Jan 19, 2014

The Serpent's Egg

Undoubtedly, every master auteur filmmaker directs a dud at some point in their career and singular Swedish cinematic genius Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Persona) is certainly no exception to the unwritten rule, with his pre-Nazi quasi-neo-Expressionist work The Serpent's Egg (1977) being an excellent, if not rather unfortunate, example of this. Indeed, as much as I wanted to love The Serpent's Egg—a work set in 1923 Weimar era Berlin over a week-long period during the inflation crisis—the film proved to be an absolute abject artistic failure of the aesthetically asinine, culturally mongrelized, and horribly miscast sort that seems like it was directed by a random Hollywood hack and not by the unrivaled Nordic master. Not surprisingly, The Serpent's Egg was Bergman’s first and last Hollywood-produced project and even though the film was actually shot in West Germany, it might as well have been directed on a studio lot as the work is about as authentically Teutonic in its essence as an Israeli turd. Made when Bergman was in self-imposed exile after suffering a nervous breakdown after being charged with tax evasion and proclaiming that he would never return to Sweden ever again, The Serpent's Egg was also the filmmaker’s ‘biggest’ production at that point in his career in terms of the size of the crew and budget, as well as the filmmaker’s greatest commercial and critical failure in what amounts to a ‘dark’ spot in a singular and nearly immaculate oeuvre. Starring autoerotic asphyxiation victim David ‘Kill Bill’ Carradine (Kung Fu, Absolute Evil – Final Exit) in a glaringly miscast role as an exceedingly annoying and unlikeable out-of-work American Jewish circus acrobat, The Serpent's Egg is a deranging psychodrama that is not actually deranging enough to actually penetrate the viewer in a poignant manner, but instead simply agitates and disgusts. Purportedly inspired by Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), The Serpent’s Egg, not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991) and Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991), is far too conspicuously calculating and contrived in its attempt to revive the German expressionist aesthetic and thus is rather hard to take seriously, which is only all the more compounded by Carradine’s carelessly lackluster acting. On top of everything else, The Serpent’s Egg features the sort of innately irrational and quasi-spiritual anti-nazi venom that ranks with the kosher-approved blockbuster agitprop movies of Steven Spielberg and Bryan Singer, which is rather odd (or maybe not so considering Bergman's possible post-WWII guilt) that it was directed by a man who once revered Uncle Adolf as a boy and even attended a National Socialist rally where he saw Hitler speak. Indeed, aside from the actual scene of perverse celluloid poetry, The Serpent’s Egg’s only saving grace is that it manages to make the Warsaw ghetto seem like a posh picnic. 

 Born to Jewish parents from Riga, Lavtia, Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) is an angst-ridden alcoholic American circus acrobat and after he discovers that his brother has blown his brains out, he no longer has a partner for his circus routine, nor a reason to live. Since Abel is currently living in Berlin in 1923 when a mere pack of cigarettes costs four billion marks, he is kind of screwed in terms of money, but he has a little bit of American money given to him by his ex-boss Herr Hollinger (Georg Hartmann) and he is a thief so he manages to get by. Hebrew Hollinger attempts to get Abel to leave Germany due to the rise in hatred of Jews and National Socialism and even reads an article from an Aryan newspaper proclaiming, “Terrible times are at hand when circumcised anti-Christian Asiatics on all sides are lifting their gory hands to strangle us. The massacre of Christians by the Jew Isaskar Zederblum, alias Mr. Lenin, was enough to make a Genghis Kahn blush. A Jewish terrorist pack, trained to murder and assault, is prowling through the country, butchering honest citizens and farmers on portable gallows,” but Abel shrugs it off by responding with: “I don’t believe in all this political crap. The Jews are as stupid as everybody. If a Jew gets into trouble, it’s his own fault. He gets into trouble because he acts stupid. I’m not gonna act stupid, so I’m not gonna get into trouble.”  After finding his brother’s brains splattered against the wall, Abel goes to visit said brother’s naively loyal and nice beauteous ex-wife Manuela (Liv Ullmann), who is a cabaret singer that moonlights as prostitute, for shelter and the two begin a non-relationship of sorts. Despite the fact his ex-sister-in-law provides him with room and board, Abel decides to seal Manuela’s lifesavings and subsequently goes crazy after being brought to a police station for questioning and suspects he is the victim of Aryan anti-Semitism from a certain Inspector Bauer (Gert Fröbe), who insinuates the American Jew may be a serial killer (Bauer brings Abel to the local morgue and shows the corpses of seven of his acquaintances who have all died under grizzly circumstances ranging from suicide to a poisons needle to the heart). While Manuela bails Abel out of jail, Inspector Bauer confiscates the money that the ex-acrobat stole from his lady friend, thus causing the two non-lovers to go broke. On top of that, Manuela loses her apartment after Abel acts like a decided dick to the elderly busybody landlord. On top of everything else, a rather strange and sinister childhood 'friend' named Hans Vergérus (Heinz Bennent), who once performed vivisection on a cat and showed off its still beating heart to his friends while a child and who is now is some sort of scientist, keeps pestering Abel and it is later discovered the sadist is carrying on a romance with Manuela.

 Abel's suspicions regarding Vergérus are right, but being broke and desperate, the destitute Jew decides to take a dubious job as an archivist at the Professor's clinic where he is rather bizarrely locked into his workspace as if he is interned to slave labor at a concentration camp.  In between watching degenerate blackface-adorned jazz bands, picking up underage prostitutes, and getting drunk and defacing stores, including a clothing store owned by a fat rich Jew with the same surname as him, Abel's paranoia begins to grow and his sanity begins to wane. In one scene of quasi-comic relief, Abel asks an ostensibly gay American negro if he is able to screw a female prostitute in front of him and said spade does get his exhibitionistic miscegenation on, albeit in a rather anti-climatic fashion that contradicts the myth of black sexual potency.  Abel also discovers that his friend Hollinger's claim that Jew-hate is rising in Germany is true after witnessing a group of naughty stormtrooping Nazis wrecking a degenerate cabaret and literally knocking the teeth out of the Jewish owner's mouth.  Of course, as Abel will soon discover, he has much more disturbing and deleterious things to worry about than the Aryan threat.  In a rather absurd twist, it is later discovered that both Abel and Manuela are the unwitting guinea pigs of Mengele-esque medical experiments carried out by vainglorious mad scientist Vergérus. After Manuela loses her apartment, she and Abel take up a new residence given to them by Vergérus. Unbeknownst to Abel and Manuela, their new apartment is really a disguised laboratory with one way mirrors and Vergérus experiments on them by releasing toxic chemical gasses that induce psychotic states in the victims. In the end, Manuela is killed and Abel finally uncovers Vergérus’ sinister, if not  ridiculously unbelievable, plot. While Abel is initially institutionalized after being saved from Vergérus by Inspector Bauer, he later manages to escape and never goes back to Deutschland ever again. Borrowing its name from a line spoken by Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, The Serpent’s Egg’s title is a superlatively sensationalized allegorical reference to the birth of National Socialism in Germany as the film concludes with Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch. Indeed, just as a serpent egg has a translucent membrane through which can see the creature forming, Bergman’s The Serpent's Egg portrays a foreboding pre-Hitlerite period where death and human depravity were at the height in the Fatherland and would ultimately give birth to the National Socialist revolution. Of course, the poisonous gasses that Vergérus secretly unleashes in Abel and Manuela's prison-like apartment are an obvious and exceedingly overdone reference to the holocaust. 

Rather fittingly, German New Cinema master auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder would utilize the leftover sets of The Serpent’s Egg for his cinematic magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and would ultimately achieve what Bergman failed to do in depicting the Weimar Republic as an apocalyptic hell-on-earth where the average man became a crook/pimp and the average women a prostitute, and where a dead body here or there was not out of the ordinary. Indeed, assumedly not used to working with so many extravagant sets and such a large film crew, Bergman truly seemed to lose his focus with The Serpent’s Egg; a work comparable to Fassbinder’s horribly uneven big budget international production Despair (1978), which also chronicled the rise of Nazism in the Weimar Republic, featured an unhinged racial/cultural outsider in the lead role, and was absurdly shot in English. As Liv Ullmann revealed in the featurette Away From Home, while Bergman apparently became rather depressed having to work in an alien environment, he would later remark that he was rather proud of The Serpent’s Egg.  In the audio commentary for the MGM dvd release of the film, star David Carradine theorizes that Bergman largely made The Serpent's Egg in an attempt to be close with Liv Ullmann, who he had a daughter with. Really more reminiscent of a curious cross between Peeping Tom (1960) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) meets Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) than a purist attempt to create a modern German expressionist film, The Serpent’s Egg has its moments of movie magic, but ultimately seems like a callous production of the carelessly cynical sort created by a master who had too much money and melancholy to create the sort of uncompromising celluloid work that typically seemed to pour out of his wounded soul. Bergman’s sort of pseudo-Teutonic take on Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Serpent’s Egg ultimately seems like a politically correct tribute to kosher commie film critic Siegfried Kracauer, who is best known for his reductionist-oriented and venomously anti-German work From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), which, among other things, argued that the films of German Expressionism were prophetic and reflected a warped and nightmarish Teutonic collective psyche that would inevitably erupt into Nationalism and the holocaust. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, The Serpent’s Egg is an aborted aesthetic tragedy that could have been an unrivaled masterpiece had they hired a different lead actor and had Bergman not sold his soul to the art-sacrificing bureaucracy of Hebraic Hollywood. In many ways, The Serpent’s Egg is a like Bergman film for those with the incapacity for watching a Bergman film and should be viewed as such as it is nearly impossible to enjoy if one dwells on the master responsible for directing it. Arguably Bergman’s most ugly and superficially unhinged work, The Serpent’s Egg stands as a semi-interesting example of how a master auteur can go wrong, but still succeed in making something with a handful of memorable scenes. 

-Ty E

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