The Serpent's Egg Review
Ingmar Bergman made no secret of the fact that he was going through a difficult period in his personal life around the time he made The Serpent's Egg in 1977. Being investigated for alleged tax fraud (from which he was later exonerated) back home in Sweden, Bergman went into self-imposed exile in Munich after finding Paris too 'bright' for his mood and was given an unprecedented budget by Dino de Laurentiis to make, what was by far, the most expensive film of his career. Bergman's personal problems however clearly found their way into the subject matter of The Serpent's Egg to such an extent that the film could be seen as 'My Breakdown viewed as the Fall of the Weimar Republic'.
The first film made outside of his native Sweden, The Serpent's Egg looks like a Bergman anomaly. It's a period film set in Germany in 1923, it's mostly in English and at first glance it has few of the director's deeply personal themes relating to faith, identity and the nature of the artist explored in his more sober, intimate films mostly shot in black and white. In reality, Bergman just manages to find other ways of expressing those themes, and despite the challenging nature of the subject matter and its perceived failure at the time, there is much to admire in the film, particularly when seen in the light of this impressive new Blu-ray edition from Arrow Academy.
November 1923 in Berlin certainly sums up Bergman's own mental state at the time. Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) is an out of work circus trapeze artist, an American Jew, an outsider feeling threatened in a time of heightened tensions with the rise of Hitler's Nazi Party. It's a time of economic crisis where "most everyone has lost faith in the future and the present" and Rosenberg's only solace is to be found drinking and picking up prostitutes in the seedy cabaret clubs in the darkest quarters of the city. Returning drunk to his lodging one evening, Abel finds that his brother has blown his brains out.
The shock leads him to seek out his brother's ex-wife Manuela (Liv Ullmann), the other member of their circus act, who has also had to resort to whatever means necessary to survive in an increasingly desperate and dangerous city. Jews are being beaten up on the streets while police look the other way, there is tension and fear of the growing power of Russia, but there are other sinister activities taking place leading to a series of grim deaths filling up the police chief's morgue. As Abel struggles to comprehend what is going on and how he has become caught up in it, events rapidly descend into horror and madness.
The Serpent's Egg is certainly a flawed film but Ingmar Bergman is by no means out of his depth. The expensive sound stage set recreating an entire 1920s Berlin street, complete with working trolley cars, is certainly an extravagance (although it would be put to good use again by R.W. Fassbinder for Berlin Alexanderplatz), but it permitted Bergman and Sven Nykvist complete control over the mood and atmosphere that is thick with menace. The fact that David Carradine (cast after Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Peter Falk all turned down the role and Richard Harris was forced to withdraw) looks lost and confused isn't necessarily a problem here either, particularly when the film benefits from other superb character performances from Liv Ullmann and Gert Fröbe.
The faults in the film however seem to be more errors of judgement rather than it being entirely misconceived. Bergman, perhaps following his own personal black mood, allows The Serpent's Egg to slip into nihilism and wild melodrama as the film follows a confusing and nightmarish descent into madness. The colour may make it seem worse, but in reality it's no bleaker than the vision of Bergman's world in The Passion of Anna, The Silence, Shame, or Hour of the Wolf. As a means of aligning this with the horrors that would follow in Germany in the subsequent years, the deprivation, the violence, the madness and the obscenity of what takes place in Abel's mind does actually reflect the reality to come all too well.
The Serpent's Egg is released by Arrow Academy on Blu-ray disc. The release is Region B encoded. The High Definition transfer isn't perfect but it's light-years ahead of the dark, shadowy and at times near-unwatchable cropped to 4:3 previous UK DVD release by Castle Home Video. There's perhaps signs of a little fading and lightness to the colouration in places with grain more visible in the dark scenes, but more often you are impressed by the clarity, the detail and the colouration that does true justice to Sven Nykvist's cinematography. The detail of the sets too comes across much better now, the film looking like a precursor to Fanny and Alexander. The audio is PCM 1.0 mono and it sounds clear and natural. There is a bit of interference break-up only in one scene when Abel discovers Manuela around 1 hour 38 mins into the film. English SDH subtitles are provided.
The HD presentation certainly permits the film to be seen in a much more sympathetic light and the extra features assembled for this release also do it credit. David Carradine provides a full-length Commentary, revealing many interesting observations and anecdotes about working with Bergman, comparing and contrasting it with his experience with Hal Ashby on his previous film Bound for Glory. In 'Bergman's Egg' (25') Barry Foreshaw provides an appreciation of the film, putting it into context with a good overview of Bergman's career. 'Away From Home' (15') is made up mostly of 2004 interviews with Carradine and Ullmann. In 'German Expressionism', Marc Gervais considers The Serpent's Egg as less of a Bergman film and more of an extension of 1920s German Expressionism. A Trailer and Image Gallery are also included. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing on the film by Geoffrey Macnab.