Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ingmar Bergman | Ansiktet (The Magician / The Face)

nothing is true
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman script (loosely based on the play by G. K. Chesterton, Magic) and director Ansiktet (The Magician / The Face)  / 1958

Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film, The Magician (called The Face in Britain after the Swedish original title Ansiktet), is both a kind of ghost story and a comedy, but, in the end, is neither. The magician of the title, Albert Emmanuel Vogler (Max van Sydow, sporting throughout the film  an obviously false beard and moustache, and for inexplicable reasons pretending throughout to be mute) travels about the late 19th-century countryside with an odd assortment of performers, his witch-like, spellcasting mother (Naima Wifstrand), a young male assistant (Ingrid Thulin, who is actually a woman and his wife), his talkative publicist Tubal (Åke Fridell), and the coach driver, Simson (Lars Ekborg). Along the way, they add to their little gathering a former actor, an alcoholic who is near death and dies within their coach, but later mysterious comes alive only to fall back into his coffin.  

      When the troupe arrives in a small city where they hope to perform, they are instead taken by authorities to the home of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson), who with the Minister of Health, Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjönstrand) who, having heard rumors of the deleterious effects in other cities after Vogler had hypnotized some, want to prove that their show is both a sham and that it will not result in public panic. The guests are put up in the Consul’s house for the night, but are fed, like servants, in the kitchen.
       The cook and the maids quickly participate, a bit as in Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, in trysts of joyful lovemaking with Tuball and the coach driver, while Granny Vogler signs the cross and utters secret spells upon the walls of the house. Vogler and his wife prepare for the next day’s performance and retire to bed, but not before the pompous and self-assured Vergerus, discovering a beautiful woman in the place of Vogler’s male assistant, verbally challenges her. She admits that “nothing” in their act “is true,” and later summarizes Vogler’s magic performance:

                      It’s always the props and the patter that must do
                      the work. The clergy’s in the same sad boat. God
                      is silent while men babble on.

Meanwhile the Consul’s wife clearly is attracted to Vogler and offers him a late-night visit in her bedroom, an invitation the Consul, alas, overhears.
      In short, the film, at first, appears to be nothing more than a group of performers being challenged by a group of bourgeois yokels, and we wonder where Bergman might be heading with his nonetheless enjoyable story.

       Yet during the performance of the next day, strange things do indeed happen. Using the local police-head’s wife as a subject, Vogler easily mesmerizes her, as she openly describes to the small audience how she hates her pig-like husband and deceives him.
     Soon after, Vogler stages his own death, immediately after which Dr. Vergerus insists upon an autopsy in the attic. When, after he has completed the autopsy, Vogler reappears, for a short while truly horrifying the nearly always skeptical and science-dedicated doctor. 
      Of course, Vogler has replaced his own body with the corpse they have brought with them, and tricked the elderly man. And the next morning the Consul and Vergerus demand the troupe members’ arrests, insisting that Vogler had “induced a momentary fear of death, nothing more.”

       Tubal, who has fallen love with the cook, has already declared that he intends to leave the company, and Simson, the driver has fallen in love with Sara (Bibi Andersson). So, it appears the company is doomed—that is until they suddenly receive a summons by the Swedish King to perform before him!
       Some critics have speculated that the film is a kind of parable, with Vogler, who is betrayed, dies and rises from the dead, and whose middle name means “God with us,” is a Christ figure, whose suffering is played out before the Pilate-like Consul and deniers such as Dr. Vergerus. The consul’s servant, who hangs himself, is a kind of Judas, while Manda is a disciple. Accordingly, his call from King, is a return to God the Father. Certainly, the work might be read that way, yet that does not quite explain Vogler’s mother; obviously the witch-like Granny cannot be Mary. And Bergman fills his film with too many other unrelated events to allow us to so simplify its message. We must also remember, moreover, that there are two resurrections in this work, not merely one. And if Manda is a kind of disciple, she is also his loving wife, long before scholar’s speculated that Christ might have been married to Mary Magdalene. 
      Finally, if Manda is a strangely disloyal disciple in insisting that everything is simply a trick or by suggesting the repudiation of belief, “nothing is true.” 
      What I was struck by in this, my second viewing of the film, is how similar it was, in some respects, to the other innovative works of the 1950s such as Ionesco’s and Beckett’s plays. Indeed, more than any other Bergman film of the time, The Magician seems to carry much with it that links it to the theater of the absurd. And even Buñuel’s later work seems to share elements. If nothing else, The Magician is not one of Bergman’s brooding studies of God and doubt. In fact, Vogel as a kind of God, wins out in the end, while the doubters are sentenced to the hell of their small-town lives and ambitions.

Los Angeles, May 21, 2016

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