By the time legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman got around to making The Serpent’s Egg in 1977, he’d already become a much respected and somewhat controversial director with the likes of The Seventh Seal, Persona and The Virgin Spring but with The Serpent’s Egg this was the first time he’d been given a large budget, for the time, and also the opportunity to team up with infamous Italian producer, Dino De Laurentiis and work with a large crew to so despite it being generally considered one of Bergman’s weaker efforts, there are enough scenes, moments and performances in The Serpent’s Egg to make it worth a rewatch and reappraisal.
Set in 1920’s Berlin, circus performer Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) moves into the apartment of his sister-in-law, Manuela (Luv Ullmann) after his brother mysteriously, and brutally, commits suicide. But the two, Rosenberg especially, soon attract the attention of the local police after a string of deaths, including his brother’s former fiancé, coincide with his move to the area. Factor in his heavy drinking and it’s pretty clear that he’ll be staying on the police’s radar for a while yet. Even more confusing for Abel, he has also attracted the attention of a professor, Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennet) who is involved in a quite terrifying area of research that, as Rosenberg finds out during the films climatic final scenes, has more to do with him and his brother than he could have initially realised.
Being set in post-war Germany where poverty and inflation had destroyed the economy at the time, The Serpent’s Egg looks at themes such as struggle, desperation and paranoia in a very difficult period for the country and this is reflected in Abel Rosenberg’s alcoholism, the cabaret show where Manuela is a performer, trying to distract the public from the misery of their city and current situation and also, and probably most hauntingly memorable, people cutting up a dead horse in the middle of the street and attempting to sell the animals body parts. The few darker moments like this, that show the anguish of what people were going through are a highlight of the film as it shows the desperation of the people at the time. Depressing maybe, but highlights nonetheless.
Although quite a different type of film for Bergman (who’d dabbled in many different genres at this point in his career anyway), he’d actually used 1920’s German films as an influence for The Serpent’s Egg and this definitely lends itself to any historical accuracy within the film as the sets and backgrounds are very well done for the time and this gives you a feel of the state of living in Berlin during this time. But it’s the performances of the main cast that carry the film through and despite Carradine’s almost tortured artist-type feel he gives to Abel Rosenberg being solid enough it’s Liv Ullmann’s at times heartbreaking performance as Manuela that is the pick of the bunch. It’s one of those performance’s where you look at the actors face and into their eyes and everything the character is thinking and feeling is there to see.
But despite that, The Serpent’s Egg does feel overlong at times, it’s little under two hour run time dragging at points with only the quite tense and exciting final scene between Rosenberg and the professor, Hans Vergerus and the big reveal of what Vergerus has been up to saving it from being a wash-out ending. It is quite a shocking conclusion actually, that hints at the atrocities to come from the Nazi Party during World War 2.
So, despite not being perfect and not seen as one of Ingmar Bergman’s finest films, The Serpent’s Egg may well be worth another watch for his fan base and also worth a look for film fans interested in the legendary director’s varied work and career, despite Bergman connoisseurs probably telling you to start elsewhere.
Extras for this release include ‘Bergman’s Egg’; a newly filmed appreciation on Bergman by critic and author Barry Forshaw. Away From Home, an archival featurette which has interviews with David Carradine and Liv Ullman. An archival interview with author Marc Gervais on German Expressionism. An audio commentary by David Carradine and a stills gallery and theatrical trailer. Add in a reversible sleeve and a limited edition collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by author Geoffrey Mcnab and it’s a pretty essential purchase for The Serpent’s Egg/Bergman fans.
The Serpent’s Egg is out now from Arrow Academy.