The Serpent's Egg (1978) - Rotten Tomatoes

The Serpent's Egg (1978)

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Movie Info

The Serpent's Egg, or Das Schlangenei is director Ingmar Bergman's second English language production (The Touch was his first). It is, however, his first completely non-Swedish production, made after his voluntary self-exile from Sweden over taxation issues. Set in Berlin in the early 1920s, it explores the fear and despair the city evokes in Manuela and Abel Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann and David Carradine), two Jewish trapeze artists. The suicide of Manuela's husband (Abel's brother), has stranded them in Berlin. Berlin is shown to already possess the sinister elements of cruelty and anti-Semitism which laid the groundwork for the later Nazi takeover. A series of misadventures gets them sent to a medical clinic for treatment. However, the clinic is actually a site for Nazi-type "racial" experiments on humans, which generally either madden or kill the subjects. Das Schlangenei was savaged by the critics for its improbable-seeming story and more particularly, for casting David Carradine (best known for his earlier appearances in the Kung Fu U.S. television series) in a crucial role.

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Cast

Liv Ullmann
as Manuela Rosenberg
David Carradine
as Abel Rosenberg
Gert Fröbe
as Inspector Bauer
Heinz Bennent
as Hans Vergerus
James Whitmore
as The Priest
Toni Berger
as Mr. Rosenberg
Paul Barks
as Cabaret Comedian
Ema Brunell
as Mrs. Rosenberg
Paula Braend
as Mrs. Hemse
Edna Bruenell
as Mrs. Rosenberg
George Hartmann
as Hollinger
Paul Buerks
as Cabaret Comedian
Kai Fischer
as Prostitute
Harry Kalenberg
as Couil's Doctor
Georg Hartmann
as Hollinger
Edith Heerdegen
as Mrs. Holle
Isolde Barth
as Girl in guard uniform
Klaus Hoffmann
as Commando announcer
Volkert Kraeft
as Leader of the commanco
Paul Burian
as Experiment person
Lisi Mangold
as Mikaela
Gaby Dohm
as Woman with baby
Hans Eichler
as Max Rosenberg
Kyra Mladeck
as Miss Dorst
Hans Quest
as Dr. Silbermann
Rosemarie Heinikel
as Girl in guard uniform
Andrea L'Arronge
as Girl in guard uniform
Fritz Strassner
as Dr. Soltermann
Beverly McNeely
as Girl in guard uniform
Ellen Umlauf
as Hostess
Wolfgang Wieser
as Civil servant
Ralf Wolter
as Partner of the master of ceremonies
Hertha von Walther
as Woman in street
Wolfgang Weiser
as Civil servant
Renate Grosser
as Prostitute
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Critic Reviews for The Serpent's Egg

All Critics (13) | Top Critics (5)

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.

Full Review… | August 1, 2007
Variety
Top Critic

Bergman's paranoia runs dementedly and tediously out of control.

Full Review… | February 9, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

A melodrama that never quite makes any connection to the characters within it.

Full Review… | May 9, 2005
New York Times
Top Critic

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.

Full Review… | October 23, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

Ingmar Bergman comes very close to camp in this 1977 study of life (or lack thereof) in the decaying Berlin of the 20s.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

Bergman's magic lantern now documents horrific experiments

Full Review… | April 1, 2010
CinePassion

Audience Reviews for The Serpent's Egg

½

A beautifully shot, depressingly rich motion picture, The Serpent's Egg is my first Bergman and I'm impressed already.

Knox Morris
Knox Morris

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.

Eric Broome
Eric Broome

Super Reviewer

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.

Ivan Descartin
Ivan Descartin

Super Reviewer

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