Eisenheim performs a sword illusion in The Illusionist (2006). Is this illusion realistic? Could it be practiced in real life?

Here is a YouTube video showing what I mean:

image of Hisenheim's sword illusion


From an interview with writer and director Neil Burger:

Q: Several of the illusions that are shown in the film are based on real illusions from that time.

A: That's what I tried to do with the illusions. It is based on a short story, and it has some of the illusions in it. I used that as my point of departure.

Magicians at that time -- in a way it was kind of the highest performing art at the time because it was certainly the most popular -- were taking whatever was on the cutting edge of technology and adapting it to their performance. The sword illusion was based on electromagnetism; a general audience wouldn't have been familiar with the application of it.

How did it actually work? The magician who designed the trick, Ricky Jay, won't say:

When an actor or a director must know how an illusion works to accomplish the artistic goal, we gladly comply, but we abjure gratuitous exposure. Our intent is not to be coy but to uphold our belief that preserving secrets can help to excite and mystify an audience, whether the performance is on stage or screen.

Actor Ed Norton learned and performed the tricks for the movie, but I expect he was sworn to secrecy!


Well when you look at the attempts to move it, it clearly does move, but very difficultly. I would suspect that he put some sort of extremely strong electromagnet just under the floor. That way any metal objects that are close enough are held tight towards it (like how neodymium magnets are extremely difficult to pull apart).

It would be an electromagnet instead of a permanent one so that someone can turn it off on cue, (like they did).

Finally, it would have been designed to have a very strong strong magnetic field that falls off exponentially with distance so that it only affects thing ferromagnetic objects within a few inches so that the audience’s jewelery doesn’t suddenly come off and fly towards the stage (that would be a different show altogether). ;-)

  • 4
    Good explanation of a way to accomplish the basic trick (and fits well with the slight electric spark sound as the sword is released), but I wonder that the sword didn't fall over and lay on the floor. With a good trick sword comprised of two blended metals which makes the tip ferrous, but not the rest of the blade, this might work as shown. Or, of course, with complicit people to fail to remove the stone (the magnet makes sure they don't have to pretend they can't remove the sword, but they need to balance it before letting go). Then again, maybe it would work as shown. Just thoughts.
    – Scivitri
    Jul 30 '12 at 5:43
  • Yes, it is curious how he made it stand on end. Magicians can be incredibly inventive and frequently pull of tricks that look completely impossible (until you see how it’s done, then it seems to obvious).
    – Synetech
    Jul 30 '12 at 16:54
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    Magnetic dipoles (as are all magnets used to date) have magnetic fields that follow an inverse-cube law - so their effect does diminish rapidly with distance. That said, an under-floor electro-magnet is an unrealistic explanation on its own, as @Scivitri states, why wouldn't the sword fall over? Also with a small tip like that, with a magnet under the wooden floor, it is not realistic to expect an electromagnet of the era to be strong enough to prevent the sword being picked up.
    – iandotkelly
    Jul 30 '12 at 21:23
  • @iandotkelly, I never claimed it was a complete answer or enough to actually implement. It is just a general theory to explain most of the illusion. And, magicians are often quite resourceful and invent things for their illusions, so it’s entirely possible that a magician could have been the one to figure out a way to make a really strong electromagnet (like the make-shift one that Walt used in the recent Breaking Bad season premier).
    – Synetech
    Jul 31 '12 at 2:10
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    The problem is that even if the trick with an electromagnet might have worked, it would require lengthy preparations to build it under the stage, and remove it after the show. Not to mention transporting the obviously bulky equipment. As it was a private event in the palace, it seems unlikely they would let him unsupervised for hours to remove the floor and build machinery into it. Another problem is that he would need an accomplice to turn it on/off, and he seems to have come alone. Remember, it's the 19th century, so you can forget concealable wireless remote controls.
    – vsz
    Jan 2 '14 at 0:03

My frustration with the entire film was figuring out the dividing line between what was plausible for an illustionist in ca. 1889, and what was merely film special effects. The added or more significant (IMHO) problem with the sword bit is, it seemed spontaneous - the prince challenged him apparently on the spot to do a trick "without the gadgetry" - and Eisenheimm quickly conjured the sword bit. Even if the electromagnetic meme was doable (in that era, and with that sword, etc.) wouldn't it have to have been set up ahead of time (it seemed to be in a royal ballroom, not at Eisenheimm's theatre or on a specially prepared stage; considering the suspicions and jealousies of the crown prince, wouldn't he or even the inspector have been snooping around to witness such preparations?). That seems the most implausible aspect of the trick. The other illusions did seem cinematic to a degree but were subtle enough that one could suspend disbelief.

  • 2
    The spontaneousness is not a problem at all. Eisenheim knew the prince will try to discredit him and the most obvious challenge against any illusionist is to make him perform without his own gadgets. So he was expecting this challenge. He also needed the sword so he could remove the jewel from it for his plan, so he prepared from the beginning to find an occasion to get his hands on the sword. The biggest problem is, however, that how could he have hidden anything under the stage in the palace? It seems unlikely that he was allowed to make lengthy preparations alone in the room.
    – vsz
    Jan 1 '14 at 23:56

Sword standing on its tip without support (The Illusionist Movie). How it is done (the easy way).

To perform the trick for the movie filming, all they had to do was have a strong invisible magicians string (available in most magic stores), with one end attached to the ceiling, with the lower end having a loop to hook around the sword handle. The length of the string would keep the sword vertical with the blade tip just touching the floor.

If you play back a video of the movie it is easy to see the string hanging effect of the sword as the sword sways a little.

The scenes of the various actors trying to move or remove the sword were shot with or without the string attached with each actor pretending to find it difficult to remove the sword.


No tools or special magnets needed to perform many magic tricks including this sword performance, all is just to hypnotize the audience and let their subconscious do the job, for example: 'none of you will be able to see me'

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