Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Review
Ingmar Bergman's
The Magician

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

With human beliefs as its fulcrum, Ingmar Bergman explores the themes of truth and illusion in The Magician, which, like life, swings back and forth between drama, comedy and horror. Filmed in 1958, The Magician is centered between Bergman's The Seventh Seal, 1956, Wild Strawberries, 1957, and The Virgin Spring, 1959. He wrote the screenplay and it is considered one of the Swedish director's most challenging and uncomfortable films. (1)

The Magician opens with an old carriage, heavily laden with boxes and crates, creaking its way through what its five passengers believe is a haunted forest. It is 1846 (2) and the five are part of Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater, a fantastical troupe that travels from town to town giving magic performances. Its leader is Dr. Albert Emanuel Vogler, played by Max von Sydow, a mute hypnotist, once a student of Mesmer's, who is proclaimed to have "developed and perfected the science of animal magnetism."

Suddenly a wailing is heard. The coachman, thinking he hears the screams of a ghoul, stops the coach and clambers inside to hide. Dr. Vogler emerges and discovers a badly injured man lying on his back in the brush. He looks as if he is dying. The man tells Vogler he is an actor. He asks if Vogler is also an actor. As Vogler shakes his head no, the man recognizes that Vogler is wearing a false beard and eyebrows. Vogler smiles wryly, for few recognize that he lives in a disguise. A place is made in the carriage for the injured actor.

Truth and Illusion

Thus the injured actor introduces the film's central theme—truth and illusion, that nothing is what it seems to be. This issue is first explored in the coach as the passengers engage in conversation to pass the time. Mr. Aman, played by Ingrid Thulin, appears to be Vogler's apprentice but is actually his wife. She reads a book about cardsharping. The injured actor, Johan Spegel, asks who in the coach is a cardsharper. No one responds. Finally, "Mr. Aman" remarks, "Deceit is of such universal occurrence that he who speaks truth is as a rule branded the greatest of liars."

The comment sparks a debate between Spegel and Tubal, the manager, whose mentality is the most modern of the troupe. Tubal declares that for him the search for truth is "damn interesting," as he trusts only truths he can see and touch. He proclaims, "The head is on the neck, and the rump is on the back. That's the kind of truth I like! Absolute truth." Spegel, not so rutted in surface appearances, makes fun of Tubal's gross materialism. Bergman seems to be contrasting three patterns of perception, of beliefs. Few people see into the essence of things as Spegel does. They either see the world as Tubal does, or simply believe in unseen forces unsupported by any real experience of them, a kind of naive 'magical' seeing and thinking. Thus, they live in superstition and are subject to manipulation, as shown later when Tubal takes advantage of their credulity by selling love potions and telling fortunes.

Before arriving in the town, Vogler leans over Spegel who, his face appearing nearly lifeless, makes a dying statement to Vogler:

"If you want to register the moment itself, look closely, sir. I'll keep my face open to your curiosity. What do I feel? Fear and well-being. Now death has reached my hands, my arms, my feet, my bowels. It climbs upward, inward. Observe me closely. Now the heart stops, now my consciousness becomes extinguished. I see neither God nor angels. Now I cannot see you any longer. I am dead. You wonder. I will tell you. Death is."


(1) Bergman says, "Eiono Kaila's Psychology of the Personality—its thesis that man lives strictly according to his needs, negative and positive—was shattering to me, but true, and I built on this ground."

(2) Theosophically the numbers add up to ten, or all and nothing. The number five, of course, is the pentagram.

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