The illusionist: love, magic tricks and the police state
There is a great temptation to regard the film “The Illusionist” as another beautiful fairy tale about love in a historical setting. There are certain grounds for such an approach, but it is easy to see that the historical surroundings are too much for a fairy tale, and it is somehow not at all romantic. In The Illusionist, instead of a love triangle: Eisenheim – Sophie – Crown Prince, we see a quadrangle, where police inspector Uhl acts as the fourth corner. And the driving force of the plot is not only passion. The rivalry between the illusionist and the crown prince goes beyond personal relationships, but it is impossible to understand why they are irreconcilable opponents without taking into account the specifics of the society in which the action unfolds.
The heroes of The Illusionist live in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century. In the film, this empire is shown as a typical police state with rigid class divisions. So that the viewer has no illusions, literally in the first shots we see the arrest of the protagonist right during the performance, and the arrest gives the impression of a blatant arbitrariness of the authorities. Subsequent episodes confirm the police character of the state, and many moments speak of severe social segregation, from the violent separation of young Edward and Sophia to the bitter phrase of Inspector Uhl: “… The truth is, Herr Eisenheim, I am the son of a butcher.” It is not surprising that young Sophia’s dream is to escape from this world.
Is this true? In general terms, yes. Historical facts and memoirs of contemporaries testify that Austria-Hungary was both a police and an estate state, and the division into estates reached caste: for example, the children of Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not have the right to the throne, because their mother was only a countess.
In the film, Crown Prince Leopold is the embodiment of this state, and Eisenheim is the antipode.
What is the real meaning of the conflict between the illusionist and the crown prince?
After the very first performance, which he attended, Crown Prince Leopold is trying hard to “expose” Eisenheim, to reveal the principle of his tricks. To understand the meaning of the crown prince’s obsession, one must go to the heart of the police state. This essence consists in strict control over everyone and everything, which, in turn, gives the illusion of complete order and predictability of life. And Eisenheim’s tricks – and, more broadly, art in general – are slipping out of control. Art creates its own order, even its own world, in which a whole orange tree can grow in one minute.
The world of illusions and imagination, where the illusionist invites the audience, seems to the crown prince an encroachment on the foundations of the state: after all, in it people become free, forgetting about their hardships and the heavy hand of the imperial power. This can be seen from the stage at the crown prince, when his guests began to ask Leopold to leave the stage and let the illusionist complete the performance.
To expose the illusionist means to make him controllable, to turn a miracle into a focus. And if you cannot control and reveal all the secrets of the tricks, then they must be banned. Thus, the conflict between Eisenheim and the crown prince is a conflict of two worldviews, and not a rivalry between two lovers, especially since Leopold is not at all in love.
Relationship between the crown prince and Sophia
Since the control-obsessed Crown Prince craves power, the passions that overwhelm him have nothing to do with love. He plans to overthrow his father, the emperor, but for this he needs the support of the Hungarians, which will be provided by his marriage to Sophia, who comes from an influential family. Sophia herself has no illusions about this: “I have a special role in his plan.” Thus, Leopold needs Sophia not by itself, but as a tool, a way to achieve goals. As he frankly admits to Sofia: “If because of you my plans are thwarted, I will no longer need you.”
What is Eisenheim’s main focus?
One of the reasons for the extraordinary popularity of the illusionist is his ability to demonstrate things that seem impossible. Showing Sophia in the mirror her murder, he first implements the trick with death and resurrection on stage, and then skillfully organizes it in real life. Sophia has only one way to escape: to make sure that she is recognized as dead, and above all for Leopold to admit it. Eisenheim helps Sophia simulate murder, doing it in such a way that even the shrewd Inspector Uhl understands what’s what, only at the very end.
What is the meaning of “exposing” the crown prince from the stage?
Eisenheim realizes that simulating Sophia’s death is only half the battle. To finally feel safe, you need to take the crown prince out of the game. For all his shortcomings, Leopold is smart, and is able to get to the bottom of the truth sooner or later – unless, of course, he is stopped, for example, the emperor is not informed about his plans for a coup d’état.
The only person surrounded by an illusionist who is able to convey this information to the emperor in such a way that he would believe is Inspector Uhl. But in order to induce him to take action, the policeman must be made to believe that the crown prince is guilty. A pebble made of a saber, blood in the stall and testimony of the servants were not enough, and another brilliantly conceived number is being used. “The spirit of the slain” calls the one who sits in the hall a murderer – and the crown prince sits incognito in the hall. The last barrier of skepticism breaks down, and Inspector Uhl understands that something needs to be done.
Why did Inspector Uhl write a revelation letter?
Believing that the crown prince is a cruel killer, the inspector decides to oppose him and sends a letter to the officers of the General Staff, in which he describes a plan to overthrow the emperor. The officers will inform the emperor and it will be over for Leopold. Why does the inspector, who served faithfully before, take such a step?
The fact is that Uhl, like his master, is devoted to the idea of order and control, and that is why he is outraged by the murder. Previously, he believed that the crown prince is a strong man striving for power in order to save the state, but after the “death” of Sophia, he is convinced that in front of him is a psychopath who does not control himself. This is not something that the state cannot save – the state itself must be saved from this.
Do the heroes have real prototypes?
The film is based on the story of the American S. Millhauser “The Illusionist Eisenheim”, but this is not historical prose in the full sense of the word. Some critics draw parallels between Crown Prince Leopold in the film and the real Crown Prince Rudolph, who in January 1889 is believed to have killed his mistress (not his fiancée, he was married) Maria Vechera and committed suicide. After the suicide of the crown prince, there were vague rumors that he allegedly wanted to seize power, and therefore he was removed. It is more reliable that Crown Prince Rudolph suffered from syphilis and suffered from depression. The smart and energetic Leopold in the film bears little resemblance to him, and the great illusionist Eisenheim (aka Eduard Abramovitz), like Sofia von Teshin, are completely fictional characters.
But the main numbers of Eisenheim – “Orange tree” and “Butterflies” – really exist. They were invented by the great French illusionist of the mid-19th century. Robert-Houdin.
How is the Orange Tree trick done?
If the oranges that Eisenheim threw to the audience were real, then the tree itself, of course, is nothing more than a skillful imitation. Special mechanisms first pushed out leaves made of silk paper from hollow “branches”, then artificial flowers. While all this was happening, the oranges were hidden behind round green screens, which turned to the audience at the right moment.
This witty number is identical to the essence of the film, where the rivalry in love turns out to be a conflict between the state and the creator, a terrible murder – a multi-step manipulation, and almost supernatural possibilities – dexterous tricks. What, then, is genuine in this world? Only oranges, that is, the first love, which still does not know either self-interest or selfishness. And if you try very hard, you can save it – and eventually escape from the police hell to heaven, where everything is real: flowers, butterflies, and trees.