German executives turn to magic to up their game

Harold Voit takes out his wallet, extracts a wad of 50-euro bills and gazes at it calmly as the cash goes up in flames.

German executives turn to magic to up their game
Harold Voit. File photo: DPA

Slamming the billfold shut, Voit puts out the fire and opens it again to reveal the money intact and ready for spending. A room full of wide-eyed magic students erupts into applause.

Most of these apprentices of the dark arts are not budding cabaret or YouTube stars, however, but business executives and other professionals hoping to put a few new tricks up their sleeves.

“Learning magic isn't just about picking up a couple of gags — it's about developing your own personality, your own way of presenting, speaking and moving,” said Voit, 70, founder of the Magic Academy in Pullach, a wealthy Munich suburb.

Voit, who has worked for more than half his life as a professional magician and instructor, said that was part of why so many busy career people sought out his courses.

“Most of my students don't quit their day jobs. I've had everyone from young interns to an 80-year-old priest from a monastery,” said Voit, who has a neatly trimmed beard and a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye.

“You'd be amazed how many situations there are in which magic can help,” he said, offering examples ranging from flirting to closing a business deal.

Germany's fascination with sorcery goes back centuries but saw a strong revival in the post-war years, when a weary population sought entertainment and escapism in popular nightclub acts.

The current boom has two decades of Harry Potter mania to thank, as well as a growing recognition that a bit of wizardry can go a long way in real life.

The country's biggest magic stars, the Ehrlich Brothers, fill football stadiums.

German illusionist Marc Weide, 27, won best parlour magic performer at July's world championship in Busan, South Korea with a card trick — beating a rival who could make 10 doves and four sheep vanish and reappear. Second place went to another German, Axel Hecklau.

Marc Weide. Photo: DPA

Voit, who abandoned a career with the foreign intelligence service to take up a magic wand, said his night school offered Germany's first state-recognised certificates for illusionists.

But most pupils who commit to two years of weekly classes for a 750-euro fee came to him seeking something more elusive than a rabbit to pull out of a hat. The course motto is “Conjure yourself into the spotlight”.

One of the pupils present on a recent night in the classroom was entrepreneur Marco Hafenrichter, 46, who runs a successful construction business.

As he practised a classic trick involving the seamless coupling and uncoupling of ropes, he said that learning how to trigger a sense of wonder in an audience had attracted him to magic school.

“I was looking for some balance in my life,” he said.

“At the moment my biggest fan is still my son but by the end of the course, I'd like to have six or seven routines down that I can always perform.”

IT industry manager Marianne Hofmann, 67, said magic had given her a touch of star power and not just with her eight grandchildren.

“I head up a choir and everything I learn about human psychology here I can use there, especially how you command the attention of an audience,” she said.

Hofmann said that in sometimes staid German corporate culture there seemed to be a real hunger for fantasy.

“Maybe we're just a bit too rational otherwise and are longing to have a few dreams.”

Taking the stage 'naked'

Thomas Fraps, 51, holds a doctorate in physics but caught the magic bug during his studies.

Fraps, who has written extensively on illusions and stagecraft, has performed monthly for nearly 25 years in what he calls Germany's longest running magic act.

He noted that cherished writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — who penned the poem “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” later popularised by Walt Disney — gave each of his grandchildren a box of tricks in the 18th century.

Then, illusions were seen as a tool to advance Enlightenment thinking because magic, once understood, could serve as a mirror on perception and its fallibility — the stuff that makes us human.

A century earlier, books detailing how illusions could be performed were credited with helping to stop witch burning, Fraps said.

“The irony is that as more people learned about magic, it helped demystify things that they saw and couldn't understand,” he said.

“Now for company bosses or physicists, it's great to plunge into another world. When you have a trick, you don't have to take the stage 'naked', unlike a standup comedian who's only got his jokes.”

Voit said online instructional videos, which count hundreds of thousands of fans, have only stoked interest in magic schools like his.

“There's no replacement for learning it live,” said Voit.

Just as technological innovations like self-driving cars make the impossible commonplace, Voit said the best magic tricks were, like Harry Potter books, simply based on a great story.

“With a trick, you come up with the best fairy tale you can,” he said.

“Magic is the joy that comes from the special delight in being fooled.”

READ ALSO: Magic appeal: Germany's growing interest in wizardry

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Magic appeal: Germany’s growing interest in wizardry

It has been 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel, and the ensuing mania about the boy wizard. Nowadays, the Ehrlich Brothers – magician brothers Andreas and Christian - are stunning TV audiences with their stage shows. But those who want to perform magic must be able to do more than a few card tricks – and they have to work hard for it.

Magic appeal: Germany's growing interest in wizardry
Magic: You probably shouldn't try this at home. Photo: DPA

A good 35 years ago, Harold Voit founded the Zauberakademie Deutschland (German Magic Academy). Today, its young magicians study in Pullach, near Munich.

“Card tricks are really popular among young people,” says Voit. And the magical allure of wizardry hasn’t ceased since the publication of the first Harry Potter book.

According to Michelle Spillner of the German Magic Circle, many magic theatres have since developed, such as the Alexander Krist Theater in Munich. In the past, it was normally the magician who came to the people, for example, for office parties.

Forever Young: The childlike appeal of magic

Moreover, with the Ehrlich Brothers, there is more magic to be seen on TV. “Our youth workshops have a bigger intake than ever before,” says Spillner, whose Magic Circle has about 3,000 members.

In an unprecedented situation, the number of requests to attend the 60-place meeting in Idar-Oberstein in Rhineland-Palatinate was so big that not everyone could attend. In Meiβen, Saxony, there was also an over-demand for the 50 to 60 places was also enormous.

“The youth workshops are our cadet factory,” says Spillner. The Ehrlich Brothers attended, as well as Marc Weide, who won first place at the Parlour Magic category at Magic World Championships in July in South Korea – with a card trick.

“I would like to show people why you should remain a child in some things, and how you can stay a child. Magic is a super medium for that,” he said recently.

Childlike-ness is a core reason for the fascination in magic, according to psychologist Amory Danek of the University of Heidelberg. “The brain is programmed such that we look for opportunities where the unexpected happens.”

In specialist terminology, it’s called the violation of expectation. It happens constantly to children whose image of the world doesn’t fit what they expect. “If we think that the ball is falling, but it suddenly floats, then we want to know why,” she says.

Additionally, the moment of surprise triggers positive emotions and makes us curious. This is why we often don’t want to know every trick, and why we spend money on magic shows. Spillner adds that “people still hope for the supernatural.”

On the internet, those who are interested in magic find many explanation videos on YouTube.  “It’s a really good thing to infect people with magic,” says Spillner. But most of the clips aren’t good enough to learn magic well from them.

“Young people quickly lose interest, because they recognize that magic isn’t just a trick, but that belongs to dramaturgy,” she says. 

The head of the Zauberakademie, Voit, has a similar perspective. “There’s a big difference because we have teachers who correct you, who say to you “do it again, that was wrong,” he says.

The Ehrlich Brothers. Photo: DPA

'I know what you're thinking'

For €750, you can study magic for four semesters at Voit’s academy. Magic consists of five basic forms, he says: appearance, disappearance, destruction and re-creation, conversion and flotation. “The last one is the one I find most beautiful. For a long time you can see the wonder of magic.”

As well as all the tricks, the workshops are also about character. “You have to learn to recognize yourself,” says Voit. “There are infinite magic tricks, which are just performed. But you have to have a certain personality, really throw in your personality.”

The students must really learn to entertain people. For this, they also get a lot of acting and speech training from professionals.

Spillner justifies its importance as, amongst other reasons, people nowadays are too enlightened to be simply fooled by a magic trick. “Magic should have additional value,” she says, pointing out it revolves around a story with a common theme, comedy and show effects.

For those who want to stay on trend, there’s mental magic. According to Voit, 30 years ago it was still insignificant. “We performed with feather plumes and glittery props, maybe wearing a glittery jacket. Nowadays it’s “I know what you’re thinking’,” says Voit

One of Voit’s students is Anna-Lena Kahmann, who works in youth welfare and who performs and teaches magic to teenagers in a care home.

“It’s not just distraction, it fascinates them as well,” she says. Voit and Spillner agree on another reason that young people want to learn magic: to flirt. Money can be earned later, for example at Christmas parties or weddings.

For everyone who looks for a magician to entertain, Voit has some advice. “The good ones are recommended, they don’t need to advertise.”