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The Serpent's Egg
The Serpent's Egg
Actors: David Carradine, Liv Ullmann, Heinz Bennent, Gert Fröbe, Edith Heerdegen
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
R     2004     1hr 59min

Director Ingmar Bergman explores the horrors of 1920s Germany and creates a hell on earth with a power few others could match (Cue) in this psychological thriller that casts a hypnotic spell of evil (Newsweek). Out-of...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: David Carradine, Liv Ullmann, Heinz Bennent, Gert Fröbe, Edith Heerdegen
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Creators: Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman, Jutta Hering, Dino De Laurentiis, Harold Nebenzal, Horst Wendlandt
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 02/10/2004
Original Release Date: 02/15/1978
Theatrical Release Date: 02/15/1978
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 1hr 59min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Letterboxed
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
Edition: Special Edition
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French

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Movie Reviews

Life as a Cabaret
G. Bestick | Dobbs Ferry, NY USA | 01/08/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

In The Serpent's Egg, Ingmar Bergman uses Hollywood dollars to create a creepy 1920s Berlin that is both homage to the masters of German Expressionist film and a comment on the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism. Released in 1978, the movie wasn't a commercial success. Some critics blamed the script, particularly the dialog, which had a one-level-removed literalness to it. (This was one of the few films Bergman made in English.) Liv Ullmann, always a perceptive analyst of the director's work, thought the scale of the film overwhelmed him; the focus on crowd shots and lavish sets took him away from his central strength, which was the unflinching examination of the human personality under stress.

The movie isn't completely captivating, but not because it's written in English or because a lot of money was spent on sets. The main problem seems to be Bergman's limited emotional insight into the moral and social ambiguities of 1920s Berlin.

Abel Rosenberg, an American Jew, has been wandering through Europe as part of an acrobatic troupe with his brother Max and Max's wife. (Abel is played by David Carradine, an American actor best known for his role as a Kung Fu master on American TV.) Injury breaks up the troupe, and his brother's marriage. They land in Berlin, where Abel drifts through his days while the political situation deteriorates around him. One night he comes home to the room that they share and finds Max's brains all over the wall. The external action turns on Abel trying to find out why his brother killed himself. This leads him into ever darker encounters with the police, Nazi thugs, and an enigmatic scientist he knew back in Philadelphia.

The emotional center of the movie is Abel's relationship with Manuela (Liv Ullmann), his brother's ex-wife, who works as a cabaret performer. In an interview, Carradine said that although he felt privileged to work with Bergman, the real reason he wanted to make this movie was to work with Ullmann, who at that time was the "hottest actress on the planet." As a woman adrift in a strange city, looking for something or someone to grab hold of, Ullmann gives her usual nuanced, emotionally honest performance. Manuela feels she must take care of Abel, and soon they're living together and struggling to survive on the hyperinflated currency of the time. (Bergman was having difficulties in Sweden over his taxes when he made The Serpent's Egg, which may explain the fetishistic handling of dollars and marks throughout the movie.) Abel, in typical Bergman fashion, both wants and fears the intimacy Manuela offers. Abel drinks, the situation deteriorates, Manuela falls ill. Suffice it to say, there's no happy ending here.

Bergman's metaphor for this dark social period is the serpent's egg, which allows you to see the shape of the snake through the thin membrane of the shell. Nazism was there to see, he's saying, if you chose to look. Of course, many didn't, preferring to spend their time in that other symbol of pre-WW II Germany, the cabaret. A good portion of this movie is shot in the cabaret where Manuela works, and it's here that Bergman' imagination fails him, I think, because he doesn't seem to grasp the nuances of the cabaret metaphor, which was much more richly used in Bob Fosse's 1972 movie Cabaret, which grew out of Christopher Isherwood's book, Berlin Stories.

Bergman's cabaret is one dimensional, a tawdry troupe of actors offering second rate diversions. It stands in for a society that refuses to make individual commitments to impose its collective will to block the spread of evil. At the end of the film, the Nazis wreck Manuela's cabaret, brutally beat the owner, and set the place on fire. Art, Bergman seems to say, isn't powerful enough to oppose focused political will.

In Fosse's hands, cabaret life cuts in many directions. It was a defiant response to the hardship and misery of the times; a willed refusal to give in to despair; an affirmation of the power of the imagination to transcend circumstances. It was also about moral weakness, based on self-delusion and self-indulgence. And it collaborated with the coming evil by creating a distraction that allowed fascism to take root and flower - singing louder to drown out the stomp of the jackboots. Fosse, the Broadway song and dance man, seems better able to portray the willed self-deception of this decadent time than Bergman, the clear- eyed Swedish nihilist.

In the Serpent's Egg, Bergman transfers his usual preoccupation about the disintegration of an individual personality under social pressure from a personal to a political context. See The Serpent's Egg for the intellectual and aesthetic pleasures you'll get from any Bergman movie - there's always something astonishing to be pulled from Bergman's fevered imagination. See it also for the lurid and mesmerizing Expressionist nightmare created by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist. If you want to empathize with entertainers caught in history's vise, and to understand why the German people got hypnotized by the Nazis, see Bob Fosse's Cabaret.
Children of a Darker God
ophelia99 | USA | 10/30/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The only thing I want to add to the many insightful comments of others is that this is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Yes, I know it doesn't have any of the stock supernatural props we associate with that genre, but it has the trapped-forever-in-a-nightmare atmosphere of the deepest nihilistic horror. It will haunt you.

Favorite moment: Protagonist is approached in the night by a prostitute:

Protagonist: "Go to Hell!"

(Prostitute, laughing): "Where do you think you are?"
Bergman in Exile
Grigory's Girl | 05/02/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)

"The story behind this film is almost as strange as the film itself. Bergman had become good friends with famous Hollywood producer Dino de Laurentiis, and after his self-imposed exile from Sweden, decided to finally marshall some financial muscle to make a film he'd long been thinking of, based on a dream he had of Berlin in the 1920s. This was his second and last English language film. It stands alone in Bergman's canon; its a large production, with lavish sets and hundreds of extras, and an American film star. Critics and fans have always given this film mixed, or even ambivalent, reviews, but I've always liked it. The common reaction to this film (the one I had the first time) is that its "unBergman" in some way. Its a mistake, I believe now. Its just Bergman on another scale. The drama of two American circus performers caught in pre-war Germany; a place where penny-prophets and revolutionaries thrive in a chaotic pit of poverty, self-destruction, and lechery; delineates brilliantly into a mad expressionist nightmare. The pacing in this film is spectacular -- its great to see that a huge production didn't damage Bergman's narrative gifts.It'd be hard to reduce this film to a concise intellectual statement. The traditional Bergman themes of a distant God, indifferent Man, and a foundationless destructive nature in man and community, are all represented. But beyond that, Bergman doesn't add new dynamics. I think this is because the aim of this film was different than his others -- he was trying to capture the essence of his dream, a feeling, not a statement. The problems with the presentation arise because Bergman throws in too much context, historical foreshadowing, and an awkward plot resolution. This film would've done better to have disposed of its logic and any pretentions it had to an intellectual statement, operating solely as a cinematic poem. I think Bergman realized this when he criticized the film in his Images: My Life in Film, when he stated that he'd made the actual Berlin, rather than the one in his dream.The transfer here is beautiful. This is the best I've ever seen the film. Liv Ullmann is absolutely incredible, but Carradine is stiff, and his performance is too stagey and American to really fit in. But his physical prowess did add a new dimension to the film, particularly since the sometimes too-static Bergman needs all the help he can get in that departement. *Extras:
"Away From Home" is an interesting segment of interviews with Ullmann, Carradine, and Bergman (the latter interview from 1970, seven years before this film was made). Carradine, in particuar, is interesting to hear for his sheer egomania. "German Expressionism" is Marc Gervais trying, painfully, to relate his realization of this films referential nature to German expressionism and Noir. It takes him 10 minutes to spit it out. Trailer is beautiful. Carradine gives the film commentary, which is rife with factual errors, and mostly deals with his own acting style and career (what an ego this guy has!). Toward the end, he stops commenting for entire segments. However, its still very interesting and a welcome change from Gervais.Not Bergman's best by a longshot. But Bergman fans will like it, and others should find it extremely interesting."
Bergman's most underrated, and his creepiest film...
Grigory's Girl | NYC | 08/11/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This film usually gets terrible reviews. Many have said that it doesn't feel like a Bergman film (it's in English, and it was, at least for Bergman, an expensive production). Regardless, it is an incredibly dark, disturbing film, reminiscent of Pasolini's Salo. It's not sexually explicit like Pasolini's work is, but in terms of hopelessness and despair, it has much in common with Pasolini's film. Bergman called this his "horror" film, and I think he succeeds rather well. He handles English better here than in The Touch, an earlier English language film, and the performances are very good. The final 20 minutes are some of the most intense, troubling, and horrifying images committed to celluloid. A film filled with despair and hopelessness. If you like that sort of thing (as I sometimes do), watch this. If you like your films cheery and easy, stay away..."