Friday, January 26, 2007


The Illusionist (2006)
Directed & Written by Neil Burger
Steven Millhauser (short story)

Edward Norton - Eisenheim
Paul Giamatti - Inspector Uhl
Jessica Biel - Sophie
Rufus Sewell - Crown Prince Leopold

This is the story of Eisenheim (Norton), a magician in 1900 Vienna, who uses his abilities to secure the love of Sophie (Biel) a woman far above his social standing. It is his and her physical goals from childhood to go off together, or in her vernacular, she asks of him: "Make me disappear."

As a young teen aristocrat, she is forcibly taken away from Eisenheim, when he can't make her disappear from the grown-ups that would control her life. His curse? He's the son of a cabinetmaker, a peasant boy who has a gift for slight-of-hand, magic and supernatural faith. He leaves to travel the world and gain power through his gift. When he returns, now as an acclaimed illusionist, she re-enters his life unexpectedly, and just as disheartening is her engagement to the villainous Austrian Crown Prince Leopold whom she does not love, and who treats her, and those that work for him, harshly. The story is told from the point of view of Vienna's chief police inspector, whose career loyalty is to the crown, but being an amateur magician, he has the greatest respect for Eisenheim. That is what the story is about on a physical level.

But what the story is REALLY about, on the psychological level, is this moral premise:
Faith in the supernatural leads to eternal life; but
Faith in scientific materialism (skepticism) leads to death.
At its very core, every scene and character of The Illusionist, is about the conflict of two opposing values:
  • faith in the spiritual world, and
  • faith in the material world.
As explained in my book The Moral Premise, successful movies are about only ONE thing, but that one thing is explored differently in each of the main characters. In The Illusionist, we have four main characters that represent the center, extremes, the middle ground of the debate of where power resides—in the materialistic realm or the spiritual realm. It is an age old question from the Greeks to modern day. But with the industrial revolution and the grand inventions of 100 years ago, the question was of particular interest in Europe, where this story takes place. Let's now look at our charaters and see how they interact with the moral premise.

EISENHEIM is the quintessential illusionist who represents the spiritual side of existence. He is like a priest who is endowed with the supernatural power to enact sacraments, bind or loose, judge the faithful and the skeptics, and rewarding each with eternal life or eternal death. Eternity, of course, has a great deal to do with time -- or perhaps the lack of it. Set Eisenheim up with the moral premise, at one performance he tells his audience:
I would like to continue with an examination of time. From the moment we enter this life we are in the flow of it. We measure it and we mock it, but we cannot defy it. We cannot even speed it up or slow it down. Or can we? Have we not each experienced the sensation that a beautiful moment seemed to pass to quickly, and wished that we could make it linger? Or felt time slow on a dull day, and wished that we could speed things up a bit?
His comments are a foreshadowing of his next more direct ascent to the spiritual meaning of life and death. In another performance with the Crown Prince's entourage in attendance, he bates his audience, and sends the movie reeling down an inevitable path:
I thought we might end this evening with a discussion of the soul. All the greatest religions speak of the soul's endurance beyond the end of life. So, what do you think it means to die? I need a volunteer from the audience -- someone not afraid of death.
And it is at this moment that we are introduced to the two characters that represent the extremes of the moral premise's application. It is, of course, two characters that are intertwined with each other, and who place Eisenheim between them.

Responding to Eisenheim's challenge, the CROWN PRINCE stands, as if to volunteer. But of course, as we will discover, he is afraid of both life and death—he is a quintessential skeptic. So he offers up his finance, SOPHIE, who we will discover is not afraid of life or death—she is the quintessential believer, especially in Eisenheim whom she knows to possess a special connection with what is really true.

Neil Burger, the writer and director tells us on his DVD commentary track:
The crown Prince is a complete skeptic and he doesn't want to admit there is any greater power than his own. The crown Prince can't stand anyone or thing that has a power greater than his own. He can't stand any kind of superstition or religion. It diminishes his own power.
Somewhere in between the skeptic Prince, and the magician-priest is Vienna's chief inspector, UHL. The movie is told from his perspective, as he tries to discover, for the audience, where the real power lies. Uhl, like the Prince, likes to have scientific explanation for everything, but he also enjoys mystery -- he is the head of investigations for the city. Uhl's perspective is how it is with the common man; and so the audience easily identifies with Uhl and his search for meaning and truth. As the story moves along we find Uhl moving toward spiritualism and at other times moving toward materialism. For us, he is always asking: "Can the sacramental powers of the priest-magician be explained or are we to take them on faith, a fiat, if you will?"

Leading up to a fateful Moment of Grace (MOG), Eisenheim is invited to a command performance. The Prince introduces Eisenheim and announcing to his audience a paraphrase of the moral premise by saying that Eisenheim...
...has reportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for holy power...Fear not, everything can and will be explained -- all mysteries penetrated.
And his audience claps in approval of scientific materialism.


Eisenheim merges the steel of scientific materialism (the Prince's sword) with the power of spiritualism, an astonishing sword trick that challenges the Prince's divine right to rule both the country and Sophie's heart. The Prince is embarrassed in front of his friends, and comes upon his own MOG, choosing to embrace materialism and dismisses the supernatural. To some, Eisenheim has made a foolish choice to confront the Prince, but, just perhaps, Eisenheim has only played only the first of many face cards in his hand. Within moments the Prince whispers to the Inspector Uhl to get rid of Eisenheim.

But to fully engage the story, Eisenheim and Sophie also must come to their MOG.

After the command performance, late at night, Sophie comes to Eisenheim in secret and they proclaim their love to each other. He asks her to come away with him. But for her to leave the Prince for Eisenheim would be certain death for both of them. Will they succumb to the seduction of materialism and power (they have just made love), or will they give in to the mystery of their love and the supernatural lure of eternal live. He ponders the truth of the moral premise, and then comes upon his own Moment of Grace, and forces Sophie to hers as well.
Look at me. Do you truly want to leave with me?

Sophie raises up and with full awareness of the possible consequence of her answer.

Yes. -- I do.
Her simple statement is like both the commitment of a bride during a wedding, and the Virgin's Mary's fiat to Gabriel. It is a simple, assured yes, but it reflects the deep faith she has in this worker of supposed miracles dispite the difficult road ahead. It is 48 minutes into a 90 minute movie. The MOG for the protagonist is usually in the middle.

From this moment on, Eisenheim's goal (to recapture his love with Sophie from childhood) is the same, but the method will be the grand illusion, not the parlor tricks. The grand illusion will involve grand misdirection and the full use of all his "sacramental" powers. As we will see, Sophie's childhood wish "make me disappear" now takes on a new twist. Because, recall, she is unafraid of death, and it is in eternity that time can be slowed in order to enjoy those moments of grace. Thus, it becomes Eisenheim's goal to usher the two of them into paradise.

Indeed Eisenheim does make Sophie disappear, (an homage to Romeo and Juliet) if only to make her reappear in several Marian-like apparitions. Like Mary's appearance, Sophie's purpose is to convinces the populace that the spiritual may be very real indeed, and not to accept the Prince's scientific materialism, dread, paranoia, and harshness it will bring.

It is the magician-priest who calls on the supernatural to persuade the populace that there is a spiritual side to our existence. As the populace begins to embrace that truth, the Prince's future is threatened, because the Prince's source of knowledge and power—scientific materialism—is threatened. To drive this home to the audience Burger drops us in on a Spiritualist leader who lectures a gathering. We fervor the old man proclaims:
With these spirits, these manifestation, Eisenheim has give us hard proof of the soul's immortality. The spirit has been reaffirmed in the face of modern scientific materialism. The work of spiritualism will evolve humanity to new moral earnestness....
And then one of Url's investigators finishes the leader's remarks in a report to Uhl:
...It is a revolutionary movement and we will turn the empire into a spiritual republic.
The mystery of the supernatural directly challenges scientific materialism, as does a burgeoning democracy challenges the emperor's successor.

By the way, in real life, it is the skeptic that takes his own life. No once chooses it but the skeptic himself.

Let me finish up with this comment from Burger on the DVD's commentary track.
The role of the magician is to remind us of the mystery of existence, and to inspire awe and wonder of that mystery. Something in the universe is more powerful than all man's achievements. Even if it is a trick, there's that one moment when we feel that the magician does have some kind of power that reminds us of what it's like to look at the night's sky and wonder what are we doing here, where do we come from, and where is all this going?
And that is what The Illusionist is really about:
Faith leads to eternal life; but
Skepticism leads to death.


smart said...

How is skepticism vs faith a moral premise? I thought the morality would saving the girl from oppression vs danger to one's self?

Stan Williams said...

Dear Smart: Skepticism vs Faith by themselves is not a moral premise, you are right. In my book, The Moral Premise, I provide an historical and storytelling explanation of how stories are really about the conflict of two values, and the consequences that result from embracing one value or the other. In the Illusionist, I think (and you can disagree and debate this with me and others), the two values are Faith in the existence and power of the supernatural, vs. Skepticism in the existence and power of the supernatural (or Faith in the natural world that can be explained only through scientific materialism.) The physical consequence of faith in the supernatural (which the movie portrays) is life in paradise, or eternal life. The consequence of faith in scientific materialism is death. Thus, the short hand MP: Faith leads to life, Skepticism leads to death.

Now, please feel free to suggest another moral premise with the ideas you present, e.g. "threat to one's life" vs. "saving the girl from oppression." Both of those are physical consequences. For those to fit the model of a moral premise the story must depict a value (in the life of a character) that leads to one consequence, and the opposite value that leads to the other consequence. Making it real simple a generic MP is this: Mental vice leads to physical problems; but mental virtue leads to physical harmony. (S.W.)