'The Disappearing Illusionist': Karlovy Vary Review

Courtesy of Mer Film AS
A wintry magical mystery with too few tricks up its sleeve.

Award-winning first-time feature director Bobbie Peers rewrites the true story of a magician who made himself vanish into the snowy depths of Norway.

Grabbing our attention from the start with its alluring echoes of Twin Peaks and Fargo, this visually striking Norwegian thriller borrows the bare bones of a real news story and reshapes them into a melancholy romantic mystery about lost souls adrift in a lonely winter landscape. The Disappearing Illusionist marks the feature debut of Bobbie Peers, who won a Palme d'Or in Cannes for his 2006 short Sniffer, and stars August Diehl, the German actor best known for his roles in Inglourious Basterds and the Austrian Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters.

Fresh from its international premiere at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, The Disappearing Illusionist boasts strong performances and high production values, but lacks the dark twists or tight pacing required of a superior suspense thriller. Even so, the global popularity of the Nordic Noir crime genre should help nudge the film towards further festival bookings and possible niche distribution. Mostly English-language dialogue could also help boost its modest theatrical potential outside Scandinavia.

Screenwriter Bjørn Olaf Johannessen based his script on the true case of Dirk Ohm, a German magician who went missing from the small central Norwegian town of Grong in the deep midwinter of 2003. He had already been rescued after almost freezing to death in his car, leading to a short stay in hospital, as the film depicts. The real Ohm's final disappearing act later proved to be a successful suicide bid, a bleak endgame that Peers and Johannessen avoid addressing directly in their playfully speculative reworking of the facts.

Diehl plays Ohm, a small-time magician driving alone through Norway's pristine snowy heartland, fleeing some unexplained personal crisis back home in Germany. Arriving in Grong, he negotiates a room at the town's hotel in return for performing his act nightly for the sparse audience of locals and winter tourists. Reminiscent of both Mads Mikkelsen and Cillian Murphy, Diehl's sunken-eyed, angular good looks are a convincing fit for a depressive drifter haunted by traumas and secrets. A despairing illusionist, maybe.

Meanwhile, flame-haired 25-year-old punkette Marie (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) has gone missing from Grong. Her desperate parents come to believe Ohm can use his magic skills to help locate their daughter. He initially refuses, protesting that he is a mere amateur trickster, then grudgingly agrees to their request in a bid to reassure them. In an enticingly eerie twist, Ohm and Marie appear to be conducting a clandestine romance in scenes which could be dreams, hallucinations or ghostly visitations. Are these just the fantasies of a heartbroken loner? Has Ohm himself abducted the girl, as the local police seem to suspect? Is everybody dead already and stranded in an icy purgatory?

For all its creepy promise, this magical mystery tour resolves itself in a disappointingly conventional manner. Peers and Johannessen seem happy to embroider the truth, but not to spice it up with too much bold speculation. Much of their English-language dialogue feels clunky while Nicholas Sillitoe's twinkly, sentimental score becomes cloying in places. Though it initially feels like a thriller, The Disappearing Illusionist is essentially a psychological portrait of a depressed man sinking into the frozen depths of his soul. Which is a perfectly valid dramatic subject, but frustratingly low on magic.

Production company: Mer Film AS
Cast: August Diehl, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Jørgen Langhelle, Alexandra Rapaport, Ingvar Sigurdsson
Director: Bobbie Peers
Screenwriter: Bjørn Olaf Johannessen
Cinematographer: Jakob Ingimundarson
Editor: Jon Endre Mørk
Producer: Maria Ekerhovd
Music: Nicholas Sillitoe
Sales company: Films Distribution
Unrated, 93 minutes