"The Serpent's Egg," Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's latest film, is an unsettling disappointment.
Such magnificent structures as "Face to Face," "Cries and Whispers," "Scenes from a Marriage" and "The Passions of Anna" have made Bergman the architect of his own towering standards. We have come to expect insight, wisdom, mystery, greatness in every Bergman dissection of the human condition. That "Serpent's Egg" moves from boredom to nagging confusion is a letdown.
One turbulent week in the life of pre-Hitler Germany is the backdrop: Nov. 3 to 11, 1923, when Hitler's attempted coup was aborted and he was packed off to prison. In the streets, there is mass bewilderment amid runaway inflation, the vicious rantings of right-wing extremists and the impotent democratic government. No good German discipline. Rudderless masses in search of a voice. Against this historical canvas Bergman plays Monday-morning quarterback. The Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, he maintains, were as predictable as the metaphorical serpent's egg, whose thin membrane reveals the shape of the viper to come.
Bergman deliberately injects the landscape and the characters with chronic torpor. Malaise spills over and infects the whole film. It oozes from Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an American trapeze performer turned alcoholic who finds his brother has shot himself to death in a Berlin boarding house. And there is little chemistry between Carradine and Liv Ullmann, who portrays Manuela, the brother's exwife.
Manuela, a dizzy cabaret performer who favors green wigs, and Abel try to make sense of a garbled suicide note, briefly exploring refuge in each other. But as their uneasy relationship disintegrates, it clearly lacks the intensity and truth of past Bergman couples.
Police inspector Bauer (Gert Froebe) invites Abel to visit headquarters for questioning in connection with seven gruesome murders. But Abel's sudden paranoid eruption doesn't seem to mesh with his previous torpor. And his background and demeanor hardly suggest someone with the motivation, or the brains, to even attempt to understand the horror behind the deaths. Bergman leaves us fretting over unanswered questions.
How did Abel, who spent summers with apparently wealthy parents in Amalfi, find himself rousting about for handouts? How does Abel's apparent indifference toward his Jewishness lead him to throw a rock through the window of a shopkeeper named Rosenberg? Why do Abel and Manuela hang around a brooding Berlin long enough to accept the apparent generosity of Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent), a mad doctor who gives them jobs in his clinic?
And why would Bergman, who has previously used Liv Ullmann so brilliantly to portray women struggling to sculpt sense out of chaos, let her play a role that automatically limits her? "Serpent's Egg" hatches in a nest of confusion.