Serpent's Egg, The

Tagged: Film

Film (1977). Known in Germany as Das Schlangenei. Dino De Laurentiis Corporation/Rialto Film/Bavaria Film. Directed and written by Ingmar Bergman. Cast includes Heinz Bennent, David Carradine, Gert Fröbe, Liv Ullmann and James Whitmore. 119 minutes. Colour.

Ingmar Bergman's thirty-eighth film as director has generally been understood as a failed attempt to give an intimate portrait of Weimar Berlin in 1923, a place and a period he did not know and was unlikely to master. There are some reasons to think this. His garishly crepuscular vision of the inner City of Berlin, as rendered by his favourite cinematographer Sven Nykvist, may cleanse Cabaret (1972) directed by Bob Fosse of some of its actor-compliant excesses, and may intriguingly place very similar scenes (including a brutal beating by Nazis) a decade earlier than Christopher Isherwood could have dreamed; but The Serpent's Egg is inherently ill-at-ease with its subject matter. The homages to German Expressionist film – memories of Fritz Lang's M (1931) in particular seem to have shaped the numerous tracking shots of rain-drenched streets, tenements, huddled masses, urban caverns – seem almost touristic.

But it verges on lèse majesté to suggest that the vastly experienced Bergman did not in fact know exactly what he was doing: for every aspect of the film – execution, mise en scene, casting choices, narrative claustrophobia – seems wholly deliberately to engender a sense of apocalyptic disease. The Serpent's Egg is set at the beginning of November 1923, in a Germany still caught in the aftermath of World War One, at the height of the hyperinflation crisis, just before Adolf Hitler's failed Munich Putsch. The American protagonist, Abel Rosenberg (Carradine), is an out-of-work trapeze artist, which is to say he is off-balance from the start; and he does not speak German. As the sole point-of-view carrier of the story – he is either in camera or in a position to see what the camera sees at every moment of the film – he is a visitor to Dystopia. What he sees and experiences is the Berlin he is told to see and experience.

As the film begins he returns to his flat to find that his brother has gruesomely committed suicide. He returns to the cabaret to inform his brother's wife Manuela Rosenberg (Ullmann), a seriously untalented performer, that she has been widowed. They return to the flat. They behave as though they were entrapped in some vicious circle. But they are soon asked to leave; Inspector Bauer (Fröbe) of the Berlin police interrogates Abel about his brother's death, and the death of others. He becomes philosophical: "Existence today is nothing but dread", he says. "A fear rises like vapour from the cobblestones". An old acquaintance, the poisonously polished Dr Hans Vergerus (Bennent), who has paid Manuela for sex, offers them rooms "near" St Anna Clinic, which he runs. Abel thinks he hears engines somewhere. Dread and Paranoia increasingly afflict him, but he accepts a job from colleagues of Vergerus in a vast adjacent archive deep Underground. Manuela commits suicide.

Abel discovers two-way mirrors in their rooms, machinery, hidden corridors. They have been under observation from within. He steps through the mirrors he has broken and finds himself retracing paths through the labyrinthine archives, constantly descending. Suddenly he finds himself in a glaringly white chamber – the first uncongested brightness the film provides – where Dr Vergerus greets him, and begins his explanation. They are at the heart of a vast Edifice [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. From here Vergerus is able to monitor Berlin; he is able to conduct merciless (but "necessary and logical") experiments on selected residents, designed to strip them down to their basic impulses, which are murderous or self-destructive; through the use of a gas pumped through orifices under Berlin, he can seemingly affect behaviour in general. Ultimately, through a combination of scientific Prediction and Secret-Master manipulation, he is able to foresee (and in a sense predetermine) the failure of Hitler's imminent putsch and his triumph a decade later. Although he is clearly a Mad Scientist, it is also clear that the tenor and extent of his experiments directly prophesy the obscenities Nazi scientists committed on Jews and others during the Final Solution (see Holocaust Fiction; World War Two).

The grotesque cartoon Berlin that Abel as Visitor has perceived is the Berlin that Vergerus has created. It is a Thought Experiment. The Serpent's Egg nears its conclusion. Before committing suicide himself (he has induced all the deaths so far in the film, and Inspector Bauer is closing in), Vergerus boasts that his enterprise is a scientific mirror of times to come, and that the history of the twentieth century will be understood as an unpacking of his Godgame:

Anyone who makes the slightest effort can see what is waiting in there in the future. It's like a serpent's egg. Through the thin membranes you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.

[JC]

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