INGMAR BERGMAN'S rotten "Serpent's Egg" has been thoroughly panned. Yet, there still remains an important point worth making: The film dangerously distorts the nature and meaning of Nazism.
Like "Cabaret," with Liza Minnelli, "Serpent's Egg," with Liv Ullmann, is set in the Berlin of the 1980s, the place and time of this century's most intense burst of cultural creativity, cruelly stifled when Adolf Hitler came to power.
Both films use forebodings of this historic disaster as their psychological setting, just as they share the physical setting. Both films were made in the same Munich studios and used the same set and costume designers.
Yet, Bergman's "Egg" deals with Berlin as with some medieval Swedish town haunted by witches. Nazism is portrayed as just another sinister cult, a mere madness.
"Cabaret," in contrast, although delightfully entertaining and light-hearted, gives us serious insights into the true horror of Nazism. It shows that we are not immune to totalitarianism.
To do justice to Bergman and his set designer, Rolf Zehetbauer, the typically Berlin middle-class apartments --teetering between High Victorian and Art Nouveau -- in which Liv Ullmann boards and entertains David Carradine, reminded me of the apartment of my Aunt Ida near Olivaer Platz, which, with much trepidations, I occasionally visited as a child, It had long, narrow corridors that frightened me, and an entrance, I feared, I would never exit again.
Bergman's street scenes, however, don't look like anything I remember in Berlin, which was, even in 1923, the year of Bergman's "Serpent," a bustling, noisy, modern industrial city. I don't think it was ever cute or medieval. The Prussian kings were not inclined that way.
So I don't know where Bergman got those winding, narrow, wet, cobblestone-paved, romantic streets. His trolleys, I am sure, came straight from Disneyland.
The "Cabaret" scenery is less romantic but more authentic. It wisely avoids showing much of the cityscape. But Liza Minnelli's "Kit-Kat" cabaret looks much like some of the places around Alexander Platz. As a boy I actually peeked tremulously into one or two of them to get a glimpse of sin. I never saw any sin, to tell the truth, because (a) the smell of stale beer and cigar smoke nearly overwhelmed me, (b) the cleaning women, stacking chairs on the tables, scowled me away, and (c) perverse as they were, Berliners never sinned in daylight with little boys around.
It doesn't much matter, anyway. Neither Bergman nor Bob Fosse and Cy Feuer, who made "Cabaret" from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, claim to have made documentaries. In screenplay sets it's the mood that counts, just as in theater or opera. We don't need architectural renderings of medieval Verona to weep for Romeo and Juliet or picture-postcard images of Seville to enjoy the barber's arias.
What is more regrettable than any possible flaws in the backdrops is that neither film gives even a hint of the most amazing aspect of Berlin at the time.
It was, and I exaggerate only slightly, the birthplace of the Modern Age -- of modern film, theater, music, dance, literature, architecture, astro-physics.
The Berlin air, in those frenetic 14 years between the defeat of the Kaiser and the rise of Hitler, was charged not only with depravity and despair, but also with new visions and new hopes.
Sure, Berlin of the '20s, was a place of whores, pimps and drugs, a place where people butchered fallen horses on the street for food, a place where Communist rowdies and Nazi stormtroopers, night after night, would break bar chairs on each others heads. (The disciplined Social-Democratic police, however, would NOT look the other way, as Bergman would have us believe. The Berlin police did what it could for law and order and remained loyal to the Weimar Republic to the end).
But Berlin of the '20s was also the place where the films of G. W. Pabst and Ernst Lubitsch were made and applauded, where Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator directed several productions simultaneously, where Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Bruno Walter conducted, where Alban Berg and Kurt Weill first produced their operas (there were six opera houses), where Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg performed their radical compositions, where Mary Wigman and Harold Kreuzberg created modern dance. . .
It was the city of playwrights Bertolt Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, writers Arthur Koestler and Erich Maria Remarque, artists Kaethe Kollwitz and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, architects Walter Gropious and Mies van der Rohe, and of scientists Max Planck and Albert Einstein.
These and many other cultural leaders, who would later influence the shape of things in America and all over the western world, liked to frequent the Romanisches Cafe across Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche, sip brandy, slurp boiled eggs, and talk of their fears and visions.
Their fears were confirmed. The visions of Adolf Hitler won out.
Bergman is right in a way: The serpent's egg was nested early in the Weimar Republic and through the thin membranes, as is said somewhere in his film, the reptile could be clearly discerned. But Berlin, "red" Berlin, with its rough folksy humor and rough blue collars, was the least of the viper's nests. Hitler and his gang never were comfortable there.
Where Bergman is so badly wrong is in the way he depicts the Nazi viper and its venom. He depicts it as an extreme form of sadism, the calculating, pseudo-scientific kind. The evil all stems from the demented mind of one Hans Vergerus (played by Heinz Bennent) who takes mad pleasure in conducting deadly experiments with unsuspecting people.
The idea probably stems from the in-famous concentration camp experiments on humans. They were part of the horrors of Nazism, just as torture in the Siberian labor camps were part of Stalinism.
But sadism does not explain Nazism or Stalinism, it does not explain the fearful phenomenon that perfectly nice, civilized people can at once embrace and be victimized by pernicious, technocratic totalitarianism.
Using the Nazi association merely for goose pimples, to make a "horror film" (which is what Bergman said he wanted to make) a little more horrible still, tends to render Nazism harmless, a distant aberration like that of Mac the Knife or the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
In effect it does no better than the sado-masochist porno movies or pictures in Penthouse magazine that show naked girls equipped with storm trooper hats, swastika armbands and whips. It's all in good fun. Heil Hitler!
Even after four decades, Auschwitz and Belsen-Buchenwald, Coventry, Rotterdam and, yes, Dresden, are still too close and, what is worse, too unfathomable. I think, to be used even indirectly as entertainment. It is not just bad taste to treat Nazism lightly or as a mere horror fantasy thrill. It is bad protection against history repeating itself, the coming of another Hitler.
(But neither should we cry Hitler every time the democratic machinery creaks a little. Haldeman was bad news, but no Himmler. The CIA went a little berserk, but is hardly a Gestapo.)
At any rate, quite without horror thrills, "Cabaret" comes much closer to telling us something about Nazism and what happened in Germany. Remember the scene where Liza Minnelli and Michael York stop at a beer garden and a young German starts singing "Tommorrow Belongs to Me"? The song starts folksy and pretty enough.
But then, very gradually, as others join in, the song becomes increasingly more rhythmic and clipped and assertive and angry. As it gathers momentum and volume the tune gets more and more hypnotic until finally, actors and audience seem engulfed in a wave of mass hysteria.
When that handsome lad on the screen first began to ham it up, people in the audience laughed.But then -- it can happen here -- some of them swayed and stomped in rhythm.
That I recognized.