Review Of The Serpent’s Egg
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/15/06
When Ingmar Bergman was in self-imposed exile from Sweden, in the late 1970s, over a flap where he was accused by the Swedish government of tax evasion, he made several films abroad. One of them was The Serpent’s Egg (Das Schlangenei-Örmens ägg), an English language film (his second- The Touch was the first) made in 1978, in West Berlin studios, for legendary film producer Dino de Laurentiis, who was reeling from the financial disaster that was his 1976 remake of King Kong. This film did nothing to change the producer’s fortunes, as it is easily the worst Bergman film I’ve yet seen. This is a reputation that most other critics agree with, as well. That said, it is not realy a bad film- merely a muddled and poorly edited one, and by Hollywood’s dim standards, especially considering this is a horror film, it is quite complex and superior to films in that genre that had mass appeal, such as the Hollywood fare of the day, like the remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Coma.
But, diehard Bergmaniacs who have never seen it will be as repulsed as those to whom this film is an anomolous monstrosity. It is jagged, non-fractal, and often a totally disorganized mess. Yet, despite all that, it does come together quickly and cohesively in the last twenty minutes to provide a chilling and well acted end. If only the opening hundred minutes were even half as good this film might rank as a horror classic along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Yet, as poor as the bulk of the film is, what is even more astonishing is that Bergman, himself, is listed on IMDB as having written the screenplay. It seems hard to believe, as this is easily his worst screenplay- far worse than noble failures like Cries And Whispers, although the look of the film is unmistakably a Bergman film- from the musical score to the lighting and photography by Sven Nykvist.
But, there are many problems besides the script. Basically, the film is set in 1923, in Germany at its economic low ebb and German Expressionist artistic peak. An injured American Jewish trapeze artist named Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), who is constantly drunk, finds his brother has killed himself, leaving a paranoid suicide letter about ‘the poisoning of the people’. He then finds out that many of the people he knows are ending up dead, and he is the prime murder suspect of a Berlin police inspector named Bauer (Gert Froebe). Throughout much of the film, a mysterious man named Dr. Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent) from Abel’s past haunts his life, and that of his sister in law Manuela (Liv Ullmann), a cabaret performer whom the doctor has taken as his lover. Why is a mystery, as Manuela is a bore and a boor, and the beautiful Ullmann has never looked worse onscreen. She seems to have aged very badly, or else Bergman uglifies her terribly for this part. She seems to look as if she had gained sixty pounds, and then lost forty of them really quickly, for her face seems puffy and loosely hanging on her skull.
After many twists and turns, and pointless digressions and red herrings, we finally find out that Vergerus has been conducting experiments in human nature that prefigure those the Nazis would use. The specter of Hitler looms over the film, for it is set in the days leading up to Hitler’s failed putsch, which ended up with him being jailed and writing Mein Kampf. The film’s title derives from this notion of the events of the film being a sort of proto-Nazism, and that in a serpent’s leathery egg one can see the fully developed snake. Vergerus states, with all too chilling an effect, and a real Bergmanian touch, ‘Anybody who makes the slightest effort can see what is waiting in the future. It’s like a serpent’s egg: through the thin membranes, you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.’ Rosenberg confronts Vergerus, after finding out that he and Manuela were subjects in one of Vergerus’s experiments, which led to her death. After a prototypical mad scientist divulges his schemes scene, Rosenberg also finds out that his brother’s suicide was induced by an experiment he participated in. As the Berlin police close in on the clinic that Vergerus runs, he explains to Rosenberg his theories of a savior arising in no more than a decade, to lead the degraded German people back to greatness. He says that he was tempted to destroy his research, but that would be too melodramatic- perhaps a direct stab, by Bergman, at the ridiculousness he must have known this film was belching, and decided that the police would merely catalog and file away the information, for its usage in the future. In 1933 the Nazis really did rise to power and did many of the things the fictive Vergerus does. The film makes ironic use of all this, and Hitler, who is derided as a buffoon by Vergerus and the inspector, a man incapable of leading a parade, much less a nation. It ends with Vergerus taking a cyanide pill, and Rosenberg disappearing, never to be seen again. These last few events that I describe are the only one’s with a Bergmanian touch, and any ‘magic’.
This may have been why the film was a commercial flop. Not that Bergman ever was a filmmaker with a history of blockbuster films, but de Laurentiis was a producer with that track record- think Mandingo, and Death Wish, and sought a bit of the Bergman critical burnish to his track record. Instead, this film brought out the worst in both men’s visions, as they meshed poorly, and it became a rare critical blemish in Bergman’s career, mainly because the scale of the film is simply well beyond the strengths of Bergman’s cinematic eye, which is at its height in its near microscopic probe of individual human beings, not in sweeping pseudo-historical melodramas.
Ullmann seems lost as an actress, and simply wanders through many of her scenes, doe-eyed and anomic. Were she as ravishing as she was in earlier films this might be forgivable, but this film lacks the patented Bergmanian close-ups, and even if it had them Ullmann is simply not watchable in this film- voyeuristically or not. As for Carradine? He’s always been something of a soulless and pouting proto-Tom Cruise, albeit of the ‘70s, in that he has the acting range of a thimble, and is in way over his head. He has not the gravitas nor depth to be a Bergman lead. One senses that de Laurentiis got his way and merely shoved in a then hot American actor to try to open the film’s box office when it hit America. It did nothing to help the box office, and certainly dragged down the artistry the film might have had with a lead actor like Max Von Sydow.
As for the DVD extras? There are two ok featurettes, one called Away From Home, which has interviews with Ullmann, Carradine, and Bergman, and the other called German Expressionism, which tries far too hard to shoehorn this film as being some homage to that –ism. It isn’t, and Bergman scholar-cum-tool, Marc Gervais, cannot even adequately explain why the film is an homage, which only manifests the obvious- that it’s not. Simply having cobblestone streets and rainy fog does not make a film an homage to F.W. Murnau nor Fritz Lang, nor the film a successor to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, nor M. There is a trailer for the film, and a commentary track by Carradine, which is much better than those that the other films in the boxed set that this DVD is from, mostly made in the 1960s, and with the clueless Gervais speaking. Carradine, who recorded the commentary while filming Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, talks in fits and starts, and sometimes is silent for four or five minutes stretches, or is bizarrely backslapping of himself for the way he stumbles about convincingly as a drunk. But, occasionally, he has some good artistic insights to share. He discourses surprisingly effectively on such topics as the hero figure in cinema and on the more realistic acting experience in film vs. that on stage. Another very interesting digression follows Carradine’s classification of his own acting style, and contrasting the two schools of method acting- the Stanislavski method of creating character through the character and the Boleslavsky method of creating character through the characterization- i.e.- one induces rage by merely acting angry, rather than recalling something that angered you, as in the Stanislavski way.
All in all, The Serpent’s Egg is to the Bergman canon what a film like Mr. Arkadin, that bizarrely brilliant abortion of a film, is to the Orson Welles oeuvre. That’s to view it at its best. At its worst it is a bad sub-Kafkan work of art attempting to deal with the craziness that threads about the edges of individuals and societies. What is truly odd is that it narratively is 180° from the way most bad films unfold. Instead of fraying apart from a promising beginning, it is a mess that only near its conclusion seems to find its focus. The last twenty minutes are truly excellent, and Bergman at his best. Interestingly, it is also the only time the film really gets really ‘personal’ with its until then undeveloped lead character. Until then, it is off the rack and unspun. Bergman fans should watch this film, though, for in failures one can see the architecture that great artists use successfully in their great works, but which the greatness hides. Here, a faltering Bergman has the curtain pulled back, and we see him not as The Wizard Of Oz, merely as odd.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
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