I was so nonplussed by Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg that I watched it twice in one week, trying to figure out what I had seen. It is remembered largely because of the circumstances under which it was made, when Bergman, hounded by the Swedish tax authorities, temporarily moved to Germany. Produced by Dino de Laurentis, Egg is on a much bigger scale than the rest of Bergman’s work. It is also largely in English, no doubt partly in an effort to appeal to a larger audience.
David Carradine stars as Abel Rosenberg, an American trapeze artist trapped in Berlin in November, 1923, which the movie portentously reminds us is the time when Adolf Hitler led his abortive Putsch in Munich. When Rosenberg isn’t drunk, he’s casting about aimlessly, utterly miserable and making us feel the same. As the film begins, he returns to his apartment from a bender to find that his brother has splattered his brains across the wall. Abel shares the bad news with his estranged sister-in-law, Manuela (Liv Ullman) and the two of them spend the rest of the film trying to get by in the dank, inflation ridden world of Weimar-era Berlin.
Sort of a gloomy look at the same environment dramatized in Cabaret, the film is a weird mixture of historical recreation, political comment and the director’s personal obsessions. While the latter are laid on heavily, several of Bergman’s lesser films indulge in similar, quasi-Expressionist techniques, so the sadistic violence is not unique in his work. What isn’t clear is what the obsessions have to do with the political content.
The tenuous thread that ties them together is the mystery of several gruesome murders being investigated by a police inspector (Gert Fröbe). It takes a while to realize that the murders, not the political situation, are the real focus of the story. And as Rosenberg stumbles into the cause of the killings, the strained effort to tie them to the horrific social situation only accentuates how little they have to do with each other.
Nazism is a loaded subject. Any filmmaker who tries to deal with it has to accept that it has the potential to overwhelm everything else. Bergman tries hard to connect his fabricated horrors to “the serpent’s egg,” i.e., the rather unconvincing metaphor of the fully visible monster awaiting the right conditions for birth. But instead of the film giving us Bergman’s take on Nazism, it uses Weimar and Hitler as the monochrome background to the director’s morbid fantasies. He expresses those feelings masterfully; the film is beautifully made, and clammily successful in recreating a grim moment in time. What it is not is a convincing examination of Nazism and only moderately more successful as a horror mystery. That is because The Serpent’s Egg is ultimately about neither Nazism nor serial murder. It’s about Bergman. And no artist can claim more importance than one of history’s greatest horrors.