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In The Serpent's Egg, Ingmar Bergman uses Hollywood dollars to create a creepy 1920s Berlin that is both homage to the masters of German Expressionist film and a comment on the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism. Released in 1978, the movie wasn't a commercial success. Some critics blamed the script, particularly the dialog, which had a one-level-removed literalness to it. (This was one of the few films Bergman made in English.) Liv Ullmann, always a perceptive analyst of the director's work, thought the scale of the film overwhelmed him; the focus on crowd shots and lavish sets took him away from his central strength, which was the unflinching examination of the human personality under stress.
The movie isn't completely captivating, but not because it's written in English or because a lot of money was spent on sets. The main problem seems to be Bergman's limited emotional insight into the moral and social ambiguities of 1920s Berlin.
Abel Rosenberg, an American Jew, has been wandering through Europe as part of an acrobatic troupe with his brother Max and Max's wife. (Abel is played by David Carradine, an American actor best known for his role as a Kung Fu master on American TV.) Injury breaks up the troupe, and his brother's marriage. They land in Berlin, where Abel drifts through his days while the political situation deteriorates around him. One night he comes home to the room that they share and finds Max's brains all over the wall. The external action turns on Abel trying to find out why his brother killed himself. This leads him into ever darker encounters with the police, Nazi thugs, and an enigmatic scientist he knew back in Philadelphia.
The emotional center of the movie is Abel's relationship with Manuela (Liv Ullmann), his brother's ex-wife, who works as a cabaret performer. In an interview, Carradine said that although he felt privileged to work with Bergman, the real reason he wanted to make this movie was to work with Ullmann, who at that time was the "hottest actress on the planet." As a woman adrift in a strange city, looking for something or someone to grab hold of, Ullmann gives her usual nuanced, emotionally honest performance. Manuela feels she must take care of Abel, and soon they're living together and struggling to survive on the hyperinflated currency of the time. (Bergman was having difficulties in Sweden over his taxes when he made The Serpent's Egg, which may explain the fetishistic handling of dollars and marks throughout the movie.) Abel, in typical Bergman fashion, both wants and fears the intimacy Manuela offers. Abel drinks, the situation deteriorates, Manuela falls ill. Suffice it to say, there's no happy ending here.
Bergman's metaphor for this dark social period is the serpent's egg, which allows you to see the shape of the snake through the thin membrane of the shell. Nazism was there to see, he's saying, if you chose to look. Of course, many didn't, preferring to spend their time in that other symbol of pre-WW II Germany, the cabaret. A good portion of this movie is shot in the cabaret where Manuela works, and it's here that Bergman' imagination fails him, I think, because he doesn't seem to grasp the nuances of the cabaret metaphor, which was much more richly used in Bob Fosse's 1972 movie Cabaret, which grew out of Christopher Isherwood's book, Berlin Stories.
Bergman's cabaret is one dimensional, a tawdry troupe of actors offering second rate diversions. It stands in for a society that refuses to make individual commitments to impose its collective will to block the spread of evil. At the end of the film, the Nazis wreck Manuela's cabaret, brutally beat the owner, and set the place on fire. Art, Bergman seems to say, isn't powerful enough to oppose focused political will.
In Fosse's hands, cabaret life cuts in many directions. It was a defiant response to the hardship and misery of the times; a willed refusal to give in to despair; an affirmation of the power of the imagination to transcend circumstances. It was also about moral weakness, based on self-delusion and self-indulgence. And it collaborated with the coming evil by creating a distraction that allowed fascism to take root and flower - singing louder to drown out the stomp of the jackboots. Fosse, the Broadway song and dance man, seems better able to portray the willed self-deception of this decadent time than Bergman, the clear- eyed Swedish nihilist.
In the Serpent's Egg, Bergman transfers his usual preoccupation about the disintegration of an individual personality under social pressure from a personal to a political context. See The Serpent's Egg for the intellectual and aesthetic pleasures you'll get from any Bergman movie - there's always something astonishing to be pulled from Bergman's fevered imagination. See it also for the lurid and mesmerizing Expressionist nightmare created by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist. If you want to empathize with entertainers caught in history's vise, and to understand why the German people got hypnotized by the Nazis, see Bob Fosse's Cabaret.
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"The newspapers are black with fear, threats and rumours. The government seems powerless. A bloody confrontation between the extremist parties appears unavoidable. Despite all this, people go to work, the rain never stops and fear rises like vapour from the cobblestones". These phrases, said by an unknown narrator, are a clear description of the dark mood that permeates this film.
The main character is Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an American circus artist who is stranded in Berlin along with his brother Max and Max's former wife Manuela (Liv Ullman), due to an injury that rendered Max unable to perform their trapeze act. Things deteriorate as they run out of money, as the general situation for all those living in Germany worsens too. It is the 1920's, and the whole country suffered from inflation, unemployment, and periodic outbursts of Anti-Jewish sentiment. Berlin wasn't a good place to live for anybody at that time, but the situation for the Rosenbergs was even worse, because they were poor, unemployed, Jewish and foreigners.
"The serpent's egg" (1977) begins with Max committing suicide, as an act of utmost desperation. After that, Abel is left with Manuela as his only ally in a place that steadily becomes fulls of omens presaging misfortune. To endure the mere fact of being alive when his brother is not, Abel gets drunk every day. The irreality that alcohol offers offers him is the only way of fighting fear, fear of what is happening in Berlin, and of what he sees looming in the horizon. In Abel's words, "I wake up from a nightmare, and find that real life is worse than the dream".
Evidently, Abel Rosenberg is an unlikely main protagonist, because he doesn't do much, merely existing in an unfriendly environment, taking in all that is happening without doing anything to change it. But maybe that is the task that the director, Ingmar Bergman, gave to him: to act as an eyewitness of times to come.
Near the end of the movie, we get an explanation regarding the title of this film. One of the secondary characters, a crazy scientist bent on experimenting on human beings, says that "... 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". I think that Bergman tried to point out that the germs of Nazism were already in place long before Hitler seized power. The serpent's egg was there, and nobody tried to destroy it.
On the whole, I heartily recommend this movie. It is certainly gloomy, and doesn't get better near the end. Nonetheless, it is a masterpiece, because through a simple story, dark colours, metaphors, and flawless performances the director managed to convey what the mood of 1920's Berlin might have been like, and the kind of situation that can pave the way for a totalitarianism. After watching "The serpent's egg" you won't feel like singing, but you will certainly feel like thinking...