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Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” explores the rise of Nazism in 1920s Germany

Updated: Dec 30, 2018


Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) an impoverished American ex-circus acrobat and his sister-in-law Manuela (Liv Ullmann)(Frame shots courtesy of Arrow Academy)


Blu-ray; 1977; R for profanity, nudity, violence

Best extra: Archival featurette with actors David Carradine and Liv Ullmann

THE LATE, great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made two films in English. Both starred American actors and both were critical and box office flops.

The first, in 1971, was “The Touch,” starring Elliott Gould. Six years later came “The Serpent’s Egg” set in late 1920s Germany and starring David Carradine. Oddly, Arrow Academy has released this Blu-ray as The Criterion Collection’s 100th birthday celebration box set, containing 39 restored Bergman films, arrives. The Criterion set also includes “The Serpent’s Egg,” scores of special features, and a hefty tome of related material. Perhaps Bergman fans who already own much of the director’s catalog and aren’t indulging in the Criterion box may want to round out their collection with the Arrow disc.

The film was made while Bergman was living in Germany in a sort of self-exile after a tax evasion scandal in Sweden. Thanks to Dino de Laurentiis, Bergman had an unusually large budget for “Serpent’s Egg,” which tells the very dark story of Abel Rosenberg (Carradine), an impoverished American ex-circus acrobat living in Berlin. After his brother commits suicide, Abel joins forces with his widow, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), another former acrobat working as a part-time prostitute and cabaret performer. All around them, Abel and Manuela witness the profound desperation and destitution of 1920s Berlin, as well as the rise of Nazism.

Abel must identify his brother Max, who has committed suicide.

Police Inspecter Bauer (Gert Fröbe) questions Abel and Manuela.

Night scene in 1920s Berlin.

The two have occasional run-ins with the police, but also with a creepy doctor, whose behavior becomes increasingly menacing, leading to an almost horror movie-type finale. Coming a few years after Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” it’s hard not to – unflatteringly – compare elements in Bergman’s film to the earlier multiple award-winning musical. At best, “Serpent’s Egg” may be appreciated as a curiosity; evidence of what happens when an artistic genius decides to experiment, departing from his native language, his usual cast of actors, and about as far from his comfort zone as possible.

The film was transferred from an MGM HD master. The result is not terrific, with uneven quality throughout in terms of detail and contrast, especially in the numerous dimly lit scenes. Close-ups are much more satisfying, with natural-looking skin tones and sharper edges. The soundtrack is in mono, which serves adequately, delivering clear dialogue, and well-balanced music and effects.

Archival extras include a commentary by Carradine (who died in 2009); an interview with Bergman biographer Marc Gervais; and a stills gallery. “Bergman’s Egg” is a recent overview of his entire film career by critic and author Barry Forshaw; and a color booklet contains a 2017 essay by critic Geoffrey Macnab.

“Away From Home” is comprised of archival interviews with Gervais, Carradine and Ullmann. Gervais believes that with “Serpent’s Egg,” Bergman was actually trying to recreate the look of 1930s German films, rather than to represent Germany in the ’20s. Gervais declares the film “totally un-Bergman,” as well as “shocking and cruel,” showing the “disintegration of two persons.” Carradine notes that Bergman’s arrest for tax evasion “outraged him … he swore he’d never go back to Sweden.”

Manuela prays with a priest (James Whitmore).

Abel witnesses harassment of Jews by fascist militia.

The fascists set fire to the cabaret.

The director first moved to Paris, but felt the city was “too bright for him.” Munich presented an acceptable “darker, more dismal” alternative. In Munich, Bergman made a deal to do a picture in English with his friend de Laurentiis, as well as a German producer, affording him an enormous budget. Ullmann feels that Bergman was “overwhelmed” by all the money and, instead of “working with faces,” he was able to build an entire Berlin street. “Suddenly he was working with buildings … he went away from what is his talent,” she says. From the first day, adds Ullmann, “he felt, ‘I am not happy,’ and that made it very difficult for him.” Used to a small production crew, Bergman also felt nervous having to deal with large numbers of people who spoke different languages.

Carradine, who says he took the job because he was more interested in working with Ullmann than Bergman, felt as though he were a character in a Bergman movie while acting in “Serpent’s Egg.” He calls Bergman “lovable and hatable at the same time,” and admits that making the film was “not valuable to me in the Hollywood industry,” but very valuable to him personally.

Ullmann recalls watching the film with Bergman, years later, and both of them deciding it was good – “special, different” – but very good.

— Peggy Earle

Dr. Soltermann (Fritz Strassner) begins to explain his nefarious experiments to Abel.

Abel and Manuela find comfort with each other.

Performers at the cabaret.

The destitute populace of Berlin.

Abel and the evil Professor Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent).





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