This post is the result of two seemingly unrelated leads that suddenly came together. A very well-read friend of mine told me of an account by Thomas Mann (1875–1955): in the 1920s while visiting a beach in his native Germany with his granddaughter, she got sand in her bathing suit. Mann quite sensibly suggested that she wash it out in the ocean. The outraged response of the other beachgoers shocked him and became fodder for his story, Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician,1929). Unbeknownst to me, a film by that name was made in 1994 and one of our readers suggested I track it down and watch it. I decided to watch the film and read the story translated into English. Unfortunately, the flow of Mann’s melodic prose is lost in translation, but being his most political piece, we can still get a lot out of it.
The main story is of a German-speaking family (probably Austrian) who go on vacation in the town of Torre di Venere in Italy. In the film, the family is named Fuhrmann: a father (a professor), his wife and their children Stephan and Sophie.
In Mann’s story, Mario is just a waiter who serves them and the children are friendly with, but in Burt Weinshanker’s screenplay, the family greet him as though they were old friends.
An itinerant and popular magician, Cipolla—played by the film’s director, Klaus Maria Brandauer—comes on the scene and performs with his troupe a somewhat impromptu performance in the street. He is not a magician in the traditional sense; he performs number tricks and card tricks, but his most compelling skill is hypnotizing people and getting them to do all sorts of strange things. This symbolizes the power of rhetoric and propaganda that cause people to act against their own interests. The thing that adds tension to this character is that he is not gracious about his talent, but openly ridicules his subjects. Even when he makes a mistake, he can still get people to believe in him.
Italy seems pleasant enough at first but the entangled power structure and unwritten rules of conduct made a series of errors by the family inevitable. To start with, even though they were paying guests, they did not get the kind of deluxe treatment they expected. They had to move to another hotel which was much more hospitable and right on the beach. While Stephan (Jan Wachtel) and Sophie (Nina Schweser) are building a sand castle, Fuggiero (Anthony Pfriem), the 12-year-old son of a local aristocrat stomps on it making some implausible excuse. Of course this was intended as a deliberate insult and warning to the two unsuspecting siblings. It is also meant to represent the tendency of fascist systems to ridicule foreigners in order to build up their own people. The climax of this drama happens a little later when Sophie is sitting quietly in the same place on the beach and Fuggiero and two other boys start cursing at her and throwing sand. Somewhat playfully, she tries to fight back but is overpowered and knocked down.
Sophie is supposed to be 8 in the story but Mann says her body is more like that of 7. The screenwriter added more drama by including the sand fight instead of the girl just wishing to get sand out of her suit. Thus she removes her suit, wades into the ocean and rinses herself off before emerging.
The native beachgoers observe this phenomenon and stand up in shock, moving slowly toward her. I feel quite sure the director intended a Fellini-like moment here, expressing the Italian sensibility. They begin to protest and ridicule this innocent foreigner for her faux pas.
Another addition to the film is a bath scene afterward when Stephan enters and Sophie asks him to leave. Given that Stephan gave no thought to just entering unannounced shows that Sophie has become self-conscious by this event and is perhaps somewhat ashamed of her body.
Professor Fuhrmann is summoned by the mayor and made to pay 50 lire for his daughter’s disgrace. On the other hand, we soon get to see what the local people consider a wholesome display of youthful innocence: an event that includes these girls in uniform singing a patriotic song.
The professor attempts to defend himself in a public meeting—this is not in Mann’s story. At first, he seems to be doing well, but the more conservative members won’t have it and it stirs the attendees almost into a mob and the professor must make a hasty exit. Realizing the family is not accepted in this town, he calls the children in for a family meeting and explains that they must return home that afternoon. The children plead for him to allow them to stay until at least the next morning. You see, Cipolla is scheduled to make his big performance that night and they don’t want to miss it.
In Mann’s story, the children keep falling asleep and while the parents try to carry them out, they wake up and insist on seeing the rest of the performance. Cipolla shows off his devilish talents, even seducing women from their protesting husbands right in the audience, but the magician makes a fatal mistake that night. One of his subjects this time is Mario and he humiliates him by playing with his secret affections for a girl named Silvestra. In the original story, Mario becomes outraged and kills Cipolla. Since the magician in the film is played by the director, he turns the plot around and has Silvestra, shocked by the revelation, kill Mario instead. In one final expression of control, the audience applauds despite the grisly scene that just took place on the stage. Another addition in the film is one final expression of innocence and perhaps the insidious nature of fascism. On the train home, Sophie comes by the cabin wearing a hat and begins to perform a magic trick she learned in town.
It was interesting that Mann did not recognize the early rumblings of fascism in his own country. His masterpiece of Perennial Philosophy, Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers) in four volumes, was interrupted by the turmoil of Nazism and the latter volumes have a distinctly different tone.