23. September 2006

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Neil Burger's The Illusionist takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna, but world travelers watching the film just might recognize another city: Prague. The film, which opens Friday, was shot in the spring of 2005 in the Czech Republic capital.  "You can't shoot in Vienna right now - it's like trying to shoot 1900 New York in Manhattan," said writer/director Neil Burger, in town earlier this summer for his film's gala screening on opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival. "Prague is kind of like a baby Vienna. It has the bones of Vienna, sort of slightly smaller, but it has all the cobblestone streets and the gas lamps, just incredible, sort of untouched by time." Wanting period realism, the production crew located a number of historically pristine locations in and around Prague. (Burger notes that 95 percent of the film was shot on real locations.) The theater scenes, in which Eisenheim the illusionist demonstrates his art, were filmed in two actual theaters; one in Prague and one in nearby Tabor. And the movie's most breathtaking set has a fascinating link to history. The hunting lodge of the film's villainous Crown Prince is a dark, cavernous structure with hallways eerily hung with hundreds of antlered animal heads. The lodge was once a residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose 1914 assassination was a triggering event for World War I. "It was the place he loved best," said Burger, "right outside of Prague, even though he was based in Vienna at the time. All those animals were animals he killed; there's like a thousand dead animals there. It's a bizarre place. It reeks of death, all those dead animals." Burger notes that Ferdinand's death mask is also in the hallway, along with the bullet that killed him. "In a way he's like a trophy in his own hallway of trophies. It was kind of common ritual at that time to have a death mask of a loved one. It's he and his wife, killed with the same bullet. It went through him and killed her. His bloodstained suspenders and shirt are in this glass case, in the hallway with these other dead animals." The macabre atmosphere is appropriate for the character of the Crown Prince, who's established early on in the film as a malevolent presence. And it seems to scent the movie, grounding it in a more mysterious time. "The whole place has this feel of being haunted," said Burger, "whether it's ghosts or whether you just feel the weight of history." Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company