"Three times I have tried to create the city of [one of my dreams]… in "The Serpent's Egg"… I allowed myself to be led astray by an excursion into Berlin in the mid-1930s… [and] I created a Berlin which no one recognized, not even I."
- Ingmar Bergman, from his 1997 autobiography "The Magic Lantern" (Hamish Hamilton)
It's important that any flawed film of such caliber be assessed by supportive historians (Marc Gervais), and empirical observations from people directly associated with the production (Liv Ullman, and David Carradine). Carradine's feature-length commentary track is extremely fragmented and spotty, but his recollections, when coupled with featurette material with Ullman, contribute to a more balanced portrait of why "The Serpent's Egg" remains such a frustrating work, particularly for Bergman fans.
The making-of featurette makes it clear "Serpent" began as a quest for prestige: at the time, producer Dino De Laurentiis liked to court top international directors, offering them a crack at Hollywood success with immense budgets and major stars; and tired of being hounded by the Swedish tax police, Ingmar Bergman had been directing theatre for a year during a lengthy self-imposed exile in Munich, Germany, and wanted to prove he could succeed outside of Sweden.
Admittedly in awe of the director's talent and reputation, Carradine took the job more for a chance to work with Ullman, and his highly personal observations characterize Bergman as a master puppeteer; inexplicably practicing devilish mind-games and giving little support to the American actor. Ullman, sharply honest in the featurette "Away From Home," found too much money spawned egregious power trips - evidenced, for example, in the film's recreated sets of Berlin - and the intimate filming experiences she enjoyed in Bergman's past work were impossible in such an epic production (something fellow Swede Jan Troell must have found disheartening when directing De Laurentiis' 1979 remake of "Hurricane." Unlike Troell, however, the script for "The Serpent's Egg" was Bergman original).
In the DVD's second featurette, Gervais cites the film as a tribute to the German Expressionism movement of the Twenties and Thirties; though he fails to cite precise examples, viewers will certainly find "Serpent" possesses a dream-like quality, fusing extended scenes of mental disintegration with stylized, sometimes vulgar imagery (like Ullman's raunchy grindhouse intro in a green wig). Sven Nykvist's marvelously moody cinematography, period lieder and jazz tunes, and a conclusion recalling the Fritz Lang thrillers of the Twenties (with a major nod to Michael Powell's more contemporary "Peeping Tom") are major ingredients in Bergman's cold, mini-epic.
ore surprising, "Serpent" also evokes Terry Gilliam's " Brazil " - via Gert Froebe's marvelous take on a naïve, investigative German bureaucrat, and Berlin 's labyrinthine hospital archives - and some of the reality perception/deception interplay in a Philip K. Dick novella. With such unusual contrasts, Bergman's film is certainly ripe for a more detailed critical revisitation.
This title is available separately, or as part of the Ingmar Bergman Collection that includes the films "The Serpent's Egg", "Persona", "Shame", "The Passion Of Anna", "Hour Of The Wolf," and a Bonus Disc.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan