The most critically damned of all Ingmar Bergman films, the legendary director’s only English-language work is by now ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal as an intensely personal work unlike anything else in his filmography.
The background of The Serpent’s Egg helps put it into perspective. Claiming he was being persecuted by Swedish income-tax authorities, Bergman had fled Sweden and hooked up with Dino De Laurentiis, who produced this film. Bergman admits to being in a state of mental turmoil at the time, saying that he felt as if he’d been poisoned. This is reflected in every frame of The Serpent’s Egg, which focuses on the nightmarish events of a week in the life of Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an unemployed expatriate Jewish-American circus performer, in 1923 Berlin.
As the film opens, Abel returns to his hotel to find that his brother has committed suicide. Unconvinced that the suicide was simply the result of depression — as Inspector Bauer (Gert Frobe) believes — Abel tries to find the truth, leading him into paranoia, alcoholism and mental instability, all set against the decadence of inflation-riddled Germany. This finally leads to a horrific solution that reveals the embryo of where Germany will be in 10 years, i.e., the rise of Hitler.
The Serpent’s Egg is nothing if not peculiar. For his vision of Germany, Bergman seems more reliant on Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and the world of Fritz Lang than he does on history itself. There are occasional odd in-jokes, as when Bauer refers to a strange case being worked on by an Inspector Lohmann, a Fritz Lang character that Frobe had himself played. Bergman’s sense of displacement is evident in the fact that characters not central to the story speak in un-subtitled German, and the whole film has the feel of a man (both Bergman and his hero) trapped in a nightmare.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke