Written by: Johan Fundin on May 16th, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: USA / W. Germany 1977
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: David Carradine, Liv Ullmann, Gert Frobe, Heinz Bennent
DVD released: February 17th, 2004
Approximate running time: 119 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Letterboxed
Sound: Dolby Digital mono
DVD Release: MGM
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $24.98
The Serpent’s Egg was Bergman’s most ambitious international project, with a budget of 15 million German Marks (DEM) (1976/77) and relatively big international movie stars in leading roles: David Carradine, Gert “Goldfinger” Frobe and, of course, Liv Ullmann. Given the cast, money, and the reputation of its director, the expectations on this movie were high to say the least.
(Trivia: The Serpent’s Egg was shot in Munich and Bavaria (1976/77) – the same place and about the same time as a young Italian director filmed a fairytale about an aspiring ballerina called Suzy Banyon who enrolled at a Dance Academy house of black magic horror…Wonder if Argento’s and Bergman’s paths ever crossed during this time.)
In The Serpent’s Egg, Bergman explores the horrors of 1920s Germany and creates a hell on earth. The foreigner and out-of-work circus trapeze artist Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) is living in Berlin since a few months after moving there together with his brother Max and Max’s wife Manuela (Ullmann). Max’s and Manuela’s marriage has deteriorated and they now live separated, and Abel is sharing a flat with his brother. One day when Abel gets home he makes a horrible discovery: Max is dead, with his brains blown out. There is blood everywhere.
Devastated and shocked, Abel reports to the Police head quarter where he is interrogated by the charismatic Superintendent Bauer (Gert Frobe). During this conversation we get all the background details of the Rosenberg family’s stay in Berlin; immigrants as they are, Abel is looking for a job. Manuela has already found a job, as a cabaret dancer at a local night club.
After the meeting with Bauer, Abel goes out for a few drinks and continues the drinking later at the cabaret where Manuela is performing. During a break in the show he tells her what has happened and, after another few drinks, the two end up in Manuela’s apartment. It is clear that the two started to develop an affection for each other since Max and Manuela separated.
The death of Max is only the beginning. Abel realises suddenly that he is dragged into a frightening mystery where everyone he knows is dying violently. Superintendent Bauer has seven gory deaths to solve, and Abel becomes soon a target for the investigation. Whether he is the main suspect he isn’t told. The plot becomes even more complex when a certain Hans Vergerus, a sadistic childhood friend of Abel and Max, and someone that hasn’t been seen for ten years, is spotted by Abel here in Berlin. (When Hans Vergerus was a child he cut out a cat’s heart while the cat was still alive…)
The bizarre violence described in this film is escalating with the involvement of a psychiatric clinic that carries out physical and mental experiments on humans: People exposed to a gas that plays tricks with the behavioural centres of the brain, throwing the entire emotional balance out of control (Bergman, who was a mental patient himself for a period in the mid 70s, is perhaps retelling his own traumatic experience). Repeated exposure to the gas can cause permanent damage.
A resistance experiment: A woman is locked up in a room to look after a baby with brain injury who screams day and night. The point with the experiment is to see what could happen to this normal woman if she is shut in with a child that never stopped screaming. After 12 hours she is still self-possessed. After 24 hours her sympathy for the child has been wiped out and her feelings are replaced by deep depression. After another 6 hours the woman relieves herself from the baby by suffocating it with a pillow.
As for physical violence, The Serpent’s Egg is more violent than any other Bergman film. In addition to the effect of gory violence visualized by the seven corpses, there is a man who is decapitated by a moving elevator, similar to the elevator death in Argento’s Trauma (1993) but here the shot is gorier and more frightening. In another unsettling scene with gore potential a man’s face is repeatedly smashed and crushed against a table.
Then there is the erotic element, a key element in Bergman’s cinema, sometimes perverse, here expressed by a stage play involving a drag queen and a dwarf at the cabaret, and in another absurd scene at a whore house. (The dwarf actor in the cabaret scene is in turn a nod to The Silence (1963)).
Serpent’s Egg is in a letterboxed widescreen that retains the films original aspect ratio. Colors look vivid and black levels are exceptional s details look sharp through out. The English audio mix is easy to understand and there are no problems with any sound defects. English, French and Spanish subtitles have been included.
Extras include Serpent’s Egg original theatrical trailer, photo gallery, and audio commentary with star David Carradine and two featurette’s “Away From Home” and “German Expressionism”.
The Serpent’s Egg may not be one of Bergman’s best work but it is one of his most underrated. It’s also a beautifully shot film with great cinematography; the re-creation of 1920s Berlin is superb. Moreover, it is interesting to see how Bergman is orchestrating such a relatively big-budget film in contrast to his direction of his low-budget chamber plays. Even if the director himself dismisses the film as a failure, it is definitely better than its reputation suggests. The director says that he made the mistake to give the city in his dreams a name : Berlin, and the set a specific time period: the 1920s. By doing this he says his artistic freedom was limited by real-event history and social climate of the time. But apart from that, the film does contain several of the director’s typical themes. Every Bergman fan and completist would want to check out this rarely seen horror thriller.
This review originally appeared at Dark Discussion and is reprinted here with permission.