The Serpent’s Egg: Special Edition
Film Length: 119 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Widescreen (1.66:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: Original English - Monaural
The Serpent’s Egg is not a “typical” Ingmar Bergman film, in large part because it was shot in color, recorded in English, and filmed outside of Sweden during Bergman’s flight from the country over a tax problem. In addition, The Serpent’s Egg differs from prior Bergman films because of the rather large production budget that Bergman had to work with. As such, this German-American production involving the one and only Dino De Laurentis, allowed Bergman to tell one of his dark, dreary tales on a larger scale than he was accustomed to, while also exploring the disintegrating culture of 1920s Germany that would give way to the Nazi regime.
However, despite being quite a departure from Bergman’s previous films, The Serpent’s Egg also bears many of their characteristics. For example, although the film was still rather unpopular in the United States, it was well received in Europe, and became his highest grossing film there. In addition, although everything occurs on a much larger scale, the film is still an unusual and personal psychological drama that deals with the potential for human beings to cruelly destroy one another. In short, although The Serpent’s Egg is not a textbook Bergman film, there are plenty of images and themes sprinkled throughout to leave no doubt as to who made the film.
As The Serpent’s Egg opens, we find ourselves in Berlin, circa 1922, where out-of-work circus performer Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) finds that several people he knows have died unnatural deaths, some under mysterious circumstances. For instance, right at the beginning of the film, Abel discovers his brother has committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, Abel is called to the police station, where more bodies are shown to him, and the authorities reveal that they are suspicious of him, since he knew all of the deceased. While living through this waking nightmare, and trying to make sense of the collapsing German government, Abel remains drunk (he is an alcoholic) and depressed, committing strange acts of violence and depravity. Come on, would you expect anything less from an Ingmar Bergman movie???
In the midst of all this chaos, Abel and his brother’s widow, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), come together to comfort each other in the wake of their sudden loss. Unfortunately, neither has much money for living expenses, and jobs are tough to come by in Berlin, as the unstable political situation has created a situation of extreme economic turbulence and made the country’s currency virtually worthless. Eventually, to help them survive, Abel and Manuela obtain “jobs” at a medical facility operated by a man called Dr. Vergerus (Heinz Bennent). At this point, Rosenberg discovers that financial trouble is the least of their worries, as he discovers sinister goings-on at the clinic. Will Abel live to unravel the mystery and clear his name, or will he meet the same fate as his brother and acquaintances?
Well, that is a brief synopsis of the plot, but is it any good? Of course, opinions about a film are subjective, but I think David Carradine is on the money when he states (in his commentary) that this film is very demanding on a viewer, and that it is a difficult film to watch twice. Bleak and nightmarish, it depicts the political unrest rampant in Germany during the 1920s, the infancy of the brutal Nazi regime, and moral decay of the era via uncompromising, and sometimes graphic, images. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that though, especially since those were the realities of the period.
So, what is it about this film that doesn’t work? Well, in my opinion, the script for The Serpent’s Egg, especially the “mystery” at its core, is not terribly compelling. In addition, the performances in the film just did not give me the same sense of awe as those in Bergman’s other works, like Persona or The Passion of Anna. Don’t get me wrong, both Carradine and Liv Ullmann are still quite good in their respective roles, it is just that the characters they play are not that richly realized or memorable. Further, although Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is as brilliant as ever, there are many dimly lit interior scenes that make it difficult to see what is transpiring, which became irritating after a while.
Perhaps most disappointing though, was how the mystery resolves itself. Yes, it is disturbing, especially since it serves as a precursor to actual events that would take place in the ensuing years, but I really did not find the way the whole affair was set up to be very suspenseful. All in all, I suppose Bergman still deserves some credit for The Serpent’s Egg, since he managed to step outside of his comfort zone a little and make a big-budget film in another language, with a lead actor possessing a very different style than what he was used to. Even so, although The Serpent’s Egg is not terrible, the film is still very challenging to watch, and quite frankly, it does not rank among Ingmar Bergman’s better works (in my humble opinion).
NOTE: The Serpent’s Egg is also available as part of the Ingmar Bergman DVD Collection, which features “Special Editions” of Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Serpent’s Egg, and The Passion of Anna, plus a sixth disc containing an additional 90 minutes of bonus features. Fans of Ingmar Bergman may want to consider it…but they should be aware that Hour of the Wolf and Shame are not presented in their original aspect ratio (1.37:1)!!! See this thread for further details on the subject, and please let MGM know that these films deserved more respect!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
MGM presents The Serpent’s Egg in widescreen (1.66:1), and though the images are not problem-free, the overall result is a commendable representation of the sometimes challenging source material, shot beautifully by Sven Nykvist. To be more precise, colors are displayed accurately, appearing vibrant but not over-saturated, and flesh tones are spot-on. Fine detail is also rendered with precision, giving the image a sense of texture and three-dimensionality, and Bergman’s trademark close-ups look exceptional!
However, as previously mentioned, the source material is quite challenging, and presents a few minor irritations, so let’s take a look at them. First of all, blacks are generally deep and detailed, but some of the interiors (and a few exteriors for that matter) in The Serpent’s Egg are so dimly lit in can be very tough to see what is going on. Moire errors are also visible in some of the scenes set in building interiors. However, aside from these minor distractions, and some shimmering during the opening credits, there is little else to complain about. Overall, despite not being anamorphic, this is a professional, film-like transfer, and I am of the opinion that most of the objectionable (dark) material is inherent in the source material. Very nice!!!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Although it lacks the expansiveness and pizzazz of today’s multi-channel soundtracks, the monaural audio track for The Serpent’s Egg is certainly serviceable. More specifically, it is not quite as claustrophobic as many monaural soundtracks tend to be, and reproduction of the cabaret-type music in the film is handled pretty well. Similarly, although a few lines sound slightly brittle, dialogue is generally intelligible, clear, and rooted in the center of the soundstage. One of the few exceptions can be found in Chapter 15, when the audio information during the chaotic raid on the cabaret jumbles together and becomes slightly distorted.
As you might expect, given the source material, there is not much in the way of low bass information, even during the aforementioned raid in Chapter 15. In addition, on a couple of occasions, high frequency effects (e.g. shattering glass) sound bright, but frequency response is otherwise acceptable. By no means is this a stellar effort, but the monaural track does do its job quite well in most respects.
Feature Length Commentary
The feature-length audio commentary by actor David Carradine offers plenty of fascinating, candid information and anecdotes about Ingmar Bergman, The Serpent’s Egg, and Carradine’s experiences on the project. Carradine does take somewhat of a less is more approach, so there are some periods of silence, but when he chooses to say something, it is almost always interesting.
Of particular interest to Bergman fans may be Mr. Carradine’s first-hand account of the director’s style, and the amount of detail that went into The Serpent’s Egg. Carradine also talks a lot about how the film is a departure for Bergman, his opinion about what Bergman’s “real reason” for doing the film may have been, and about his approach to acting. Overall, this is quite an entertaining and informative commentary, and definitely well worth a listen!
Away From Home
“Away From Home” is a comprehensive and insightful look, via interviews with Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, actors David Carradine and Liv Ullmann, and archived interviews with Bergman himself, at how The Serpent’s Egg came to be. During this featurette, which runs for about 19 minutes, a wealth of interesting information is divulged by the participants. Highlights included:
--- At the time this film was made, Ingmar Bergman had fled his homeland of Sweden, due to tax problems, and ultimately arrived in Munich, Germany, where this The Serpent’s Egg was made.
--- David Carradine elaborating on Bergman’s directorial style, and very candidly speaking about his thoughts on the film, and his working relationship with Ingmar.
--- Liv Ullmann discussing how Bergman seemed to be very unhappy during the making of the picture, which required him to work outside his element (big budget, English language, and perhaps “less schooled” actors).
There is a lot of detail about how The Serpent’s Egg was made, how the actors were cast, and even some retrospective analysis of their feelings about how the film in this featurette. As such, I can easily recommend watching it!
German Expressionism Featurette
During this brief featurette, which clocks in at just over 5 minutes, Marc Gervais speaks about some of the ways The Serpent’s Egg differs from the “typical” Bergman film about personality disintegration. He also theorizes that most viewers, especially those familiar with Bergman’s work, will probably enjoy the film more if they approach it from a “non-Bergman film” standpoint. Gervais is much more well-spoken and insightful during this featurette than he was on the Persona disc, so this short piece is also worth a viewing.
The photo gallery features nearly 50 behind-the-scenes and production stills, in both black-and-white and color. This is a more interesting and comprehensive gallery than most, and features some interesting shots.
The theatrical trailer for The Serpent’s Egg is included.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
While The Serpent’s Egg is certainly not acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman’s effort, it is a notable work for the Swede, in that it was filmed in English, shot in color, and the production took place outside of Sweden. As you might expect, despite being a production of rather large scale, the Bergman signature is on this film. As such, it is almost as challenging to watch as other films from his catalog, but I did not find the reward for sitting through it to be as sweet. Simply put, the script is not on the same level as his other works, and I think that Bergman being so far outside of his element (for the reasons listed above) resulted in an inferior film and less memorable characters, despite the presence of a game David Carradine and Liv Ullmann.
In terms of the disc itself, it is quite well put together, possessing a solid transfer, above average audio quality, and a wealth of insightful extras! It is just too bad the The Serpent’s Egg is not a better film. If you have already seen this movie, and are looking forward to adding it to your collection, I am quite sure this disc will not disappoint, so I recommend picking it up. However, if you are a “newbie” to the world of Ingmar Bergman, or have not seen the film yet, I would suggest a rental over a purchase, and recommend starting with Wild Strawberries or The Passion of Anna first.
February 10th, 2004