THE SERPENT’S EGG (Ingmar Bergman, 1977)

Ingmar Bergman considered The Serpent’s Egg, which he wrote and directed, to be a horror film; he was right. Like his earlier English-language film, The Touch (1971), it is about a Jewish American—in this case, Abel Rosenberg, a jobless trapeze acrobat stranded in inflationary, impoverished Berlin in the 1920s as a result of the economic penalties that Great War victors imposed on Germany following its defeat. But unless I’m misinterpreting the voiceover narration and other more scattered clues, its time-reference is more complicated. The film is really located twenty years later during the Second World War, but only in the historical mind in which it is flashing back so as to be able to prophesize the rise to power, ten years later, of Adolf Hitler and all that happened as a result of that: the fully formed reptile already visible inside the serpent’s egg.
     It is a dark, dank film, with infernally red-glowing underground cabaret and, outside, incessant rain. People are so desperate that they slaughter a horse in the street in order to have something to eat; and Bergman, shooting in West Berlin, is so desperate about his tax problems back home in Sweden that he actually had a horse slaughtered for the scene. Bergman could be a real bitch, and in fact this film is almost entirely unpleasant, beginning with the suicide of Abel’s brother, Max—an event that goes unexplained until the movie’s last gasps. A lot of secret experiments on humans, orchestrated by Hans Vergerus (Heniz Bennent, giving the best performance), are proving again humanity’s potential for inhumanity. Meanwhile, Manuela, Max’s compassionate widow (who else? Liv Ullmann), is reaching out to protect and comfort Abel, who is fragile and volatile. Some of the emotional scenes between them are gut-wrenching—but, like much else in this film, loose beads that have jumped their string. David Carradine is an almost total washout as Abel; Dustin Hoffman—Bergman’s first choice—would have been much better.
     A number of scenes suggest Kafka’s The Trial; but Kafka’s wit is nowhere in evidence.
     It provides something of a guidepost to recall that Bergman hated his father, a Lutheran priest who had died in 1970, because (among other reasons) this man hated Jews.
     The Serpent’s Egg is from West Germany (where it was called Das Schlangenei) and the U.S.

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