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Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg follows a week in the life of Abel Rosenberg, an out-of-work American circus acrobat living in poverty-stricken Berlin following Germany's defeat in World War I. When his brother commits suicide, Abel seeks refuge in the apartment of an old acquaintance Professor Veregus. Desperate to make ends meet in the war-ravaged city, Abel takes a job in Veregus' clinic, where he discovers the horrific truth behind the work of the strangely beneficent professor and unlocks the chilling mystery that drove his brother to kill himself. Written by
Fear, Loathing, and Despair in Berlin, November 1923
This film universally considered "the master's failure" but I don't agree with the statement. It is very different from the rest of Bergman's films I've seen but that does not make it failure for me. It is only Bergman's second film in English and it boasts an unusual for his films large budget (Dino De Laurentis was a producer) with enormous and elaborate sets. Bergman was able to recreate on the screen Germany (Berlin) of 1920th exactly how it was seen in the films of 1920th German directors - Fritz Lang's films come to mind first. Another film that The Serpent's Egg reminded me of was Bob Fosse's Cabaret - the theme of the Feast during the Time of Plague sounds very prominent in both films, and the cabaret's musical numbers in Bergman's film could've came from Fosse's. I was very impressed by Liv Ullmann's singing and dancing in the beginning of the film - she can do anything.
In spite of the film's obvious differences from Bergman's earlier work, it explores many of his favorite themes. It is in part a political film about the helpless, distressed and terrorized members of society that face the merciless and inevitable force of history and are perished without a trace in the process. Also like the earlier films, The Serpent's Egg explores its characters' self-isolation, inability to communicate, their attempt to cope with the pain of living, their despair, fear, and disintegration.
The Serpent's Egg may not be a perfect film and a lot has been said about the abrupt and heavy handed ending, the dialogs that don't always work, and David Carradine's performance as a main character. Perfect or not, I think it is an interesting, visually always amazing (cinematography by Sven Nykvist is above any praise) and very honest and thorough study of the human condition in the unbearable situation.
In the documentary 'Serpent's Egg: Away From Home' (2004), Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullmann and David Carradine talk about making the film, how it started and how and why it was so different. Liv said that couple of years ago she and Bergman had seen The Serpent's Egg for the first time, and they both liked it. I am in a good company, then, because I believe that Serpent's Egg is an unforgettable film and everyone who was involved in making it should not be ashamed of it. I am yet to see a Bergman's film that I don't like.
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