Prophecy is the weakest link in the decrepit chain of circumstances that substitutes for a dramatic narrative in Ingmar Bergman's latest movie. Prophetically titled "The Serpent's Egg," it turns out to be the gamiest egg Bergman has ever laid.
The setting is Berlin from Nov. 3-11, 1923, a Week That Was chosen for special historical significance, since it encompasses the dates of Hitler's abortive takeover attempt in Munich, Nov. 8-9, 1923.
Bergman pretends to forecast the dreadful Nazi future in the crystal ball of his scenario, a daffy but morbid account of how two [WORD ILLEGIBLE] lumps, unemployed circus performers played by David Carradine and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Ullmann, fall in with a mad doctor. Heinz Bennent as a purring blond fiend named Dr. Vergerus, who performs "strange experiments" on unsuspecting human volunteers.
Bergman places so much prophetic hindsight in the mouths of so many characters, including the evil Vergerus, that you begin to wonder if he's nominating himself for some mythical Siegfried Kracauer Memorial Award. The script of "The Serpent's Egg" would certainly make a cozy companion volume for Kracauer's "Form Caligari to Hitler." Many scenes serve no useful dramatic function. They merely provide Bergman with the pretext for inserting bulletins and orations demonstrating his farsighted view of German political history.
What a pity that Bergman's gift for prophecy failed to save him from the embarrassment of "The Serpent's Egg" itself: If he'd realized how ridiculous this picture was destined to become, he might have stayed in bed. Or stayed in Sweden. It appears that Begman's exile is a major contributing factor to the movie's weaknesses, especially those deriving from the filmmaker's readiness to overdramatize his anxiety and self-pity.
"The Serpent's Egg" was shot at the Bavaria Studios in Munich, utilizing a number of people who had also contributed significantly to Bob Fosse's "Cabaret," notably Oscar-winning production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and costume designer Charlotte Fleming. Their contributions are undermined in this production, because Bergman insists on a sickly, fearful view of the period to suit his own expedient the-matic purposes. The sense of corruption in "Cabaret" was complicated by an undeniable sense of life. The decadent atmosphere also was glamorous, attractive and energizing.
Bergman won't countenance such ambivalence. His weimar Berlin is saturated with menace and brutality and very short on diversion and consolation. To reinforce this vision he frequently resorts to illustrative material cribbed from his own movies rather than Weimar social history. The most flagrant example is a sequence in which Liv Ullmann seeks consolation from a priest and runs into James Whitmore as that old Bergman wretch, the Man of God Who No Longer Believes in God.
"All this guilt is no good for me!" Ullmann moans. "Is there any forgiveness?"
Whitmore replies evasively, "Would you liked me to pray for you?" When she indicates that yes, indeed, she did have something of the sort in mind-you wish she'd get uppity and snarl,"I didn't come here for an estimate!"-he informs her gently that God seems too far away to listen to suffering mortals anymore, so they'll have to do it themselves. "I beg your forgiveness for my apathy and indifference," he croons. "Do you forgive me?"
"Yes, I do," she replies sincerely.
"That's all we can do," he says and escorted her to the door. You keep waiting for an obligatory kicker, like the wonderful moment in "Citizens Band" when Ann Wedgeworth turns to Marcia Rodd, whom she has just discovered to be her husband's other wife, and asks hopefully, "Does this mean we're related?" Ullmann ought to pause and ask Whitmore "Does this mean we've started our own church?"
The only thing that redeems nonsense like the Ullmann-Whitmore colloquy is its unintentional but irresistible note of self-parody. Begman plunks this note often enough to make "The Serpent's Egg" the largest repository of unintentional laughs since "The Exorcist. Part II," but his appetite for brutality puts a damper on the merriment. He takes a peculiarly ghoulish delight in images of blood-spattered faces and steaming gore.
Despite his genuine artistry, Bergman has never lacked certain base commercial instincts, and one occasionally discerns a B horror movie director lurking behind the respected, prestigious soul-searcher.
The Bergmanesque Mr. Hyde who played peekaboo with audiences in "The Magician," "Hour of the Wolf" and "Cries and Whispers" runs all around "The Serpent's Egg" foaming at mouth.
The excessive brutality is one indication that Bergman never got this conception reasonably worked out. He says he began the script before "Face to Face" and then discarded it because he couldn't find the "key." Unfortunately, the dispute with Swedish tax officials that provoked him to move to Munich seems to have unlocked a Pandora's box of paranoid cliches.
Bergman has Carradine as the timorous, oblivious hero hold his poor aching head and moan, "I wake from a nightmare and find that life is worse than the dream." It's difficult to escape the conclusion that Bergman allowed the harrassment he apparently suffered-subsequently acknowledged and regretted by the government-to prey on his filmmaking imagination in unhealthy, self-serving ways.
When a police inspector forces Carradine to identify a row of corpses, when Carradine huddles in a corner waiting for officers to come and thump him, or when Carradine discovers he's being spied on, we get the message all right, but it's expressed too hysterically and luridly to merit a sympathetic response.
Carradine and Ullmann are supposed to be outcasts stranded in Berlin, but it's Bergman who has stranded them on the screen. The hero is named Abel Rosenberg and the heroine, his sister-in-law, Manuela Rosenberg, presumably to identify her with gypsies and Jews simultaneously. Carradine is a supremely inappropriate choice for a wandering American Jew, and he looks and sounds confused from his opening line. Ullmann doesn't look like a Manuela either.
They are undoubtedly the dreariest romantic team since Stacy Keach and Susan Tyrrell in "Fat City." Ullmann's first appearance, torching on a cabaret stage in chartreuse wig, smudged crimson lipstick and funny underwear, is so hideous that you don't want to look. Not even Bergman wants to look. He keeps lingering on Carradine's face until working up the sadomasochistic gumption to cut to Ullmann, who obviously wouldn't be in this ludicrous fix if it weren't for him.
Bergman abuses Ullmann's loyalty in the way one has grown to expect from Ken Russell. In fact, there are several times in "The Serpent's Egg" when you wonder if someone hasn't inserted sequences directed by Russell. This suspicion grows especially strong during one fevered stretch beginning at a jazz club and ending at a brothel where Glynn Turman, turns up as an impotent black musician, struggling to produce an erection in the pressence of two cackling, deriative, ravenous Berlin whores.
Why is it that bad movies so often write their own epitaphs? Subconsciously, filmmakers must realize that they're barking up the wrong tree, so they scramble all the way up and saw branches off behind them. One can't resist taking lines like Carradine's "How do I find my way out of here?" and "Do you want me to leave?" and answering them sarcastically. There's one sequence in which poor Carradine looks as if he literally doesn't know which way to turn. Sitting without his clothes on a rumpled bed, he stares around at the camera and seems to look for some kind of guidance, like maybe an exit sign glowing in the back of the auditorium. You can feel for him, but you sure can't help him. Don't look at us, you think. Blame the Swedish guy.*