through clenched teeth, “I hate them.”

He eventually gets a revenge of sorts by staging an elaborate prank on Dr. Vergerus, which allows Bergman to develop a sustained horror sequence that draws on everything from expressionistic shadows, to objects suddenly intruding into the foreground, to shattering mirrors and severed limbs. The sequence works extraordinarily well on its own merits, particularly given the film’s opening scenes in a misty forest that all but screams horror of the Universal and Hammer varieties. Yet, that is but one tone in a film that strikes virtually every chord in Bergman’s body of work--from the mystical to the melodramatic, from the sharply interior to the broadly comic--and the fact that it ends with a joyously upbeat confirmation of Vogler’s brand of entertainment, a last-minute deus ex machina that rescues him and his troupe (and also liberates at least one of Egerman’s staff), reaffirms Bergman’s insistence that it is all, at the end, a comedy, and he leaves no doubt as to who the joke is on.

The Magician Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Magician is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP $29.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Swedish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Visual essay by film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Excerpt from a 1968 TV interview with Ingmar Bergman
  • English-language audio interview with Bergman conducted by filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Stig Björkman in 1990
  • Insert booklet featuring excerpts from a 1990 tribute to the film by Assayas, a new essay by critic Geoff Andrew, and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography Images: My Life in Film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 12, 2010

    Even if one were so desiring, it would be difficult to find even the smallest quibble with Criterion’s fine high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored. The image is sharp, clean, and robust with detail that doesn’t compromise the inherent grain of the image. It is equally impressive in both scenes that feature a broad spectrum of grayscale (such as the moody, misty opening scenes in the forest) and those that feature a great deal of darkness and shadow. The image is presented in its intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and while the liner notes indicate that it is windowboxed, it seems decidedly less so than previous Criterion releases of Academy aspect ratio films. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, and sounds excellent for its age.
    In lieu of an audio commentary, Criterion has commissioned an insightful 15-minute visual essay by film scholar and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who discusses both the film’s unique stylistic traits and the various ways in which it fits into Bergman’s larger body of work. Also included is a brief, three-minute excerpt from a 1968 Swedish television interview with Bergman, in which he generally avoids discussing the film by telling a lengthy story, and a 20-minute English-language audio interview with Bergman conducted by filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Stig Björkman in 1990. The insert booklet includes excerpts from a 1990 tribute to the film by Assayas, a new essay by critic Geoff Andrew, and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography Images: My Life in Film.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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