The Illusionist (2006 film)

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The Illusionist
The Illusionist Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Neil Burger
Produced by Brian Koppelman
David Levien
Michael London
Cathy Schulman
Bob Yari
Screenplay by Neil Burger
Based on "Eisenheim the Illusionist" 
by Steven Millhauser
Starring Edward Norton
Paul Giamatti
Jessica Biel
Music by Philip Glass
Cinematography Dick Pope
Editing by Naomi Geraghty
Studio Bob Yari Productions
Contagious Entertainment
Distributed by Yari Film Group Releasing
Release dates
  • August 18, 2006 (2006-08-18)
Running time 110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $17 million
Box office $87,892,388

The Illusionist is a 2006 American period drama film written and directed by Neil Burger and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel. It is based loosely on Steven Millhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist". The film tells the story of Eisenheim, a magician in fin de siècle Vienna, who uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing. The film also depicts a fictionalized version of the Mayerling Incident.

The film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and opened the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival; it was distributed in limited release to theaters on August 18, 2006, and expanded nationwide on September 1. The film was a commercial and critical success.


Vienna, Austria-Hungary, 1889. The film begins in medias res as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti) of the Vienna Police announces the arrest of Eisenheim (Edward Norton) during what appears to be necromancy passed off as a magic show. Later, he recounts the story of Eisenheim's life for Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

Eisenheim was born the son of a peasant cabinetmaker in a rural village. One day as a teenager, Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson) meets a traveling magician who performs several tricks for him. Eisenheim becomes obsessed with magic tricks after this. He also falls in love with Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson), a noblewoman well above his social class. Although the two are forbidden to see each other, they meet secretly until at last they are caught and forcefully separated.

Eisenheim then leaves home and travels the world, perfecting his craft. He returns to Vienna years later as a master illusionist. He again meets the adult Sophie (Jessica Biel) at one of his performances, when she is volunteered by Crown Prince Leopold as a reluctant participant in an illusion. He soon learns that Sophie is expected to marry the Crown Prince, whose "Progressive sympathies" mask a rumored history of brutality towards women. After humiliating the Crown Prince during a private show, Eisenheim finds his hit performance banned from Vienna.

When Sophie comes to offer him help, they argue vitriolically before surrendering to their feelings and making love. Eisenheim suggests that they flee the Empire together. Sophie, however, explains that it is not so easy. The Crown Prince is planning a coup d'etat to usurp the Crown of Austria from his elderly father, the Emperor Franz Joseph I. He plans to use his engagement to her to win the Hungarian half of the Empire as well. Horrified, Eisenheim warns that such a plot could easily turn out very badly for her. Sophie also says that, if she leaves Leopold or otherwise obstructs his plot, the Crown Prince will have them both hunted to the ends of the earth and murdered. Although aware of the risk, Eisenheim asks whether she really wants to leave with him. Without hesitation, Sophie responds in the affirmative.

Soon after, Uhl's policemen, who have Sophie under surveillance, witness Sophie and Eisenheim kissing in a carriage. Uhl gently informs the Crown Prince that Sophie was "seen" with Eisenheim.

That evening, Leopold confronts Sophie at the Mayerling hunting lodge and accuses her of being unfaithful. She tells him that she will not marry him or have anything to do with his plans. As she leaves, an enraged Leopold is seen to draw his sword and chase her into the stables.

The following day, Sophie's horse returns to Vienna covered in blood and without its rider. Within hours, a search party finds Sophie dead in the Vienna Woods with a sword cut across her neck. Enraged, Eisenheim tells Uhl that Sophie was about to leave the Crown Prince for him. Uhl refuses to believe this, regarding the alternative unthinkable. As Eisenheim plunges into despair and the citizens of Vienna begin to suspect Leopold of Sophie's murder, Uhl observes Eisenheim's actions more closely on behalf of Leopold.

Wracked with grief, Eisenheim prepares a new kind of magic show, using mysterious equipment and Chinese stagehands. During his show, Eisenheim apparently summons spirits, leading many to believe that he possesses supernatural powers. Leopold decides to attend one of Eisenheim's shows incognito. During this show, Eisenheim summons the spirit of Sophie, who says that someone in the theater murdered her. Panicking, Leopold orders Uhl to arrest Eisenheim for fraud. Uhl pleads with Eisenheim to never summon Sophie again. Eisenheim, however, promises only that Uhl will enjoy the next performance.

Returning to the opening scene of the movie, Uhl witnesses Eisenheim summon Sophie a second time. She laments that she lost her locket, a gift from Eisenheim, when she died. Uhl attempts to publically arrest Eisenheim on the spot, only for the illusionist to fade and disappear like his summoned spirits.

Finishing his story to the Crown Prince, Uhl explains to Leopold that he has found evidence that Sophie was murdered by him in the Mayerling stables. He cites the evidence he found there after Eisenheim's disappearance: a jewel from the prince's bloodstained sword and Sophie's locket. Leopold first reminds Uhl that the Vienna police have no jurisdiction over his hunting lodge. He demands that Uhl return the evidence immediately, reminding him of the political career and title of nobility which he was promised in return for supporting the upcoming coup.

To his horror and outrage, Leopold discovers that Uhl no longer cares about anything but justice for Sophie. Uhl announces that he has already informed the Emperor and the General Staff of Leopold's conspiracy to usurp the Imperial and Royal throne. Seething with hatred, Leopold aims a revolver at Uhl's face, vowing to kill him, too. As the Austro-Hungarian Army storms the Mayerling hunting lodge, Leopold vents his hatred for his father's constitutional monarchy, which he says is letting the Empire be "governed by mongrels." The only hope for, "anything to get done," was for him to seize power, abolish Parliament, and govern by decree. As the officers start to break down his door, the Crown Prince shoots himself through the head.

Having been dismissed as Chief Inspector, Uhl leaves the Imperial Palace and is approached by a boy who had appeared as a ghost in Eisenheim's show and receives a folio explaining one of Eisenheim's magic tricks. Uhl demands to know where the child obtained the folio; the child reveals that Eisenheim had given it to him. Uhl then reaches for Sophie's locket, only to discover that someone removed it from his pocket while he spoke to the boy. Recognizing a disguised Eisenheim, Uhl follows him to the train station. As the train leaves, a montage shows an admiring Uhl putting the pieces together in his mind. In reality, Eisenheim and Sophie have framed Leopold for a murder which never took place. Eisenheim is then seen walking up to a house in the country, where he and Sophie embrace passionately.

Eisenheim's previous words are then heard in voiceover: "Everything you have seen is an illusion -- a trick."



The script was based loosely on "Eisenheim the Illusionist", a short story by Steven Millhauser from Millhauser's 1990 collection The Barnum Museum. Together with The Prestige and Scoop, The Illusionist was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.

Magic consultancy and technical advice during the production was supplied by James Freedman, Ricky Jay, Michael Weber and Scott Penrose. Director Neil Burger wrote, "Starting in pre-production, James (Freedman) became a major collaborator; brainstorming, designing and refining everything from small sleight of hand tricks to major narrative set pieces. He worked with Edward Norton preparing him for his stage performances and acted as a hand double in various scenes. His contribution was enormous."[1] Aaron Johnson, who plays the teenage Eduard in the beginning of the film, also learned how to do the ball trick seen in those scenes.[2]

The original story, on which the movie is based, does not include the artifice of the protagonist framing the Duke for murder.

Although the film is set in Austria, it was filmed mostly in the Czech Republic. The city of Vienna is represented in the movie by those of Tábor and Prague, while the scenes set in Eisenheim's childhood village were shot in Český Krumlov. The Crown Prince's castle is actually the historical fortress of Konopiště (located near Benešov), formerly the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The front gates of Leopold's Vienna palace were actually the front gates of Prague Castle. All other shots were at Barrandov Studios in Prague.[3]


As of June 29, 2008 the film has earned worldwide box office receipts of $87,892,388, including $39,868,642 in the United States, exceeding its reported $16.5 million budget.[4] In the first five months after it was released on DVD in January 2007, the film earned $35.99 million in rental revenue.[5]

The Illusionist received mostly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes classified it as 74% "certified fresh" with 187 reviews (as of February 13, 2014).[6] Jonathan Rosenbaum's review in The Chicago Reader praised Paul Giamatti's performance of "a character who feels sympathy for the magician but owes allegiance to Leopold and is therefore divided and compromised ... Giamatti's performance is subtle, expressive, and richly nuanced."[7] Stephen Holden, in his review for The New York Times, praised Edward Norton's role, which, according to him, "perfectly fits his disturbing inscrutability".[8] Variety wrote that Jessica Biel "is entirely stunning enough to fight to the death over".[9]

Director of Photography Dick Pope earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, losing at the 79th Academy Awards to Guillermo Navarro, cinematographer for Pan's Labyrinth.


The soundtrack for the film was composed by Philip Glass and was released on the 15th August 2006.

Track listing[edit]

  1. "The Illusionist" – 2:24
  2. "Do You Know Me" – 2:48
  3. "Chance Encounter" – 3:23
  4. "The Locket" – 2:54
  5. "The Orange Tree" – 1:47
  6. "The Mirror" – 1:27
  7. "Wish I Would See You Again" – 1:26
  8. "The Sword" – 0:36
  9. "Meeting In The Carriage" – 1:09
  10. "Sophie" – 2:50
  11. "The Secret Plot" – 2:53
  12. "Sophie's Ride To The Castle" – 2:05
  13. "The Accident" – 1:30
  14. "The New Theater" – 1:39
  15. "Frankel Appears" – 3:26
  16. "A Shout From The Crowd" – 2:02
  17. "Eisenheim Disappears" – 2:07
  18. "The Search" – 3:00
  19. "The Missing Gem" – 3:03
  20. "The Chase" – 4:11
  21. "Life In The Mountains" – 4:31

Historical links[edit]

The Crown Prince Leopold is loosely based on Crown Prince Rudolf, whose Progressive sympathies had caused him to repeatedly clash with his father, the Emperor Franz Joseph I. On January 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf was found dead in his hunting lodge at Mayerling, from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The body of his 17-year old mistress, Countess Maria Vetsera, was in a bed found nearby. Shortly before, Rudolf had requested permission to petition Pope Leo XIII for an annulment, so that he could marry the Countess Vetsera. Emperor Franz Joseph had angrily forbidden this and had demanded that his son give up his mistress.

Based on the Crown Prince's last letters to his wife and mother and the statements of Countess Vetsera's nurse, it was ruled that Rudolf and the Countess died as the result of a suicide pact. Soon after, Rudolf's grieving parents, Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, donated the Mayerling hunting lodge to a community of Carmelite nuns, who still pray every day for the repose of the Crown Prince's soul.

Among the many conspiracy theories surrounding the Mayerling Incident, the most popular is that the Crown Prince was, like the fictional Leopold, attempting to usurp the Austro-Hungarian throne from his father. It is alleged that Rudolf's conspiracy was then discovered and that he was either forced to commit suicide or was summarily executed on his father's orders.

Iris fades and the final montage sequence in The Illusionist, as well as Eisenheim's name, suggest a nod to director Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948). The iris fade and montage were used prominently in Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin. The "Odessa Steps" sequence in that film proved so powerful, that many audiences believed they were viewing actual newsreel footage, prompting Eisenstein to label himself an "illusionist".


  1. ^ "News (Number 292)". 28 January 2006. Retrieved 2009-12-25. 
  2. ^ Screenwriter/director Neil Burger. Audio commentary for The Illusionist (DVD). Event occurs at ?[when?]. 
  3. ^ "Filming locations of The Illusionist movie". 11 September 2012. Retrieved 2013-05-05. 
  4. ^ The Illusionist at Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-12-25.
  5. ^ The Illusionist (2006) - DVD / Home Video Rentals from Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-12-25.
  6. ^ The Illusionist at Rotten Tomatoes
  7. ^ Chicago Reader: Movie Reviews
  8. ^ The Illusionist - Movie - Review from The New York Times
  9. ^ The Illusionist Review from Sundance from Variety magazine

External links[edit]