[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Bill from The Kind of Face You Hate. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]
To the extent that Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg has a reputation at all, it is not a good one. The film is mildly notorious, at least among Bergman admirers, as a late 70s oddity from the great director, a lavishly produced English-language epic made in Germany and starring American actor David Carradine alongside longtime Bergman muse Liv Ullmann. It's known as a colossal misstep, weird and boring in roughly equal measures. There's little denying that the film lives up to its reputation: it's a bizarre, unsettling, deeply unpleasant film, a one of a kind anomaly in the Swedish director's oeuvre. At times, it feels more like a Fassbinder film than anything by Bergman, and one wonders if shooting a period epic in Germany inspired Bergman to subtly shift his style towards one of this foreign country's contemporary greats, though something ineffable gets lost in the translation. The baroque, teutonic weirdness of this film, seen through Bergman's dispassionate lens, makes for a destabilizing experience. It's never clear just how one should feel, as the dizzy atmosphere and elliptical storytelling produce a blurry portrait of Germany in the unstable years between World War I and World War II.
The film follows the dazed wanderings of the American circus acrobat Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) after the inexplicable suicide of his troubled brother and fellow performer, Max. Abel falls in with Max's ex-wife Manuela (Ullmann), who works as a cabaret performer to support herself amidst the disintegrating German economy. The film portrays a nightmare world in which men are beaten on the streets while the police walk by as though nothing was happening, where everything is fluid and nothing can be depended on. Abel, a Jew facing increasingly virulent anti-Semitism, is especially adrift in this transitional culture.
Bergman conveys the aimlessness and deadened nerves of this milieu by making a film that's almost relentlessly aimless and deadened itself. Abel and Manuela are lost, clinging desperately to one another, but the slack pacing of the narrative mostly just leaves a lot of empty space, and a lot of room for Carradine and Ullmann's overacting impulses to spill over. The actors indulge in scenery-chewing explosiveness whenever they get the chance, with Ullmann tending towards shrill, over-emotive hysteria, and Carradine veering into convulsive gestures and tourettic verbalizing. His breakdown at a police station is uncomfortable to watch more for the strange, mannered quality of the acting than for the actual emotional state of his character. The same goes for some of Ullmann's loonier outbursts; Bergman not only makes no attempt to control or smooth out the performances but actually seems to be encouraging them to go over the top as often as possible. The unhinged quality of the performances actually makes a weird kind of sense, both aesthetically and narratively, for a film that's all about people losing their grip on reality and succumbing to wild mood swings and disconnected emotional reactions. Knowing this doesn't make the film's more out-there moments any easier to watch, of course.
Despite the uneven tone and staggering narrative, The Serpent's Egg is an interesting film in many ways, not least of which is the way Bergman captures the mood and feel of pre-WWII Germany, building a tremendous studio set of the streets around Abel's neighborhood. The streets seem to be continually rain-streaked and lit, at night, by flickering lamps that reflect off the slick cobblestones and metal street-car rails. Abel wanders through the dark in a fedora and trenchcoat like a badly misplaced noir hero, confused and lost. Along the way, there are striking moments — especially several of the grotesque, lascivious and gender-bending performances glimpsed at the cabaret where Manuela works — but many more dead patches.
During the second half of the film, however, Manuela and Abel enter weird new territory as the plot unravels even more than ever. Manuela and Abel move into a suite of apartments given to them by the courtly but sinister Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent), an old acquaintance of Abel's and now an admirer of Manuela's. Once there, Manuela takes a job at a nearby factory while Abel begins working within the labyrinthine medical archives of a clinic, mechanically shifting papers back and forth from one folder to another. Things get even weirder when Abel begins to realize that strange experiments are going on at the clinic, experiments in human pain and terror, essentially warm-up exercises for the atrocities of the Nazis a few years later.
In one of the film's best and most startling scenes, Abel confronts Vergerus in a hidden room within the maze of the clinic's library, where the mad doctor keeps the filmed records of his warped experiments. Vergerus recounts, with a chilling lack of emotion, the pain and psychological torment inflicted on his patients, as he shows Abel grainy black and white film reels documenting these experiments. This scene is a bracing coda, the crystallization of the film's themes about violence and inhuman ideologies. Abel's confused meanderings eventually lead him to a horrified face-to-face confrontation with a purely evil being, a man who prophesizes a not-so-distant future society in which his work will be viewed, not as degenerate and frightening, but as the vanguard of scientific research. It's a bone-chilling prediction of the Third Reich's collective insanity, and it's well worth trudging through the often maddening boredom and indifference of this film in order to reach this fascinating scene. Bergman shoots it mostly with closeups of Vergerus, played with an icy intensity by Bennent, calmly smoking as he displays a catalogue of horrors, a gleam of mild pleasure in his pale blue eyes.
Ultimately, The Serpent's Egg is worth seeing if only for this scene, an unforgettable, terrifying vision of the radical disconnection from morality that led to the Holocaust. Despite the potency of this climax, the rest of the film is loose and frustrating, with flashes of interesting ideas giving way to stale melodrama and uneven acting. This is a true curiosity for Bergman, a disjointed failure with enough sparks animating it that it can't be written off completely.