In January of 1976, famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was arrested on charges of tax evasion. The charges were later dropped, it all being a mix-up over a large transaction between two companies Bergman owned, but the damage was severe and long lasting. Bergman suffered a nervous breakdown and fled the country. He first travelled to Germany and then to California where he met famed producer Dino De Laurentis who agreed to finance his next film.
The Serpent’s Egg bombed - critics hated it and it did horrible business. It is generally considered one of Bergman’s worst films. When your filmography includes such masterpieces as Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Autumn Sonata, and Persona, it turns out your worst films might not be that bad. It is not a great film by any means, and it's certainly a perplexing film in the Bergman oevre, but it has its moments.
David Carradine stars as Abel Rosenberg, an American trapeze artist who has lost his job at the circus and finds himself stuck in a post-World War I Berlin. As the film begins, he finds that his brother has put a bullet in his brain. The police hassle Abel for a time but ultimately let him go. He finds his brother’s wife Manuela (Liv Ullmann) and the two attempt to comfort each other. Answers as to why the brother killed himself are not answered by a suicide note whose script is indecipherable save for something about a poisoning.
She works as a cabaret dancer and he takes odd jobs, but mostly finds himself stumbling the streets in a drunken stupor. Those streets are filled with despair. This is a Berlin in the time of HItler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch. Unemployment is rampant. The economy was decimated by the war reparations. People are starving. The Reichsmark is practically worthless. By film’s end the narrator notes people no longer count the bills but weigh them. Anti-Semitism is high.
Abel seems to float through all of this. Though he is Jewish, he notes that some Jews behave badly. Carradine’s performance suggests he’d rather be on the set of Kung Fu. Ullman portrays Manuela as a woman who cares deeply for Abel, and who is trapped in an unforgiving circumstance, but who is unable to change anything. The cinematography by Bergman regular Sven Nykvist is as beautiful as ever even as the images he is depicting are horrid and bleak. Bergman’s direction is uneven, often shapeless. At times, it can be very effecting such as when a priest admits he feels powerless and he asks Manuela for forgiveness. At other times, he is bold and crass as when Abel lays a wager on whether an impotent and possibly gay man can engage in intercourse with a prostitute. Its last act goes wildly off the rails, taking such a sharp right turn it hardly seems a film someone like Bergman would ever make, and yet there it is.
The shadow of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust move across its entire length. At first it is backgrounded, we hear mumbles of racism, and watch the city as it crumbles, but we are still concerned with our characters. By the end credits, Bergman seems to be screaming at us of the horrors inflicted upon the world as if we weren’t already aware.
Extras include an audio commentary from David Carradine, and archival interviews with Carradine and Liv Ullman. Plus, an appreciation from Bergman aficionado Barry Forshaw and an archival interview with Marc Gervais on German Expressionism (some claim this film was Bergman’s attempt at Expressionism). Also included is a full color-booklet with an essay on the film.
The Serpent’s Egg is an unusual film. While it is clearly an Ingmar Bergman film, it is also unlike any other Bergman film I’ve ever seen. Its last twenty minutes nearly verge into exploitation, and it owes a great debt to the musical Cabaret. Still, it isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation and is very much worth watching. Arrow Academy has done a nice job presenting it with a new transfer and plenty of extras.