The Eyes of Cinema: Max von Sydow in Bergman’s The Magician

The team of director Ingmar Bergman and actor Max von Sydow is among Swedish cinema’s most famous collaborations. After having worked together on The Seventh Seal (1957), Mr. Sleeman Is Coming (1957) (TV), Wild Strawberries (1957), Brink of Life (1958) and Rabies (1958) (TV), their next project was The Magician (1958). Von Sydow plays Dr. Vogler, an illusionist in a magic show that travels the Swedish countryside. In one scene early in the film, the character is interrogated by a physician, Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand, another of Bergman’s finest players) who is unconvinced by Vogler’s supposed powers. Additionally, Vogler is mute, so he can communicate only through his eyes and his body language.

In this scene and elsewhere in the film, I am reminded of Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), the former for his similarly kohl-lined eyes and the physicality of his body as a menacing presence in the frame (Veidt and Von Sydow are both quite tall) and the latter for an even greater use of eyes to convey emotion.

Vergerus shines a lamp in Vogler’s eyes during the interrogation but it does not induce Vogler to talk. (I must applaud cinematographer Gunnar Fischer for his expertise with light and shadow.) Without the capability for speech, Vogler’s eyes must speak for him and any subtle shift in the angle of illumination can change the look coming from them. Is there some real internal anguish or is it a performance?

Whether or not Vogler is actually so afflicted by the line of questioning is unclear but he certainly puts across a sense of torture. When compelled to answer yes or no in the inquiry, he struggles to nod his head (seen somewhat in the second photo), flapping his mouth open and shut soundlessly except for the smacking together of his teeth.

Although The Magician is a movie title that would draw an audience in, I prefer the translation of the film’s Swedish title, Ansiktet, which means The Face. It is a film about the sometimes invisible line between reality and illusion, forcing the characters and the viewers to consider what it means to wear a mask, whether it is literal (Von Sydow’s wig, facial hair and makeup) or figurative (the disguise of performance). There is also an element of the supernatural, calling into question the border between the living and ghosts. I recommend the film, especially now that it is October, the spookiest month of the year.

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