Sweden in the year 1846. The small troupe of Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre is called to perform at the grand manor house of Consul Abraham Egerman (Erland Josephson). Egerman has made a bet with his friend, the physician Dr. Anders Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand): the Consul claims that magical forces exist, which Vergérus, with his background in natural science, strictly denies – if such forces would exist, then God might even exist, he exclaims. The magician Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow), who pretends to be mute, and his assistant Aman, in reality his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin) disguised as a man, are therefore subjected to a humiliating interrogation in the name of science. As speaker of the troupe, Vogler’s impresario Tubal (Åke Fridell) does not deny that they perform their magic with the help of illusions, but at the same time Vogler is dead set on proving that these illusions are indeed effective and can even cause Dr. Vergérus to tremble and quake for fear.
Ingmar Bergman’s extremely complex work – a mixture of comedy, portrait of an artist, social criticism and love story – brings together almost all of the themes that occupied him at the time. The story of the itinerant troupe is almost like a sequel to GYCKLARNAS AFTON (1953), the love intrigues reflect the light-heartedness of SOMMARNATTENS LEENDE (1955), the search for proof of God’s existence was soon to become Bergman’s main topic, and the illusionary power of the theatre runs through Bergman’s œuvre like a leitmotif.