Ingmar Bergman: The Serpent's Egg (1977) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Mar/110

Ingmar Bergman: The Serpent’s Egg (1977)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYHoly hell, that was actually worse than I remember.

Backing up a moment, Ingmar Bergman had a very tough time of it in the 1970's.  After the critical and commercial successes of Scenes From A Marriage and The Magic Flute Bergman's native Swedish government decided that his life was too easy.  He was brought up on tax evasion charges and since this wasn't the first time he'd faced such accusations from the Swedes in power.  This time, instead of staying and fighting, he opted to leave his native homeland and try his fortunes elsewhere.

He made three films while in tax-exile; From the Life of the Marionettes (1980), Autumn Sonata (1978 and next week's Bergman), and today's film The Serpent's Egg (1977).  Not a single one of them ranks among ever Bergman's second-tier work (though I do enjoy Autumn) and The Serpent's Egg is nearly embarrasing.

David Carradine, on the right, carries most of the blame for this mess (the Swedish government is a close second).

Please keep in mind that I'm putting this in the scope of what Bergman has accomplished.  A bad Bergman film is still significantly more interesting than most of what any other director can cook up.  For small portions of The Serpent's Egg there is a considerable amount of intrigue undone by the production and by an anemic David Carradine.

As I've mentioned before, if there's jazz on the soundtrack in a Bergman film, it's going to be a slow and bumpy ride.  Sadly, the film barely gets past the opening credits (alternating silent shots of a crowd with the title cards) without blasting some circus infused jazz over the words.

The Serpent's Egg opens with Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) blowing into 1920's Berlin looking for his brother and some work.  Work, sadly, remains scarce but he finds his brother dead of a suicide.  Abel goes to tell his sister-in-law Manuela (Liv Ullman) about his brother's fate.  The rest of the movie finds the two of them straddling the line between staying hidden from the Jew-hating Germans who are stomping around and containing their barely suppressed (or believable) attraction for one another and an ominous blonde German (Heinz Bennet) watches them closely.

This is possibly the only Bergman film where he bluntly places the meaning of the film in plain view, both in the visuals and the dialogue.  Together with his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman works to create a noir- and jazz-influenced Berlin crossed with a circus.  In one particularly blunt moment, the cabaret singers that come onscreen brandish rifles and point them all directly at Abel while he lights a cigarette, blissfully unaware of what's going on.

There are still a few delicious moments of hell for Bergman to revel in.

This visual works in with the dialogue to show that even the most mundane or innocent of people are capable of great violence and hate.  The small, but crucial, role played by Heinz Bennet points this out quite directly at the end in the only truly gripping scene the entire movie despite his lack of screen time.  Part of the success of this moment (which I won't spoil should you decide to watch this) is that David Carradine does not say a bloody thing.

I can't really fault the film for feeling haphazardly put together.  Bergman's heart clearly wasn't in it and Liv Ullman isn't even able to give one of her usually stellar performances.  But the two of them had to work with Carradine, who navigates the film as though he's trying to look for a place off-set to go to sleep.

He's tasked with giving the film a noir-esque voiceover from the beginning that sounds neither menacing nor evocative of any kind of intrigue.  Then he has to play intense against Liv Ullman which, granted, is a pretty difficult task but his method at doing so is to pull on her hair and growl.  Carradine could play broad caricatures well and still occasionally reach heights of poignancy (see Kill Bill Vol. 2 for this) but he does not have the chops to stand in this production.

Everything snaps into focus just in time for the film to end.

Bergman's visuals were centered around a number of things but predominantly the face.  Look at the close-ups of Carradine and Ullman together and you will see how Carradine can only express one motion and needs his whole face to do so.  Ullman, by contrast, tightens here eyes, lips, grits her teeth, loosens the muscles in her neck, and plays any moment with a number of different emotions raging below the surface.

The whole thing just ends up feeling like a Hollywood parody of a Bergman film that ended up getting Bergman as a director.  Since Bergman's still at the helm there's a bit to be salvaged, but not much.  Sadly this is one collaboration that was better left to the fevered fantasies of a small handful.

Next week I'll be looking at the less reviled, but still divisive, Autumn Sonata.
The Films of Ingmar Bergman

The Serpent's Egg (1977)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring David Carradine, Liv Ullman and Heinz Bennet.

Posted by Andrew

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