The Serpent's Egg (1978)
Movie InfoSet in Germany just as the Nazis were rising to power, this grim drama (Ingmar Bergman's second English language film) centers on the tragedy faced by a pair of Jewish trapeze artists as they struggle to survive in a suddenly hostile world.
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David Carradine: 1936-2009
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Critic Reviews for The Serpent's Egg
The Serpent's Egg lacks both the strength and depth of Bergman's major work. By going outwardly international, the master becomes perilously close to becoming shallow as well.
A melodrama that never quite makes any connection to the characters within it.
The movie is a cry of pain and protest, a loud and jarring assault, but it is not a statement and it is certainly not a whole and organic work of art.
Ingmar Bergman comes very close to camp in this 1977 study of life (or lack thereof) in the decaying Berlin of the 20s.
It's an awkward, damp and barren film with miscast stars and filled with pretentious dialogue.
The Serpent's Egg (1977) was Bergman's only English-language film, and it's also one of his most bitterly depressing and impenetrable.
A heavy film, but lacking the insight of much of Bergman's other work.
By now ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal as an intensely personal work unlike anything else in Bergman's filmography.
A rare Bergman misfire.
Audience Reviews for The Serpent's Egg
Regarded as being one of Bergman's weaker films, personally, I couldn't disagree more. The Serpent's Egg is more than the sum of its parts and will stay with you. It looks good and has a fantastic cast, the script is sound and story, so on and so forth. The darkly magic intensity and undercurrent of looming horror and pending doom is quite extraordinary. David Carradine is perfect as the protagonist, it's odd to think that the role was initially offered to Dustin Hoffman. It's hard to put my finger on what the ghost in this film is but I can only explain it by suggesting that if Hitchcockian is in the dictionary then why isn't Bergmanian? Make your own mind up about this one but just make sure you see it!More
The Serpent's Egg (1977) is one of director Ingmar Bergman's most flawed and problematic pictures; the kind of film that impresses us with its grand ambition and incredibly intricate attention to detail, but seems to lack any sense of the pain, emotion and character examination that marked out his far greater works, such as The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1958) and Persona (1966). Of course, there are numerous references to these earlier films scattered throughout The Serpent's Egg, with the very Bergman-like notions of angst, catharsis and personal exploitation figuring heavily within this bleak malaise of abrupt violence, sleaze and alienation; as well as the familiar presentation of a central character who is a performer, thus leading to the usual self-reflexive conundrums that this particular structural device can present. Within these confines, Bergman attempts to create a film that could satisfy two wildly differing creative view-points, only with both perspectives further muddied by the film's troubled production and by Bergman's perhaps misguided attempt to create a work that could be more acceptable to a mainstream, American audience.
On the one hand we have what would appear to be a straight, historical melodrama documenting the brutal decadence and oppression of the pre-Second World War Weimar Republic, and the struggle within this world of rising power, industry and an ever-changing political climate of the tortured artist attempting to make ends meet. With this angle, the film also attempts to chart the lingering air of violence and conflict left over from the First World War, whilst also prefiguring and foreshadowing the violence, guilt, hate, deceit and paranoia that would eventually follow with the inevitable rise of the Nazis. This aspect of the film is perhaps less in keeping with the kind of work that Bergman was producing during this era, with the generic, historical aspect obviously showing through; taking the emphasis away from the characters and the duplicitous games that they play with one another when rendered in a claustrophobic, purely psychological state. This idea has defined the majority of Bergman's best work, with the simplicity of the story and the unpretentious presentation of two people simply existing within the same limited emotional space, which is too often lacking from the presentation of the film in question. With The Serpent's Egg, Bergman attempts to open up his world, creating a fully functioning universe of characters and locations that jars against the (ultimately) personal scope of the narrative.
Through punctuated by a couple of scenes of incredible violence, the earlier scenes of the film could be taken as a fairly dutiful stab at an almost Hollywood-like historical film, before adding this whole other (narrative) layer in the second act that seems to conspire to pervert the story into a tortured, Kafka-like nightmare of fear, paranoia and dread. Here the film becomes interesting, because it gets to the root of Bergman's talent for exploring a path of personal despair and abject horror in a way that easy to appreciate on an emotional, psychological level. The film becomes more closed-in, as the locations are used more sparingly; the characters whittled down to the bare minimum, stressing the power games and confliction between the central couple and their seemingly perfunctory antagonist in a way that is reminiscent of a film like Shame (1966). As the story progresses further, we realise that the antagonist character is far from the token, mechanical villain, as Bergman introduces themes that tip the film into the realms of science-fiction, and yet, stories of this nature and urban legends are abundant when looking at the period leading up to the tyranny of Third Reich, and in particular the "work" of people like Josef Mengele and Horst Schumann amongst others.
This second half of the film ties the themes together in such a way as to overcome the central flaws of the film, which are numerous and seem to be the result of Bergman working towards the American market and in language that wasn't his own. There are some incredibly effective sequences, but too often, the script falls flat or the performances are allowed to wander. Many also attribute the lead performance of David Carradine as a reason why the film doesn't quite work, and although I'm a fan of Carradine and his slow, laconic persona that was put to such great use in a film like Kill Bill (2003), he does seem woefully miscast and at odds with the kind of expressionistic examinations that Bergman's work required (I can't image the original choice of Dustin Hoffman working much better either). Ideally, the film would have definitely benefited from the appearance of, say, Max Von Sydow, but it's not like Carradine is terrible. His heart and spirit are in the right place, and his continual appearance of pained confusion and eventual desperation seem to fit the continual stylistic juxtapositions of the script and are used well by Bergman, as both the character and the actor become puppet-like caricatures in a way that makes sense within the drama.
Although The Serpent's Egg is, without question, a flawed work, it is not without merits. The period detail of the production and costume design and the atmosphere that Bergman evokes is fantastic throughout, while the second half of the film, with its lurid desperation and escalating sense fear and obsession makes sense within the context of Bergman's career as a whole. Some of the images have the power and the potency to remains with the viewer long after the film has ended; while the significant horror of the film, and the roots with both pre and post war German history are, as far as I know, unique in contemporary cinema. Often a rather ugly, brutal and depressing film, The Serpent's Egg is still required viewing for Bergman fans, even if it does pale in comparison to his far greater works.
A rare Ingmar Bergman film that leans on plot over characterization, "The Serpent's Egg" is an atypical melodrama set in 1923 Berlin. Inflation is catastrophically high (money value is measured by weight rather than denomination), and growing anti-semiticism foreshadows the coming Nazi regime. After nostalgic opening credits that suggest the creative synergy between Bergman and Woody Allen flowed both ways, the film begins with American-in-exile trapeze artist Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) discovering brother Max's grisly suicide. He delivers the news to Max's ex-wife Manuela (Liv Ullman), now working in a sleazy cabaret, and soon moves into her room. From there, Jewish Abel fends off a local detective (Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe) hoping to frame him and puzzles over Manuela's second job with a ominous, secretive medical organization. The final act turns quite Kafka-esque, and is strangely flamboyant and unsubtle by Bergman standards.
"The Serpent's Egg" (the title is a metaphor for the seeds of Nazism) is one of Bergman's few English-language projects, though we also hear plenty of untranslated German through Abel's ears. The director casts recognizable American actors Carradine, James Whitmore and Glynn Turman for international appeal (the latter two's scenes are wholly trivial), but this compromise is a fatal mistake: Detached, wooden Carradine just isn't equipped for his part's challenges. Unable to suggest any depth to his character's emotional life, the late "Kung Fu" star leaves a frustrating hole at the film's center. Commonly regarded as one of Bergman's biggest flops, "The Serpent's Egg" is not likely to benefit from contemporary reappraisals.
I am really not quite sure what really is "The Serpent's Egg" more weighing flaw: The whole alienating premise of the film or David Carradine's robotic performance. But basing my choice on my better judgment, I'm gearing more towards the latter.
Throughout this whole Ingmar Bergman-directed feature, aside from that final, pseudo-scientific revelation, the film really felt nothing but an aimless exercise in existential angst. With our disillusioned and hapless protagonist roaming the decaying streets of 1920's Berlin that is completely unaware of a governmental take-over being led by someone named Adolf Hitler, I think that the groundwork as to why he's slowly being consumed by despair was not properly established, resulting with us being left with a main character that is both underwhelming and emotionally plodding.
I just don't think that David Carradine, a cult actor known for roles such as "Caine" in "Kung Fu" (a bit unrelated but it's interesting to note that his character here is then named "Abel"; a sort of an unconscious biblical allusion) and later as "Bill" in Tarantino's "Kill Bill", fits these kinds of roles. He's just relatively too tough-looking to really make his character believable and empathetic. Even Liv Ullmann, an actress of great emotional depth, is a bit out of place playing a forgettable character.
But then, there's Sven Nykvist's calculated cinematography that constantly puts dread and bleakness even in the most joyous cabaret settings and at the same time, finds emptiness even in a crowd. This is particularly evident in the film's impressive and disturbingly ambiguous opening scene (that is, until the climactic final exposition) where Nykvist has shot a scene of people of different ages and walks of life descending a stair with deeply melancholic and exhausted faces in stark, grainy black and white.
At certain points, the film's flimsy hands seem to let go of my already fleeting attention, but there's no doubt about the uncannily fascinating impression that the climactic 'explanation' scene, pulled off rather brilliantly by Heinz Bennent who played an experimentation scientist who knows the core secret as to why people like Abel are slowly slipping off from sanity, has left me.
Yes, it does felt that that crucially revelatory sequence looked and sounded more like a scene that you may see from those 'mad scientist' movies rather than from 'art' films like this, but for it to prophetically foretell the Nazi revolution's supposed 'New Society' and at the same time highlighting and comparing its idealistic superiority to an old one founded by the goodness of man is truly unnerving and, in a way, very brave.
And considering that this is Ingmar Bergman's first and only Hollywood film, "The Serpent's Egg" should be remembered more as a testament of his unbounded audacity rather than as a disappointing speed bump in his otherwise flawless oeuvre.
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