The Serpent’s Egg DVD Review: The Non-Bergman Bergman Film

I will be the first to admit that my personal experience with the work of Ingmar Bergman is decidedly limited. In fact, it almost entirely centered around a period in high school wherein my English/Drama teacher and I would privately discuss some of our favorite movies. I would recommend something like Wings of Desire, she would in exchange assist in molding my then-artistic mindset by introducing me to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Mind you, I was the very same weird kid who was caught casually watching Doctor Butcher, M.D. in the classroom one day when she and all of the other kids returned from the stage. It definitely wasn’t a film of a Bergman-type caliber.

Then again, neither is The Serpent’s Egg. After a tax-evasion charge surfaced in his native Sweden, the prolific filmmaker first fled to Paris, which he found to be too happy for his creative mind. So, the man behind multiple mesmerizingly moody movies moved to Munich, where things were considerably more to his liking (read: not quite as happy as Paris). Soon, there was a deal on the table to make an English-language movie on location in Germany with Hollywood backing. Naturally, Bergman took this chance to not only continue working, but to pay his respects to the classic genre of expressionist cinema that dominated Germany shortly before the Nazi Party did. In color, even – which makes it kind of weird, all things considered.

Of course, just about every aspect of The Serpent’s Egg is kind of weird. And the general oddities range from the fact that Bergman’s one and only Hollywood production is nothing like the rest of his work (how typical), right down to the downright odd casting of recently unemployed Kung Fu star (and current Roger Corman movie regular) David Carradine as the male lead. Reportedly a last minute replacement for another actor (the names vary), Carradine sleepwalks through most of the feature as Abel, a recently unemployed American Jewish circus acrobat in Berlin, circa November 1923, who is in the midst of an economic and political meltdown following that whole World War I issue.

When Abel discovers his brother has inexplicably committed suicide (something that really covers the “kind of weird” aspect considering Carradine’s demise in 2009), it sets him on a downward spiral into drinking a lot and trying to keep he and his former ex-sister-in-law, cabaret dancer/prostitute Manuela (Liv Ullmann, who looks a lot like Amy Adams as Harpo Marx playing the Joker when we first see her), afloat in a quickly deteriorating living hell. Meanwhile, an angry, annoyed police inspector (the great Gert Fröbe, who starred in several Dr. Mabuse films made in the ’60s inspired by the original German Expressionist movies) tries to not worry about the demise of his country by investigating a series of bizarre murders.

The fact that almost all of the victims have some sort of connection to Abel (and Manuela) doesn’t help much. Nor does Abel’s Jewish heritage, especially as various propaganda tactics produced by fear and paranoia begin to wrap around the citizens of a crumbling country. But what really doesn’t help here is David Carradine sleepwalking through scenes. Granted, his character issupposed to be a despairing depressed drunkard who is in a state of shock and disbelief, but only the disbelief part really comes out, I’m sorry to say. According to some reports, the actor had a bad tendency to fall asleep on the set, which makes it all the more amusing.

Carradine’s somnambulism aside, The Serpent’s Egg is still a strangely fascinating, strange little film. While it is most assuredly a far-cry from Bergman’s other, better-known work, the filmic oddity still possesses the same engaging quality. From Abel’s plight to stay intoxicated so as to drown out the current state of madness going on around him, to the silent shadows surfacing all around at the manipulating hands of Adolf Hitler – to say nothing of the underlying subplot concerning the bizarre murders going on around town – there’s something undeniably captivating here. Heinz Bennett co-stars as a sadistic little creep, while veteran American actor James Whitmore pops up for a cameo as an apathetic priest.

Though the movie was a huge failure upon its release in 1977, The Serpent’s Egg has nevertheless gone on to become something of a cult classic amongst some cinematic circles over the years. (Personally, I’ll watch just about anything with Gert Fröbe in it.) Originally issued on DVD in 2004, this MGM Limited Edition Collection re-release (courtesy the manufactured-on-demand label, Fox Cinema Archives). The original disc was produced at a time when the bigger studios insisted you couldn’t give movies with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio an anamorphic presentation. Fortunately, after Image Entertainment started releasing trashy European shitfests like Zombie Lake in 16×9 1.66:1 transfers, things changed.

Sadly, the feature presentation of The Serpent’s Egg of this MOD re-release is the same, grainy, non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. Thankfully, it’s only a 1.66:1 film, so it isn’t as annoying as it could be (and at least it’s not like that terrible release of Warlock from a couple of years ago!), but, despite the fact that many people still don’t like the film, it still deserves a better transfer. I mean heck, said trashy European shitfest Zombie Lake was re-released in a restored High-Definition Blu-ray presentation a few years ago. And yet we get a 4:3 MOD re-issue of this. Apparently, the studio is still upset with Bergman for creating a flop, even though he’s been dead for nearly eight years.

Speaking of dead people, it’s kind of weird to get a “new” DVD like this and see that one of the special features is an audio commentary with star David Carradine. Again, this is because this is a re-issue, hailing from a time when studios still produced bonus material for older films (which I suppose makes up for the whole non-anamorphic thing). Carradine once again seems half-awake throughout his recording, which offers some insight into the production (from his viewpoint, naturally).

The default DD 2.0 Mono soundtrack for the feature film is accompanied by English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles. None of the German-language scenes are translated, which I think was done so non-German-friendly English speakers could be just as confused as Abel. Additional special features for this re-release include two featurettes – one about the making of the film, the other about the movie’s “relation” to expressionist cinema – a photo gallery, and the movie’s original theatrical trailer.

Though the history books will probably refer to The Serpent’s Egg as a flop for decades to come, it really isn’t that bad of a film. Anyone who has seen any other of Bergman’s work will no doubt be confused, possibly angry. That said, there’s something special about this movie – even with its odd casting choice – and it deserves at least one singular viewing from any student of cinema appreciation or filmmaking. Plus, it has Goldfinger in it, so that’s a plus.

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Luigi Bastardo

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