Neil Burger’s 2006 adaptation of ‘Eisenheim The Illusionist’, a short story by Steven Millhauser, is exemplary of the pitfalls of literalising the symbolic. Burger’s The Illusionist is by no means a bad film, but its rote plot and diluted imagery is interesting as an illustration of the Hollywood machine’s misconception that audiences only ever accept the familiar and unchallenging.
Millhauser’s short story tells of the career of Eisenheim, a magician working in Vienna in the 1890s. Lacking a plot in the conventional sense, it is presented as a fictional history of Eisenheim, describing his early days as a skilled imitator of well-known parlour tricks, his mid-career developing new illusions, and his final phase as a conjurer whose performances begin to blur the lines between reality and artifice. Told in the third person, the reader is never granted direct access to Eisenheim. We know nothing of his past save for a legend about his meeting a conjurer as a young boy, his speech is never direct and the nature of his illusions are never revealed. Almost as if we are a member of his audience, we are never quite able to peer behind the curtain to see what is really happening.
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