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Of Surveillance and Crowd Democracy

In one scene in The Illusionist Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) a police inspector tied to the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, arrests Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a popular magician in Vienna. He interrogates the magician in his office and threatens him with prison when a crowd forms in the street. “Your sentence will be greater,” Uhl swears, “if that mob attacks the building!” So Norton disperses the crowd with a speech: “Listen to me please,” Eisenheim cries,

You must listen to me please! I want you all to know that everything that you have seen in my theater is an illusion. It’s a trick. It’s not real. You can’t bring loved ones back from the grave. You can’t receive messages from the other side. I apologize if I have given you any false hope. My intention has been only to entertain, nothing more. Now I appreciate your support, but you must go home. Please, you must go.

His speech is effective; the crowd disperses, and Uhl lets Eisenheim go.

The scene bothered me immediately. Vienna is ostensibly under the rule of an absolute monarch, or, anyway, the crown prince of an absolute monarch. Uhl, as an inspector, is in the pocket of the crown prince, who it seems everyone—Uhl, Eisenheim, Sophie (Jessica Biel)—knows is plotting to overthrow his father. The film’s first scene, for example, which (smartly) is in medias res, begins in Norton’s theater: although the seats are full, uniformed police guard every exit. Uhl closes down the show with the authority of the crown, and though the crowd is angry, no one dares do a thing. Always there are spies following Eisenheim and Sophie. So throughout, the impression is given that the state thrives by surveillance. Through a number of channels the crown prince knows what happens in his kingdom. Of course, surveillance cannot work in secret: the subject who knows he is being watched knows to be orderly. Thus in another scene, also in the theater, Uhl cautions a patron to watch what he says, else he’ll be dragged off to torture and to prison.

Because Vienna is under surveillance, when Eisenheim is in Uhl’s office, it’s Uhl who has all of the power. Eisenheim does have Uhl’s admiration of his illusions, but there’s a distinct difference between admiration and power. Because Uhl does the bidding of the prince, his will is only partly his own; as he exercises it, he must weigh the risk not just of losing his career (which the prince at one point threatens) but all future prospects, even his very life. Yet that’s the thing: when a crowd forms outside of his office, Uhl turns to Eisenheim. Why? Is it because he sees Eisenheim as a demagogue, who leads the peasants through populist rhetoric? Eisenheim’s crowd represents rebellion, perhaps? There are suggestions in the film that the public believes Eisenheim might be leading a revolt. But of course, none of that is right. Eisenheim’s a magician. He holds the people’s awe and admiration. But, again, that’s not power, and the crown prince knows it: “he’s a magician,” he scoffs, and he directs Uhl to discredit and arrest him.

What happens when Eisenheim speaks from the window, then? Why does he take the initiative—why does he have initiative at all to take? The action makes no sense. It’s not even that there is a credible fear on Uhl’s part that the crowd represents some sort of revolution: although he intimates at one point that Eisenheim is planning a revolt, the intimation’s as much of a question as it is a threat since Uhl should be able easily to arrest Eisenheim on suspicion alone. In the scene, it’s not even that Uhl stops acting as the hand of the prince; rather, it’s that the very notion of the prince is erased in the moment. It’s as if the film had an implicit universal conditional to dictate its plot: “If there is no crowd, then the prince reigns.” And it’s not even very realistic democracy, either, since the public can be convinced but not intimidated. (Which is nothing compared to the notion that all it takes to convince the crowd is to say, “It all just for funsies!”) Eisenheim’s speech represents an unwillingness on the part of the script to deny the fact that crowds do not always represent ultimate authority. Even though the film’s set in a world of political tyranny, tyranny of the majority is the only tyranny that really matters.

There’s good stuff in The Illusionist—notably: Giamatti’s performance as Uhl; the story’s not half bad, either, though the end is ripped straight from The Usual Suspects—but this scene sank it for me. It showed the film’s setting as shallow, manipulable for the sake of character rather than a world in which the characters must traverse. At the same time as it sets up the movie’s greatest irony, it also undermines it.

 

Comments

We watched this last week and enjoyed it very much. At the end, I explained my dissatisfaction with Uhl’s realization and drew the same comparisons to the Usual Suspects. The Ususal Suspects did it better.

I disagree with your dismay about that scene. To me, it’s more akin to the Pharisees being afraid to arrest Jesus in Jerusalem during Passover. Rome held the power, but the threat of the crowd indeed changed their tactics. Clearly, it was not Jesus’ ability to rally the crowd, because he would not have, but the powers withheld their prosecution until later because the wondered what might be.

I think you dismiss Leopold’s fear too quickly. Leo said that Eisenheim was just a magician, but he did not act like it. If he were as casual and unafraid as you suggest, he would not have assigned Uhl to shut him down or tried to discredit him at the palace or committed such resources if he did not wonder if Eisenheim might be a political threat. This mirrors the illusionist’s ability to awe with wonder and confusion more than actual magic. Uhl was more concerned with the means, not the magic, and Leopold was more concerned with the political potential to run the risk that he might be more than a magician, in spite of his protests.

Leo feared him all right. Eisenheim thus did have a sort of power, or Leo and Uhl feared the possibility of his power. They would not have feared his actual power but the disruption to order that all tyrants fear.

Uhl’s threat to Eisenheim that his charge would be greater if the crowd attacked was not a response to a known threat. Uhl still was trying to figure the magnitude of the problem. Uhl’s prosecutorial threat was a tactic to cut off a potential problem before it got out of hand. It was a very lawyerly move. He anticipated a problem, and shifted the burden to Eisenhiem on the chance that he might have the power to disperse the crowd, not because he actually feared a revolt. Uhl was right.

You dismiss the scene as incredible because of the presence of surveillance and a totalitarian trend in the government in advance of a coup. On the other hand, Uhl’s preventive threat is perfectly in tune with a tyrant not yet securely in power. Uhl was balancing the need for power and control against the potential, unknowable threat of what Eisenheim might have been.

Uhl was successful completely, by arresting him Uhl asserted government control, by giving him an out, Uhl tamped down the immediate threat of a riot and by forcing Eisenheim to address the crowd, he discredited the potential for a Messianic problem. Uhl was cagey and wise even in releasing Eisenheim. He got the public disclaimer he needed. He difused the situation and could claim to the body politic and Leo that by dismissing him, he reduced his credibility in the street instead of magnifying his martyr-threat as an incarcerated spiritualist.

Eisenheim’s reaction and speech got him off the immediate hook, but it also demonstrated that he actual power, however limited, to sway them. In the end, his short term play to exonerate himself and remove the threat of the crowd, made him more of threat.

Not only do you give too much agency to Uhl, but also your comparison to Jesus just doesn’t work. Not only is Eisenheim no Jesus, Vienna in the Austro-Hungarian empire was the seat of the Hapsburg monarchy, a capital in a split kingdom—very, very far removed from an occupied city in a conquered state of a worldwide empire. You say that I

dismiss the scene as incredible because of the presence of surveillance and a totalitarian trend in the government in advance of a coup. On the other hand, Uhl’s preventive threat is perfectly in tune with a tyrant not yet securely in power. Uhl was balancing the need for power and control against the potential, unknowable threat of what Eisenheim might have been.

But Leopold was not a tyrant “not yet securely in power.” He was totally secure, which is exactly why he was plotting to overthrow the emperor in Budapest—not because he wasn’t sure of his power, but because he wanted more. My point is that Eisenheim never should have been allowed the position to be presented as a threat because, by the film’s logic, he just wasn’t. (The weakness of his speech—“it’s just entertainment!”—reveals as much.)

We can discuss whether it could have been politically feasible for a tyrant in the real turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna—or a city like it—to be as oppressive as I suggest one could be (there were innumerable pressures, I’m sure, to be perceived as modern and open—one can often gain power by maintains the appearance of openness), but the movie’s fictional Vienna isn’t nearly as complex as your interpretation suggests or as the real Vienna might have been.