Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Serpent's Egg (1977): Ingmar Bergman's Nazi Horror Film

The Serpent's Egg is a Kafkaesque nightmare of a movie, with some parts reminiscent of Orson Welles' The Trial, and there's no doubt that it's tough to sit through at times. The period sets look beautiful and in a way it's a better film about Berlin in the 20's than Cabaret, plus it has some interesting scenes. Yet it also has flaws; some other scenes really drag, and when the characters have emotional outbursts it seems mannered and contrived. Until the last 20 minutes I wasn’t sure what to make of it exactly. Then the final section of the movie happened and they completely knocked me out. They were very powerful, amazing even, and I was once again in awe of this brilliant man, Ingmar Bergman.

I don’t want to give away any plot-spoilers, so the following may sound cryptic to those who haven’t seen the film, but what knocked me out was not so much the contents of the films projected in this final section but the way the scene was staged and the dramatic effect of the pounding on the door, the way it illuminated an event right at the start of the movie, the way the speech by Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent) connected with future German history, the final look on David Carradine’s face, and the police chief’s final comment about Hitler and democracy.

Usually Bergman films have a clear through-line - it’s the reason he can deal with heavy subject-matter and still be very watchable - but this film has a more meandering, two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach. That final section is so powerful that it’s a shame that many viewers will be tempted to give up before they get there. Bergman should have done a better job of foreshadowing its contents, hinting at them within the first half hour and throughout the narrative; it would have brought some much needed dramatic tension to the first three quarters of the film

Having said that, with regards to these first three quarters I thought all the scenes with the police chief, played by Gert Frobe, work well. He’s investigating a strange series of deaths - seven of them in one little district of Berlin within a short space of time - and many of them seem to be suicides. And I thought David Carradine, who has the main role here, was not great but also not terrible. It’s hard to judge because, as with The Touch starring Elliott Gould, which was Bergman’s other film in English, there’s just something about the Bergman style that doesn’t quite fit with the English language. Also Carradine plays a character who is out of his depth, an American lost in a foreign world, and so it’s tempting to say that as an actor he’s also out of his depth, especially when Heinz Bennent comes along at the end and gives such a commanding performance (almost like Christoph Waltz stealing the picture in Inglourious Basterds). But the role requires Carradine to be passive and he has such an interesting face - which the camera focuses on in close-up quite often - that I was usually happy to watch him. I had more problems in fact with Liv Ullman’s role. She’s normally the most reliable thing in a Bergman film but here her character seemed awkward and strange and I couldn’t connect with her.

This is one of Bergman’s least acclaimed films, and whilst I can see why in a way I’d also like to make a defence of it. In the New York Times review at the time Vincent Canby criticised the film as being ‘full of dark portents that he (Bergman) treats as if they were his privileged information, as if they hadn't been in the public domain for nearly four decades’ and it is true that in a way the film builds to a finale which tells us that the Nazis did evil things, which is not much of a revelation. But Canby misses the point. It’s not the fact that Bergman chose this theme that matters; it’s how he dramatises it. I’ve sat through some acclaimed Nazi-era films - Ashes and Diamonds and Shoah for example - which have left me cold because the directors displayed little dramatic sense. Here in the final scenes certainly, and in some of the earlier scenes too, Bergman really creeps the audience out with Nazism. The Serpent’s Egg is like a brooding, atmospheric horror film but it’s not about ghosts or supernatural beings, it’s about awful human beings. And as a weird horror film redeemed by a striking finale, it works.

Click here for 75 screenshots from the movie

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