Get ready for Bergmanception: you know how Woody Allen has long been a big Bergman fan and how many of his films are clearly inspired by Bergman’s? Well, the beginning of The Serpent’s Egg feels a bit like Bergman got Allen and his creative team to create the titles. White writing in a timeless serif font on a black screen, listing the cast and crew, accompanied by jaunty 1920s jazz tune – it’s all there. Except even at his most glib, Allen did not make films as sour as The Serpent’s Egg.
Bergman himself isn’t generally the most wholesome, life-affirming director. His films definitely lean towards the existentialist, and there is a cynical, sometimes downright nihilistic streak to some of them, usually embodied by his male protagonists. But they usually manage to strike a balance between fatalistic despair barely covered by cutting sarcasm (more often than not embodied by Gunnar Björnstrand or Erland Josephson) and a more humanist outlook, generally carried by one of Bergman’s frequent leading ladies.
There is one scene in The Serpent’s Egg that could be called humanist: in it, the main female character Manuela (Liv Ulmann, and yes, it’s strange to hear her acting in English and in German after all the Bergman films in Swedish) talks to a despondent priest, and the two of them console and comfort one another in the absence – or silence – of a god that does not seem to care, because if there is no goodness to be found in the metaphysical, we have to provide it ourselves. Other than that, though, the Weimar Republic-era Berlin that Bergman conjures up is one that is either decadent or weak or resigned, or it is brutal and callous, staging something of a dress rehearsal for the Nazis’ rise to power a few years down the road.
The Serpent’s Egg is about the decade leading up to Hitler’s takeover. It has an almost noirish plot about a streak of suicides leaving a trail that leads a local hospital, people too poor to care about the particulars are given employment. There, the doctors perform experiments on these people – sometimes covertly, sometimes quite openly. It’s clear that Bergman intends these to foreshadow the concentration camp experiments of a Joseph Mengele, but it’s much less clear how he intends the rest of the film’s cast, the ones that fall victim to the inhumane experiments of Dr Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent, and yes, there’s that name again – did Bergman have an acquaintance named Vergerus that he really disliked?), to come across. The protagonist, Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), is a depressed, cynical alcoholic. Inspector Bauer (Gert Fröbe), the policeman looking into the suicide of Rosenberg’s brother Max, is perceptive, but he is also ineffectual. The cabaret at which Manuela, Max’s ex-wife and eventually Abel’s lover, works is dingy, low-rent and drawn in sickly colours, a vastly less appealing precursor to Cabaret‘s Kit Kat Klub. There is a sense that, while Bergman clearly condemns the cold inhumanity of Dr Vergerus and the thuggish cruelty of the fascist gangs, he may not see their victims altogether differently from how they do: The Serpent’s Egg paints them as resigned to their fate, unable or unwilling to do anything other than wait out the inevitable. Certainly, the film is not blind to the fact that during the Weimar Republic the massive inflation left millions scrambling for whatever money and food they could find, and that short-term survival came first for them, but in this film Bergman is not one to translate this kind of awareness into actual empathy or compassion. Even Liv Ulmann, often the heart of Bergman’s ensemble casts, is too restricted by her character, and possibly by the script and the English and German dialogue, to bring such a more warm, human quality to the film, as she does in so many other films by the director.
The Serpent’s Egg is not a complete loss. As shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is visually striking and not too dissimilar from Otto Dix’ stylised, scathing depictions of Weimar Germany. (Looking at the stills, I can imagine a version of this film that works much better – perhaps it’s a version of The Serpent’s Egg that leaves out all dialogue and uses only music and sound.) There are individual scenes that stand out, vignettes of a society that grinds up people and spits them out. But as a whole, Bergman has made a film that is too judgmental, too aloof and its protagonist both is too pathetic and not sufficiently capable of genuine pathos (a quality that Bergman rarely accorded his characters, but that might have helped here) to carry the story. If The Touch not only showed that Bergman could work in English but also that he could use the language to interesting effect, The Serpent’s Egg suggests that it is good he didn’t keep working in English. In the end it is a failure that is only worthwhile in fits and starts – so it may be interesting to go from this, one of the works that most Bergman critics would put at the bottom of his oeuvre, to the next film in Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, its third and last centrepiece: Persona.