A Reel Look at Reality

He appears seemingly out of thin air.

"Hi, I'm Neil Burger," and he proffers a hand pointedly attuned to the power of prestidigitation, suddenly drawing the focus of attention in a crowded Center City hotel.

Ah … the "Illusionist."

No. Neil Burger is very much the real thing.

And as the director of "The Illusionist" shows on screen and off, his is no sleight sleight-of-hand.

Adapting, expanding and directing the film version of Steven Milhauser's short story "The Illusionist," the Connecticut native has connected with the magic within all — pulling the ultimate hat trick.

With this mainstream movie that Sartre would enjoy sorting out, opening Aug. 18, Burger has nabbed abracadabra as his own in this tale of a young Viennese tart-tongued magician with nothing in his life but everything up his sleeve.

Ectoplasm and existentialism? Perfect together! That's what Burger conjures up onscreen, as Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) attempts to turn his heart into a molten magnet and steal away the forbidden beauty who is the love of Crown Prince Leopold's life.

Illusion — or elicit love? Who's manning the mirrors here? Does Burger believe in magic and a young girl's heart? "I believe in the role that a magician plays, of reminding us of the mystery of existence, of inspiring awe in an amazing trick that gives us a chill."

"The Illusionist" is as much chiller and thriller as meditation on the myth of impossible love and those with stars in their oys. "It's all related to that feeling of going outside and looking up at the stars and wondering where we are, that something [bigger than us] is going on."

Life's tricks and treats are a going concern for the filmmaker, whose cinematic solipsistic treasure of "Interview With the Assassins" took truth on a grassy knoll of a roll surrounding the JFK assassination.

Impressive painterly conceptions are at the core of his canvases — not surprising given his talents as a fine artist before fine-tuning them for film. The big picture now is this pointillist's dream, making his points on a far bigger frame of reference for viewers.

"The question of reality or illusion is one of the philosophical questions of art."

His response is an artful one, "just wanting to understand the world, and ask why are we here."

Good question at the eye of Eisenheim's own allusions to a spectral world where spirits surround us. It is a vision vexing to any but the outsider, which is Eisenheim's position in the universe, where religion adds to his place on the fringes.

And there is no prayer shawl that can cover him from the abuse he receives as Eduard Abramovitz, before conjuring up a new name and identity.

"Certainly being Jewish in late 19th century Vienna was very much a reason for him being an outsider," says the Jewish director. "An important part."

Part and parcel of the short story is the rampant anti-Semitic savagery that menaces the magician's soul. In the film, "we played that down," reports Burger. "We made it instead into a class thing of haves and have-nots," a conflict "more universal than the particularity of [the magician's] Jewish experience."

Changing Jews into gentiles has been a trick conjured in the Christian world for millennia. Ironically, what reveals Eisenheim's need to be a man of mystery is no mystery at all — it is his need for truths.

Truth be told, just what does Burger see when he looks in the mirror? The child within or the man he's become as a successful filmmaker?

The magic lies in between: "I see," he says, laughing, "a struggling filmmaker."



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