Bright Lights Film Journal

The Illusionist: Film Art and Political Power

“He tries to trick you. I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?”

The Illusionist was released in 2006 to generally good reviews (the consensus seemed to settle on high-class escapist entertainment), a smattering of award nominations, mostly for cinematography and score, and decent profits. I think it should be taken more seriously. The Illusionist, it seems to me, draws our attention to the role that art plays in maintaining political power and explores the ways that art, in particular film art, can also undermine political power. It is, then, an extraordinarily self-conscious film that defends the filmmaker who wants to play a role in political life.

“We have to do something”

Consider the way it begins. Lights are focused on a single man, seated on the stage, surrounded in darkness. The theater is full, not just of the paying audience, but also of policemen who line the aisles. Finally, a woman in the audience stands and says for all to hear, “It’s her. I know it’s her. She wants to tell us something. We have to do something.” At that, Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) walks to the stage to arrest Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) on the charges of disturbing the public order and making threats against the empire. Not since Spike Lee began Do the Right Thing (1989), with Samuel L. Jackson intoning “Wake Up” to the residents of Bedford Stuyvesant (and the movie audience), has a film so clearly announced that it wanted to convey some message to the audience.

This first scene also establishes the conflict around which the film will be organized. On the one side is Eisenheim, a magician of such talent that his illusions approach “the realm of art.” But his art not only entertains, it seems to carry a political message that threatens the powerful. His antagonist is the politically ambitious Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who fears what the audience may learn from the apparitions Eisenheim seems able to summon from the dead. But this is an artist of a certain kind, for it is clear that Eisenheim, “a close student of photography and the new art of cinematography” (Millhauser 1990, 215), is using film projections to produce the apparitions that threaten the prince. And as the director, Neil Burger, has said, “cinema is magic” (Burger 2006). A filmmaker, then, has taken on a politician.

The Illusionist is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. Both the film and the story concern a magician who performed in Vienna in the last years of the 19th century, a time according to the short story in which the Empire was “tottering.” In the short story, Eisenheim’s antagonist is Inspector Uhl, who feared that Eisenheim’s magic “crossed boundaries [between art and reality] and therefore disturbed the essence of things” (Millhauser, 235). Instinctively, as a representative of the law, Uhl feared that the pleasures, playfulness, and possibility of Eisenheim’s magical art posed a threat to the Empire, which depended, he sensed, on a clear distinction between what was real and possible (itself) and what wasn’t (any alternative that might be imagined).

In the film, the conflict between art and politics is more developed and explicit. No longer is Eisenheim’s antagonist a mere police inspector; instead Burger sets him against the Crown Prince, the emperor’s son, a character created for the film specifically to “embody the Empire” (Burger 2006). Of course, the result of giving Eisenheim a more politically significant adversary and providing that adversary with political views and ambitions, is inevitably to extend the political implications of his film. No doubt these implications were meant to extend to contemporary America, since so much of the criticism, widespread in 2006, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, attacked the idea of an American empire.

The plot of The Illusionist has Leopold and Eisenheim competing for the souls of two people – first the Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel) and then Inspector Uhl. Crown Prince Leopold is engaged to Sophie, a Hungarian aristocrat, who will bring to their marriage important political alliances. With these alliances, the Crown Prince expects to be able to unseat his father from the throne of the Empire. These plans are threatened when Sophie’s childhood friend turns up in Vienna as the illusionist, Eisenheim. As the Crown Prince and Eisenheim compete for the affection of Sophie, we can watch Burger explore the different natures of art and politics. Once that competition is settled, the film turns to Uhl and whether he will continue to serve the prince. Eisenheim, in effect, presents Uhl with a fictional story, not unlike a film, aimed to persuade him to turn against the prince. By paying attention to this story and its impact on Uhl, we can see some of the ways narrative (and narrative films) conveys moral and political meaning.

“Where does political power come from . . . ?”

The contest between Eisenheim and the Crown Prince and its larger ramifications are made explicit at a performance Eisenheim gives at the house of the Crown Prince early in the film. Eisenheim’s first trick is to seem to paint a picture of the Emperor simply by passing his hand in front of the canvas. The antagonism between father and son seems known to all and is alluded to by the prince when he remarks sarcastically that the picture was done in a style far too modern for the father. Against both the old-fashioned ways of the father and the illusions of Eisenheim, the prince declares his commitment to reason. “Fear not, everything can and will be explained, all mysteries penetrated.” His use of “penetrated” to describe the activity of reason is worth noting. As the people in the audience grow tired of the prince’s failed attempt to discover how Eisenheim performed this trick, he defends himself by saying to them, “He tries to trick you. I try to enlighten you. Which is the more noble pursuit?”

Challenged to perform another trick, Eisenheim asks the prince for his sword. Holding it in front of his body, Eisenheim asks the audience, “Where does political power come from: steel, or destiny, or divine right?” Reminding the audience of the story of how Arthur proved his right to rule by drawing Excalibur from the stone, he balances the prince’s sword on its tip and invites men from the audience to try to move it. Neither an older military officer nor a young cousin of the prince is able to lift the sword. Eisenheim’s art triumphs over both. As the audience applauds, the prince steps to the sword to reclaim it. But his first attempt to lift the sword is unsuccessful, suggesting for just a moment that he has no right to rule. Only when he glares at Eisenheim, conveying the danger Eisenheim is in, is he able to pull the sword away from the floor. The contest between Eisenheim and Leopold begins over Sophie, but soon moves to the foundations of political power. And to the three foundations of political power already mentioned – steel, destiny, and divine right – we might add another: art (Edelman 1995, 1-5).

In the scene I have just described and throughout the film, the political power wielded by the prince is identified with the sword, that is, with force and violence. He may try to present himself as a rational modernizer, but it is his willingness to use violence that actually defines him. So certain is he of his “noble pursuit” that he is oblivious to the human misery his “rational” policies may cause. The art of storytelling, especially in the cinema, which focuses on the particular and gives “priority to the perception of particular people and situations” (Kearney 1996, 31), can provide a powerful corrective to the delusions that accompany grand abstractions. Behind a false “façade of history” that can be constructed by leaders using either language or image, there are the “painful particulars” that lead to the truth (Bromwich 2008). Thus, this film provides image after image that associates the prince with violence and death rather than reason and progress.

The first time we meet the prince is at a meeting with the Police Inspector. It is significant that the film locates the prince’s residence in a hunting lodge. As the camera follows the Inspector down a long hallway toward the prince’s office, our attention is drawn to the stuffed heads of the deer and elk that have been killed by the royal family. This image of pointless death is repeated a number of times as not only the Inspector, but also Sophie and Eisenheim are summoned to meet with Leopold. In another scene the Inspector reports to Leopold as he is in the field shooting game. As they talk, a dead deer is dragged away in the background.

Leopold’s violence is not limited to animals. He is reputed to give his women “a good thrashing now and again” and to have once killed a woman by throwing her off a roof in order to hide the beating he had given her. So eager is he to learn how Eisenheim performs his illusions that he suggests that Inspector Uhl use blackmail and, if necessary, torture. Yet there is no indication that the prince is personally brave. In fact, at one of Eisenheim’s early performances, when a volunteer who is not afraid of death is needed, the prince, in the audience that night, sends Sophie to the stage.

It is not surprising that the prince is so willing to use force. His understanding of his social world makes the sword essential. Above him is his father, the Emperor, whose power and position he wants for himself and whose overthrow will certainly not occur peacefully. Below him are “mongrels” who speak in a “1,000 different voices” and whom he fears. It is not just that these people can be intimidated; their inferior status makes it appropriate that the prince rule them with force. The Prince is part of an aristocracy that, Inspector Uhl points out to Eisenheim, will do anything to maintain its position. When the prince finds out that Sophie has been seen with Eisenheim, he accuses her of being “democratic in her friendships.” When Sophie refuses to marry him, he threatens her and hits her. When the Inspector acts to expose his plot against the Emperor, he threatens to shoot him. And, of course, as Eisenheim turns the audience against him, he wants Eisenheim arrested and tortured.

Wielding the sword, as a political leader must, has made Leopold hopelessly arrogant. Since no one can stop him, he has become accustomed to getting his way and doing what he likes. Living in the splendor and pomp of political power, accustomed to privilege, he has come to think of himself as superior to those he rules. Of course, not all political leaders come to have all these characteristics. But enough do, especially those who seek to rule over an empire of diverse people, some of whom will almost inevitably want their independence, that the film is a powerful warning.

A year after The Illusionist appeared, the playwright Harold Pinter expressed a similar view in his Noble Prize acceptance speech. “The majority of politicians,” he said,” on the evidence available to us, are not interested in truth but in power and in the maintenance of power” (Pinter, 2005). To maintain their power, Pinter argued, politicians use language to weave “a tapestry of lies” that keeps the thought of their citizens at bay. Artists, he implied, have a special role to play in prodding citizens into reflection because they can counter the language of authority through their own use of words and images that carry powerful, disruptive emotions. Pinter uses the example of a poem by Neruda, “I’m Explaining a Few Things” (written in 1936), that used these images to force readers to confront the reality of Franco’s bombing of Republican towns during the Spanish Civil War. It ends:

Come and see the blood in the streets,
Come and see
The blood in the streets,
Come and see the blood
In the streets.

Eisenheim has no sword, he never uses or threatens violence, yet in the end he has toppled the prince and won the love of Sophie. How could his illusions, his art, triumph over the sword of the prince? Unable to simply intimidate people into obedience, he must treat them as equals and convince them. His skill must win their respect; his devotion to their entertainment or happiness might gain their love. His illusions may even help them to see the truth. Eisenheim persuades because he does not think of himself as better than his audience. Eisenheim’s father was a cabinet maker, a point the film stresses in his history with Sophie, whose parents would not allow the two of them to play together, and in his conversations with Inspector Uhl, whose common background (his father was a butcher) lays the foundation for their mutual respect. Of course, not all artists are famous for their personal egalitarianism, but it remains true that their art has no power other than its ability to move the emotions of the people who experience it.

Eisenheim describes himself as just an entertainer. But the film presents him as exceptionally intelligent, technically skillful, hardworking, and committed to his craft. A film self-consciously about film art quite properly directs our attention to the technical skills that are necessary to make (movie) magic. In fact, Eisenheim’s art requires a much deeper understanding of science than the “enlightened” Leopold could ever hope to have. Even as a young man Eisenheim was able to construct an ingenious locket for Sophie. His work space is full of diagrams and devices. At the end he presents Inspector Uhl with the drawings that explain how he was able to seem to make an orange tree grow and produce fruit in just a few minutes. He tells his audience (and here we might think of film editing) that he is able to bend nature’s laws and slow down or speed up time. While his art may have made him wealthy, he shows little interest in money or power and is ready to leave fame and fortune behind to escape with her. It is his producer who is excited about the fortune they can make.

Just as the prince is associated with violence and death, Eisenheim’s art brings life. Consider the first tricks we see him perform. He begins by making two crows appear and then freeing them to fly away. He makes an orange tree grow and produce oranges on the stage as the audience watches. And then he produces two butterflies from the hand kerchief of a woman in the audience. Even more to the point are the illusions he creates at the end of the film, which seem literally to bring people to life, if not actually, then, as in movies, as characters to entertain and educate. Compared to the calculating and violent Prince, Eisenheim’s art enriches the emotional lives of all he comes into contact with. It is Burger’s genius to see the political possibilities in Milhauser’s belief that “art is connected . . . with a sense of enhancement, of radical pleasure, of affirmation” (Chenetier 2003).

In the first half of the film, the competition between Eisenheim and Leopold is for the love of Sophie. Though the Crown Prince has wealth, position, and power and is willing to use that power to punish Sophie if she does not marry him, she chooses a simple life in the country with Eisenheim. The path of least resistance for Sophie would have been to remain loyal to her aristocratic heritage, to marry the prince for the wealth and position it would have given her. But Eisenheim the Illusionist rekindled emotions she once had (as films often do), enabled her to see that violence was at the core of Leopold, and reminded her of the possibility of a better world, one where human relations are based on equality and hold the promise of love. As Eisenheim gave Sophie the chance to compare a life with Leopold with a life with him, so was the audience given a chance to compare the political ambitions and violence of the prince with the democratic values of Eisenheim.

“Perhaps there is truth in this illusion.”

In the second half of The Illusionist the focus turns away from rescuing the soul of Sophie toward rescuing the soul of Inspector Uhl. In part, Uhl is presented as an ambitious bureaucrat eager to advance beyond his father’s profession of butcher and willing to do the bidding of the prince in order to achieve his goal, even if that requires him to arrest people he knows to be innocent and to cover up the prince’s violent behavior toward women. He describes himself as cynical, though Eisenheim calls him corrupt. Yet from the start there are hints that he may have been drawn to his position as Inspector for another reason, perhaps because he once sought the truth. Uhl is plainly fascinated by Eisenheim’s illusions, is eager to learn how they are done, and has himself dabbled in magic. He recognizes Eisenheim’s talent and is reluctant to arrest him. His working-class background enables him to see the truth about the aristocracy, even as he serves them, and makes him sympathetic toward Eisenheim. At a meeting with Eisenheim in which he asks why Eisenheim took a carriage ride with Sophie, he avers that while others might judge what seemed to be an indiscretion, he wants to know what really happened. Just as Eisenheim saves Sophie from a loveless marriage to Leopold, he saves Uhl from corrupt service to Leopold. And he does it by, in effect, directing a film for Uhl to watch.

The problem that Eisenheim and Sophie face is that if they try to run away from Leopold, he will track them down and kill them. The solution is for them to disappear, an appropriate job for an illusionist, and for the true nature of the Crown Prince to be exposed for everyone to see, the perfect task for an inspector. But Uhl needs to be motivated. He must recover the feelings he must have once had about the truth, about the powerful, and about doing his job with integrity. To awaken these feelings, Eisenheim directs himself, Sophie, and a few minor characters in a complicated plot in which she appears to have been killed. Investigating the case, Uhl collects evidence planted by Eisenheim which suggests that the prince is responsible.

Convinced by Eisenheim’s “film,” Uhl confronts Leopold at the hunting lodge. Believing that the prince killed Sophie, he refuses to be part of the plan to unseat the emperor, even though this means the end of his political ambitions, and tells the prince that soldiers are on their way to arrest him. The Prince, knowing that he didn’t kill Sophie, tells Uhl, “It is all a trick, it is an illusion.” To which the Inspector replies, “Perhaps there is truth in this illusion.” Now the prince is right that he didn’t kill Sophie, and Uhl is wrong to think that he did. So the illusion or narrative created by Eisenheim has misled everyone, yet it is true.

Through the art of Eisenheim the true nature of the Crown Prince’s character has been revealed to Uhl. Of course, Uhl always knew that the prince was violent, and the film suggests that he knew about the woman being thrown to her death. But the truth of the prince is not just in knowing what he did, it must also be in the appropriate emotional reactions to his acts. As Martha Nussbaum has written in her defense of the ethical value of narrative, a defense based on the impact that narrative has on the emotions, “if one really accepts or takes in a certain belief, one will experience the emotion: belief is sufficient for emotion, emotion necessary for full belief” (Nussbaum 1990, 41). And it is here that Eisenheim’s narrative, and film art more generally, makes its contribution. The narrative directed by Eisenheim has educated Uhl’s emotions, rather than providing him with new facts. It is not that he knows something new about the prince, it is that he has a new and more appropriate emotional reaction to the prince. He has watched the story Eisenheim constructed for him as we all watch films, using “emotional seeing – the seeing of emotions with emotions” (McGinn 2005, 105). The prince he once served calmly now, appropriately, fills him with outrage.

It is worth emphasizing that Eisenheim turned Uhl around through a narrative instead of by invoking general rules derived from abstract reason. Uhl’s desire to do what was right didn’t occur because he heard a sermon or attended a lecture. Instead, he changed as he watched a story unfold and came to identify with the characters. His identification with Eisenheim, like himself a product of the working class and a magician, allowed him to “emotionally see” or experience Sophie’s death through Eisenheim’s feelings. And watching the grief of Eisenheim when Sophie was seemingly found floating dead in a stream must have increased these feelings. No longer could Uhl think of Leopold in terms of the grand and abstract goals he envisioned for the Empire; Eisenheim’s narrative forced him to focus on two individuals, as art always does – on Sophie and Eisenheim, and their suffering.

Just as important as Eisenheim’s grief and anger was his courage in opposing the prince, in saying out loud what all suspected, that the prince was guilty of murder. Eisenheim refused to close down his theatre and was willing to be arrested rather than to cease his efforts to use his art to undermine the prince’s legitimacy. Uhl learned how he should feel about Leopold by watching and experiencing how Eisenheim felt about him, just as film audiences have learned how to feel about the weak and the powerful by experiencing the stories told by great political films. Slowly Uhl came to acknowledge Nussbaum’s insight that “our task, as agents, is to live as good characters in a good story do” (Nussbaum, 3).

Perhaps most significantly, Eisenheim’s narrative has also changed the way Uhl feels about himself. He is no longer someone who follows the commands or rules of another so that he can get ahead. The emotions that the narrative he has watched have awakened have implicated him in the lives of others. His newfound empathy for Sophie and Eisenheim has prepared the way for his “emancipation from the narcissistic enclosure of the ego,” to use Kearney’s phrase (Kearney, 34). No longer absorbed in his own self-interest, identifying with Eisenheim and angry at the prince, he recovers his own courage and love for the truth. He may even feel some self-respect.

“Ordinary, your highness, very ordinary.”

Also watching this story created by Eisenheim were the citizens of Vienna who constituted the audience at Eisenheim’s theater. There, using the new technology of film, Eisenheim seemed to summon characters, including Sophie, from the dead. Fearful of what the apparition of Sophie might say, the prince, in disguise, and Uhl attend a performance. Uncertain how he looked without his uniform, Leopold asked Uhl’s opinion. Uhl responded “ordinary, your highness, very ordinary.” Though Leopold didn’t seem to pick up on Uhl’s tone, the audience must. Without the artful presentation of power – the monumental residences, the staff, the uniform, the sword – Leopold was just another person. As Murray Edelman reminds us, “symbols and rituals” can be used in politics to “influence and dominate the public” (Edelman 91).

The dependence of Leopold on art was not confined to this finery; just as important was the narrative that granted him legitimacy. In part this narrative was based on his aristocratic birth, and in part on his reputation as progressive and enlightened. The sword may have given him the ability to threaten and to inflict violence, but it was art, or “public myth” (McNeill 1982), that provided him with legitimacy. While Eisenheim could not oppose the prince with violence, he could undermine the public myth, the affection and respect of Uhl and the citizens. And this is what he did at his performances as he used film to create characters, including the apparently dead Sophie, to portray Leopold as the murderer he was. Of course, Leopold sends the police to stop Eisenheim. But in a memorable film moment, Burger asserts the power of art to withstand the violence wielded by the state by having a policeman swing a sword through what he thought was Eisenheim’s head, only to find that the Eisenheim on the stage was also an image and beyond the violence of the state.

Consider again the sentences uttered by the woman in the theater at the start of the film. “She wants to tell us something” directs our attention to the way art can inform. In this case the audience expects the apparition of Sophie to tell them who killed her. But more important is the second sentence, “We have to do something.” Unless feelings of anger, injustice, and moral outrage accompany the knowledge of the prince’s acts, the truth of those acts will not be fully realized by the audience, and as a result they will not act in ways appropriate to that truth. The genius, then, of Eisenheim and Burger’s film art, based as they both were on the creation of apparitions in the darkened theatre, is that they educate the emotions. And in art that aims to be critical, that means that when the rich and powerful engage in war and other “noble pursuits” and surround themselves with patriotic symbols, ordinary citizens will see the ordinary men behind the artful presentation of power, be skeptical rather than deferential, identify with the innocent victims of violence, and, outraged at pointless suffering, do something to stop it.

Works Cited

Bromwich, David. “Euphemism and American Violence,” The New York Review of Books. Vol 55, April 3, 2008.

Chenetier, Marc. “Interview with Steven Milhauser,” Transatlantica, 2003.

Edelman, Murray. From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Kearney, Richard. “Narrative and Ethics,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Vol. 70, 1996.

McNeill, William, “The Care and Repair of Public Myth,” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 63, 1982-83.

Millhauser, Steven. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” in The Barnum Museum. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Pinter, Harold. “Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth & Politics,” The Nobel Foundation, 2005.