The Serpent's Egg Review
I was able to function, yet I was coming undone, a treacherous balance. I felt as if I had been poisoned, and poison became both fuel and flame. I fought against my experiences and believed that the struggle gave me strength.”
(From “Images” by Ingmar Bergman, p.201).
On Friday 30th January 1976, Ingmar Bergman was visited by officials from the Swedish Inland Revenue who accused him of making false declarations. The publicity and ignominy which resulted from this led Bergman to leave Sweden, first for Paris and then Munich. Before his triumphant return home with Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Bergman made four films; The Serpent’s Egg and From The Life of the Marionettes in Germany; The Faro Document for television; and Autumn Sonata in Norway. Of the three major works, only Autumn Sonata feels like a Bergman film. The two German films are fascinating aberrations, both vastly underrated. From The Life of the Marionettes is probably Bergman’s most disturbing film but The Serpent’s Egg, his only work in English, is, without doubt, his most deeply peculiar.
The film is set in Berlin in the autumn of 1923. Abel Rosenberg (Carradine), a circus performer, comes back to the hotel where he is staying to find that his brother has committed suicide. The policeman assigned to the case, Bauer (Froebe), is adamant that the reason behind the act was simply depression but Abel is not convinced. He moves in with his brother’s wife Manuela (Ullmann) and gradually becomes romantically involved. His quest to find the reason behind his brother’s death leads him to Dr Vergerus (Bennent), a seemingly charming scientist who runs the St Anne Clinic who allows Abel and Manuela to stay in one of the vacant rooms. But Abel gradually finds himself losing his sanity in a city in which terrible events seem to be taken for granted and which is gradually succumbing to total chaos.
The following review contains some spoilers for the plot of the film. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to skip to the review of the disc
The roots of the film lie both in the turmoil of Bergman’s personal life during the period 1976-1977 and also in an offer by the infamous Dino De Laurentis. Dino, probably most famous for his remake of King Kong - “When Jaws die, nobody cry. When the monkey die, everybody gonna cry” – had a long history of working with talent ranging from Frederico Fellini to Michael Winner and, more to the point, had a seemingly bottomless wallet. He paid Bergman a generous fee to direct The Serpent’s Egg and assisted him in gaining access to a range of possible stars. Dustin Hoffman was at one point a likely candidate, which would at least have made sense. So was Robert Redford, which would have made no sense. Peter Falk nearly made the film but ultimately didn’t and Richard Harris was all ready to go until the final days of shooting Orca Killer Whale gave him pneumonia. Bergman eventually decided on David Carradine after seeing his performance in Bound For Glory. Carradine’s odd personal habits – notably an inability to stay awake during the day – led to some tension on the set but ultimately actor and director developed a mutual respect and Carradine has said that the experience was worthwhile simply because it allowed him to work with Bergman.
But it’s in Bergman’s mind that we find the key to understanding a film which is very strange by any standards and somewhat unapproachable. As the above quotation indicates, he was in a state of almost total nervous exhaustion and, in his own words, he “just became schizophrenic”. The film which emerged from this mental state is one all about paranoia, mental collapse and the poisoning of a society. Abel’s own disintegration mirrors Bergman’s, as he begins to believe that his own world is falling apart and is forced to continue as if everything were normal. The irony is that the paranoia he feels, unlike that of Bergman, turns out to be entirely justified. He really is being manipulated by a malign force and constantly watched. The poisoning which Bergman imagined is mirrored here both metaphorically and literally. As the rise of nationalism, represented by the Nazism in embryo that is occurring in Munich at the time the film is set, poisons German society into the madness of the 1930s, so the poisoning in which Vergerus engages as part of his psychological experiments is destroying individual lives, including that of Abel’s brother. The mental collapse of Abel and Manuela surely reflects the way that Bergman was feeling as he made the film – and the idea of a voyeuristic intrusion into their private lives is not so far removed from the sensational press coverage which Bergman received when the Inland Revenue began hounding him.
In some ways, The Serpent’s Egg is unlike a Bergman movie. For one thing, it’s in English. Some of his work had been seen in an English dub before – the original BBC showing of Scenes From A Marriage for example – and had suffered because of it, but this screenplay was translated into English and shot that way, largely due to commercial considerations on the part of De Laurentis. There’s considerable fascination in seeing Bergman’s traditional concerns played out in what was to him a foreign language but it also has to be said that some of the lines probably sounded a lot more convincing in Swedish – at one point, Ullmann predictably screams “I can’t stand the guilt!”. That’s not to take anything away from the excellent performances from Carradine, who has rarely been better, or Ullmann, typically brilliant, but it does somewhat distance you from the film. This sense of distancing is increased by the unusual shooting style. In most of his work. Bergman concentrates on small numbers of people, using close-ups to stunningly revealing effect or intimidating vistas of individuals counterpointed with a vast landscape. The Serpent’s Egg was produced on vast, expensive sets at Bavaria Studios and a lot of time seems to be spent on making the most of these, packed with extras, rather than exploring the inner territory of the characters through their faces. Much of the film seems to consist of medium shots and we rarely seem to get close to the characters – which makes Abel’s mental disintegration much less powerful than, for example, Johan Borg’s in Hour of the Wolf.
Much has been made of Bergman’s debt to German Expressionism in this film and it’s true that Fritz Lang seems to have been a decisive influence. On the DVD of this film, Marc Gervais talks eloquently on how The Serpent’s Egg is a postmodern film as much about German filmmaking as historical Germany in 1923. But I prefer his throwaway comment about how this is essentially Bergman’s version of Film Noir (itself heavily influenced by German Expressionism). At one particularly stressful moment, Abel says “I wake up from a nightmare and find that real life is worse than the dream”, which surely places him as a classic Noir fallguy and his situation – at sea in a world where the darkness is gradually asserting dominance over light – will be familiar to admirers of the genre, particularly those who consider Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street to be one of the greatest of all Noirs. Bergman’s richly atmospheric vision of Berlin as a living hell of rat infested rubbish heaps, sinister strangers beating up people, seemingly ineffectual authority and depravity at every turn is up there with Polanski’s view of 1930s Los Angeles in Chinatown for sheer infatuation with rot and moral decay. Of course, one could quibble that Bergman’s Germany has virtually nothing to do with historical veracity, but I don’t think that’s the point. Like Polanski, he’s interpreting the past through the filter of the present and I think he achieves his intention brilliantly.
This achievement – producing a Berlin already pregnant with the depredations of the Nazis which occurred ten years later – does lay Bergman open to a charge of exploitation. It has been argued that in using the tragedy of 1930s Germany to give meaning to what is, in one view, a simplistic Gothic thriller, he’s cheapening history in order to make his film seem more important. I’m in two minds about this. In a sense, the charge is damning and justified – the psychological insight into Abel and Manuela is considerably less detailed than in an earlier film such as Persona and the setting gives the film a significance which isn’t always in the script – but I do think that the film raises some interesting questions about the origins of a fascist society. If it’s true that the rise of Hitler’s power can be traced to the chaos of Weimar Germany – rampant inflation, social disorder – then it seems to me to be quite in order for a filmmaker to explore such a process. In the character of Vergerus – beautifully played by Bennent as an intellectual visionary rather than as a simple mad scientist – we see how the concept of society that fed Nazism could be dispassionately proposed and executed. What he does to Abel, Manuela and countless others – which we see in some disturbing images late in the film – would be turned into government policy a decade later and it’s Vergerus’ metaphor about Germany that gives the film its title – “It’s like a serpent’s egg. Inside the thin membrane, you can already see the fully formed creature. Followers of Bergman will, of course, be aware that anyone named Vergerus is bound to be distinctly unsavoury - the first one appears in The Magician and the name recurs right up to the decidedly unpleasant stepfather in Fanny And Alexander.
Ultimately, in its presentation of society descending into unimaginable cruelty and brutality and the way that this affects the lives of a group of people, The Serpent’s Egg isn’t nearly as unlike a Bergman film as it initially seems to be. Just as Hour of the Wolf uses Gothic conventions to tell a story, so The Serpent’s Egg uses expressionistic and Film Noir devices. The theme of a universe in which man has been abandoned by God or, worse, is at the mercy of an aloof, uncaring ‘spider god’, is the central theme of much of Bergman’s work since Through A Glass Darkly. But it doesn’t hang together as well as many of his other films do. What’s basically lacking is a sense of connection. When you watch Winter Light, Cries And Whispers or Face To Face, the sense of emotional connection to the characters is almost overwhelming. But it’s not really present here. It’s a struggle for us to care much about Manuela because, despite Ullmann’s superb performance, she isn’t given a great deal to do. In Cries and Whispers, the background to Karin’s torment is given direct – and horribly explicit – examination, Manuela’s despair has to be taken on trust. Maybe if we saw something of her relationship with Abel’s brother, she might have been a stronger character. Yet, Ullmann’s ability to tear apart the screen and confront us directly – an ability which has been essential to Bergman’s films since her first appearance in Persona - means that Manuela is moving and affecting despite her inadequate characterisation in the script. But the distant coldness of the film lingers. Bergman and Carradine deliberately make Abel unlikeable, a brave decision but one that leaves us somewhat detached from the story. It’s only in the last third of the film, when Vergerus’ experiments confront us with their inhumanity, that we find any sort of commitment to the events depicted.
Yet. Bergman is a cinematic genius and, for all its distance and lack of sympathy, The Serpent’s Egg is a visceral and upsetting film. It’s by far his most explicitly violent movie and some scenes – the bashing of a man’s head against a table, a head being crushed by a lift – are horrible. It’s clearly the expression of an artist in turmoil and the mental instability of Bergman is projected into the film. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a haunting experience and the abrupt, unresolved conclusion leaves us hanging, denying us the satisfaction of an ending. The plot as a whole takes some swallowing, but the images linger – Manuela lying dead, blood trickling from her mouth; Abel’s brother lying up, his brains on the wall behind him; the stark black and white films of the experiments; Vergerus dying, his legs bashing against the metal cabinet. Such moments are enough to persuade us that Bergman, even at his most inconsistent, really is one of the greatest of all filmmakers.
The Serpent's Egg has previously been available on DVD in a truly appalling region-free release from Sanctuary, the only virtue of which was the low price. This MGM edition forms part of their Ingmar Bergman collection, a boxset which has been delayed due to aspect ratio errors on two of the films; Shame and Hour of the Wolf. However, The Serpent's Egg is already available as a separate disc.
The film is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image is reasonably good, despite being non-anamorphic. I have to admit that my indulgence for the minor flaws has its origins in pained viewing of the Sanctuary release. That fullscreen transfer was horrible; artefacts everywhere, ugly colours, poor contrast. In comparison, this is very good. The palate of colours used by the great Sven Nykvist is beautifully represented and the impression of drabness in some scenes is entirely intentional, a contrast with the vivid colours of the cabaret scenes. There is some grain throughout but this results in a suitably filmlike appearance and is not distracting. No serious problems with artefacting or print damage. Overall, this is the best version of the film I've seen.
The soundtrack is the original English mono track. Not much to say about this except that it's more than adequate for the purpose. Dialogue is always clear and the music track comes across strongly. No crackling or hiss is present.
There are, as with the others discs from the collection, several extra features. Firstly, we get an audio commentary but, unlike the other discs, this is not by Bergman scholar Marc Gervais. Instead, David Carradine has been enlisted to share his thoughts on the film. These are scattered rather thinly throughout the two hour running time but are often revealing and usually complimentary. He's not the most riveting speaker but admirers of the film will find this interesting. More satisfying overall is a 20 minute documentary called "Away From Home" which deals with the background to the film and its production. Not as much detail on Bergman's personal situation at the time - which is, I think, the best way of understanding the film - but we get useful comments from Carradine and Liv Ullmann. There are also extracts from a 1970 BBC interview with Bergman which is unconnected to this film but obviously useful to interpreting it. Marc Gervais appears briefly but gets a 5 minute featurette to himself to discuss his view of the film as an attempt by Bergman to make a German Expressionist film. A very interesting and helpful approach and well explained.
Also present are a deliriously silly American trailer and a reasonably extensive stills gallery. The film is divided into 24 chapters and is subtitled in English, Spanish and French. Regrettably, none of the extra features are subtitled.
How much you find of interest in The Serpent's Egg probably depends on how interested you are in Bergman. For casual viewers, it's a film to approach with care. Bergman fans who haven't seen it will probably be surprised at how much better it is than reputation suggests. This MGM DVD presents it very well and is certainly a worthwhile purchase - although it's probably a good idea to wait for the exquisite, and surprisingly inexpensive, boxset to be reissued in April.