The blackly comic The Magician is certainly a tonal outlier when considered among the rest of Ingmar Bergman’s late ’50s/early ’60s output, which includes a number of masterpieces that range from the sober (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries) to the utterly bleak (The Virgin Spring and the faith trilogy).
The Magician is much lighter fare than any of these films, with a consistently humorous tone and a fairly uncharacteristic unambiguously happy ending. It’s not one of Bergman’s finer achievements, but the film’s spooky vibe, beautiful high contrast photography and rumination on the nature of art and filmmaking make for a thoroughly worthwhile film.
Frequent Bergman collaborator Max von Sydow stars as Albert Emanuel Vogler, the leader of a traveling band of conjurers that put on a show titled Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater. When the troupe arrives in a new town, they are confronted by Dr. Vergerus, the minister of health (Gunnar Björnstrand), and the police superintendent (Toivo Pawlo), who have heard of Vogler’s supernatural abilities. They propose to refute his magic through science, leading to a showdown of wits that may or may not be tinged with Vogler’s command of the supernatural.
What ensues is a thinly-veiled look at the nature of entertainment, filmmaking and illusion, with Vogler standing in for Bergman himself. Heavily disguised, the magician refuses to speak, feigning muteness, and suffers under the intellectual persecution of those who find the very idea of his potions and spells preposterous.
Whether Vogler is able to do magic or not is never made entirely clear — Bergman acts as a similarly mute conjurer in this aspect. The film is full of paradox and contradiction. Vogler’s wife, Manda (Ingrid Thulin), who initially masquerades as an androgynous young ward of Vogler, admits to the keepers of the house that in fact, it is all simply a ruse.
But what’s one to make out of the film’s finale where Vogler taunts Vergerus in a vengeful bit of torment that seems too spooky to be mere sleight of hand? For all of Vergerus’s skepticism, the intended effect certainly takes hold of him when Vogler pulls the strings the right way.
And the film is just as successful at pulling the audience’s strings, entertaining with humor and horror while simultaneously questioning the artist/audience relationship. Do we accept Bergman as the all-powerful conjurer with abilities unknown? How can we not when we experience a film of this much skill and conviction?