Neil Burger, The Illusionist, 2006.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  You can probably read the essay that follows safely. I've been careful not to spoil the surprise ending. But as you watch, keep in mind the idea of the audience's projection, the “willing suspension of disbelief” which applies not just to magic, but also to this film, indeed all films.

    Not to be confused with Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, an animation based on a script by Jacques Tati, re-imagined in the film as a magician. Which, of course, he was— as is any filmmaker, as is the maker of this film.

    Neil Burger based his picture very, very loosely on a short story by Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser. Edward Abramowitz, the son of a cabinetmaker, encounters a traveling magician, who performs tricks, finally making himself and the tree he is sitting under disappear. (So it is said by Chief Inspector Uhl who is telling the story of the illusionist’s origins. But this “trick” is impossible!) The boy, charmed, studies magic and, through magic, meets a young girl, Sophie, Duchess von Teschen. Despite her aristocratic standing, they fall in love, but her family forcibly separates them. Not, however, before he has given her a locket that will figure largely in Edward’s adult life.

    Abramowitz travels to the proverbially Mysterious East, and there he learns all kinds of magic and dark arts. He reinvents himself as “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” an immensely talented magician. He comes to Vienna in the 1890s, surely at that time a world center for fantasy and creativity. Freud was unfolding the secret of dreams. Art nouveau was bursting out with artists like Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Mucha, and others going far beyond traditional realism. Bruckner, Kreisler, Schoenberg, and Mahler were awing concertgoers with new harmonies.

    Without talking about all that, Neil Burger captured the look of the 1890s. He and his gifted cinematographer, Dick Pope, painstakingly imitated the first color process (invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903), autochrome. Autochromes and this film have the look of hand tinted photographs with delicate colors overall but strong colors occasionally coming through.

    Burger’s hero, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) dazzles his first upper-class audiences with his amazing tricks. Again, the director achieved remarkable authenticity by having these tricks translated into film, as they say, “in camera.” That is, the actors learned to do some rudimentary sleight-of-hand themselves, and the magic consultants (Ricky Jay and several others) helped create authentic magic tricks from the period, like those of Robert Houdin, for example. Cinematographer Pope simply (or not so simply) photographed these performances with a minimum of subsequent digital enhancing. The effect is that we—I, at least—wonder, How did he do that?, and the “he” is the magician in the movie and not a filmmaker using camera tricks. This filmic honesty combined with the autochrome look achieved, for me at least, a compelling authenticity to both the magic and the historical setting.

    Eisenheim’s shows come to the attention of Crown Prince Leopold (the handsomely cruel Rufus Sewell) and his Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti—those eyes!). He serves as the Prince’s not-so-secret police in the monarchical dictatorship that was the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Prince appears at one show and seems from the start resentful. (Abramowitz is Jewish—is that the problem? The movie doesn’t develop this line.) The Prince volunteers his fiancée for one of Eisenheim’s tricks. She, of course, turns out to be the long-lost Sophie (Jessica Biel). She and Eisenheim renew their friendship and their love, and the Prince puts Uhl on Eisenheim’s tail. Uhl interviews Eisenheim who pleases Uhl, an “amateur conjurer,” by teaching him a simple trick. Uhl warns him, as he will repeatedly, not to mess in these aristocratic affairs.

    Eisenheim, however, ignores this advice (and, if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie, would there?). At a command performance in the palace, the Prince, who prides himself on his smarts, tries to humiliate Eisenheim by explaining how his tricks work. But Eisenheim turns the tables on the Prince. He uses his tricks to tweak the Prince’s well-known ambition to supplant his father, the legendary Franz Josef who goes on living and ruling much longer than suits his heir. The Prince orders Eisenheim’s show shut down, but popular support prevents that.

    Uhl continues his surveillance and his warnings, but Sophie and Eisenheim consummate their love in a discreet sex scene. He wants her to run away with him. She confronts the Prince, tells him she does not want to marry him, and he flies into a rage.

    I will stop there, for the effect of this film depends on your not knowing its Romeo and Juliet ending. (The brilliant colleague with whom I saw this film figured out the trick finish at this point—he says. I was completely fooled, like Eisenheim’s audiences.) Let me just say that this is a film about power, the Prince’s political power and the apparently magical powers of Eisenheim. And, of course, Eisenheim wins in the end, managing to bring down the superior political power of the Emperor-father on his erring son (shades of Freud's Oedipus).

    Part of that power rests on secrets, the secret of the Prince’s political maneuverings, and the secrets of Eisenheim’s magic. Secrets in turn depend on whether we will accept things as they appear on the surface or whether we will try to dig behind them. What will we project onto what we see, belief or disbelief? And the ultimate projection in The Illusionist is, of course, the film itself being projected from behind us in a theater.

    We can think of power, then, either theatrical or political, as based very much on people’s will to believe. Emperor Franz Josef was a master at creating political pomp to dazzle his subjects into a faith in his rule. The young Hitler learned from him how to create his amazing spectacles at, for example, Nazi party congresses. And I cannot help thinking of the current (2011) political situation in the U.S. with our television sets continually propagating all kinds of myths and half-truths and outright lies.

    Our brains dictate that what we see and hear, we believe automatically. We have to make an effort to disbelieve, to think about what’s behind what we are believing in. We need to re-understand Coleridge’s famous idea of “the willing suspension of disbelief” as really a believing in the illusions of magic or movies or the arts in general that co-exists with the knowledge that “This is only a trick,” “This is only a movie,” “This is only art.” The knowledge that this is only a trick or a movie or a story is cortical; it is a process in our higher brain centers. But the gut emotional reaction and the automatic belief in what our senses tell us are sub-cortical. Much more could be said, and I’ve said a lot of it in Literature and the Brain.

    Something else worth thinking about: in his ultimate trick, Eisenheim dies and comes back to life. This son of Abraham, is he a Christ-figure? Is Burger hinting at yet another kind of belief in magic, religion?

    Be that as it may, this is a film about battling intelligences. The Prince thinks he is very smart and complains that he is “surrounded by fools.” And he is very smart: he can explain Eisenheim’s tricks as the Chief Inspector, for example, cannot, for all that Uhl is an “amateur conjurer.” But it is Eisenheim who is the real brain. He not only creates the astonishing illusions that capture audiences, but he can also create the labyrinthine plot that fools Uhl into betraying the Prince and invoking the vengeful power of his father. And the Prince, at the end, knows that Uhl has been tricked into betraying him and that he himself has been humiliatingly defeated.

    Competing intelligences drive the plot, yes, but this is also a film about competing emotions. The Prince is driven by emotion. He flies into rages, and his contempt for his father’s rule motivates his conniving. (Is this a Freudian, oedipal motif in 1890s Vienna?) By comparison, Eisenheim seems cool and completely calculating, but he, too, is driven by emotion. The emotion that motivates him is love. We could say that this is a film about two kinds of emotion. The contrast between Leopold’s nastiness and Eisenheim’s cool is really a contrast between a negative emotion and a positive one.

     Between these two conflicted intelligences and emotions stands Chief Inspector Uhl. He is wonderfully acted by Paul Giamatti whose eyes tell and tell and tell. Uhl is a magician like Eisenheim but not nearly as great. He is a political power like the Prince but not nearly as powerful. In the middle, as we are, it is he who narrates the film, and it is he who, in the finale, finally realizes Eisenheim’s genius and the plan that he succeeded in carrying off, which involved manipulating Uhl himself. He is, in effect, us, tricked, as we are, by the genius of two masters of magic, Eisenheim and his filmmaker. And he ends by admiring the man who has tricked him, the illusionist, as I do. Should we re-title this film, Neil Burger the Illusionist?

Enjoying:  Once you've seen the film (and read the essay above?), I think you can best enjoy it, by letting it linger in your mind. Think about belief and the way we believe in the arts and in the art of magic and, sometimes, in the art of politics.

The illusion that starts it all

Childhood romance

The secret of the locket

Eisenheim the Illusionist

Eisenheim triumphant

Uhl, amateur conjurer and detective

The Prince explains how it's done

Sophie dead

The dead return onstage

The Prince, cornered

Uhl, admiring