CABARET CINEMA: THE MAGICIAN (ANSIKTET) (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th St. at Seventh Ave.
Friday, August 2, free with $7 bar minimum, 9:30
Ingmar Bergman’s darkly comic 1958 film The Magician is one of the Swedish auteur’s lesser-known, underrated masterpieces, an intense yet funny, and fun, work about art, science, faith, death, and the power of the movies themselves. When Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater comes to town, the local triumvirate of Dr. Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand), police commissioner Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo), and Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) brings the traveling troupe in for questioning, forcing them to spend the night as guests in Egerman’s home. The three men seek to prove that mesmerist Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow), his assistant, Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin), a witchy grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), and their promoter, Tubal (Åke Fridell), are a bunch of frauds. The interrogations delve into such Bergmanesque topics as science vs. reason, good vs. evil, life and death, and the existence of God. As various potions are dispensed to and tricks played on a staff that includes maid Sara (Bibi Andersson), cook Sofia Garp (Sif Ruud), and stableman Antonsson (Oscar Ljung) in addition to Starbeck’s wife (Ulla Sjöblom) and Egerman’s spouse (Gertrud Fridh), a series of romantic rendezvous take place, along with some genuine horror, leading to a thrillingly ambiguous ending.
Von Sydow is mesmerizing as the mesmerist, a silent, brooding man in a sharp beard and mustache, his penetrating eyes a character all their own. (The original title of the film is Ansiktet, which means “Face.”) His showdowns with Dr. Vergerus serve as Bergman’s defense of the art of film itself, an illusion of light and shadow and suspension of belief. Meanwhile, Tubal and wandering drunk Johan Spegel (Bengt Ekerot) offer comic relief and a needed level of absurdity to the serious proceedings. The film is superbly shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, maintaining an appropriately creepy and mysterious look throughout. It also introduces character names into Bergman’s canon, appellations such as Vogler, Vergérus, and Egerman, that will show up again in such future works as Persona (with Liv Ullmann as actress Elisabet Vogler, who has stopped speaking, and Björnstrand as Mr. Vogler), Hour of the Wolf (with Thulin as Veronica Vogler, a former lover haunting von Sydow’s painter Johan Borg), Fanny and Alexander (with Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard Vergérus), and After the Rehearsal (with Josephson as theater director Henrik Vogler and Lena Olin as actress Anna Egerman). Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, The Magician is screening August 2 at the Rubin Museum, introduced by sociologist and Union Theological Seminary assistant professor Samuel Cruz, PhD, concluding the Cabaret Cinema series “Say a Little Prayer,” held in conjunction with the exhibition “Count Your Blessings,” which opens August 2 and explores the use of prayer beads in various Buddhist traditions.