Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had such a consistent and singular voice that, generally speaking, even his misfires feel like attempts at scaling the same thematic mountain atop which he made his most important discoveries. Proving there’s an exception to every rule is The Serpent’s Egg, one of two English-language pictures that Bergman directed and the closest thing to a Hollywood movie that Bergman ever made. Disjointed, meandering, and stiff, the picture seems like one of Bergman’s signature psychological dramas until it evolves (or devolves) into a conspiracy thriller with a hint of science fiction. Worse, The Serpent’s Egg has elements that are highly derivative of Bob Fosse’s extraordinary musical Cabaret (1972), even though Bergman was usually an artist whom others emulated, not the other way around.
Reading about the circumstances surrounding The Serpent’s Egg provides some illumination, since Bergman was a tax exile from Sweden at the time he collaborated on this picture with American star David Carradine and Italian producer Dino Di Laurentiis. Sometimes, less-than-ideal situations push artists toward unexpected creative breakthroughs. In this case, it seems adversity bested Bergman.
In 1923 Germany, American circus acrobat Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) reels from the suicide of his brother and performing partner, finding himself adrift and nearly penniless in a foreign land at a time of growing anti-Semitism. Abel finds comfort by spending time with his brother’s ex-wife, dancehall performer Manuela (Liv Ullman), but fate appears to have chosen Abel for a punching bag. As he wrestles with depression, looks for work, and half-heartedly investigates his brother’s life and death, Abel has a number of strange and/or violent encounters until discovering a conspiracy involving medical experimentation. As in Cabaret, the idea is to foreshadow the evil looming over Germany in the years preceding World War II. Yet while Cabaret found a perfect set of characters and metaphors to illustrate the means by which a society succumbs to tyranny, Bergman flails about while looking for something to ground his slapped-together storyline.
At his best, Bergman created believably complicated individuals and drilled down into their psyches—so to say that he’s out of his element staging fist fights and mad-doctor scenes is to offer a considerable understatement. Nonetheless, The Serpent’s Egg looks as exquisite as any other Bergman production, mostly because Bergman’s regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, creates remarkable atmosphere and texture. Furthermore, Bergman’s muse, Ullman, renders a committed performance despite playing a role that borders on the nonsensical. As for Carradine, he seems lost, with the script’s contrived scenarios and stilted dialogue precluding him from manifesting his usual naturalism.
The Serpent’s Egg: FUNKY