The Serpent’s Egg is Ingmar Bergman’s only American studio movie (although it was shot in Germany). It stars David Carradine as Abel Rosenberg, a circus performer who’s out of work. When his brother dies, he moves in with the widow, a cabaret singer played by Liv Ullman. They start investigating the death, and find out it wasn’t as they had thought. It has a twisty plot, and seems to be trying to be a Fassbender film, although it doesn’t quite get there.
There’s a kind of sub-Kafka paranoia, and clear influences from German expressionism and The Phantom Carriage. The action takes place in the 20s, at a similar time and location as Cabaret, with the rise of Nazism in the background. Bergman had his own brush with Nazism as a youth so its interesting to see him taking on this topic.
I’ve never bought into Ingmar Bergman being one of the greatest directors but I’ve always liked Persona, Hour of the Wolf and The Seventh Seal. He’s working on a big budget, and the story lends itself to strong visuals even though at times it looks like it could be outtakes from Cabaret.
Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and many others were up for the part—Hoffman prob would have been the best choice. But Carradine was cast because he had just played Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, and suddenly people were seeing him as more than that guy who does kung-fu. Plus, he was available. Ullman doesn’t have loads to do, but given that all her best roles were with Bergman, some do have to be better than others.
The whole plot is really convoluted and it doesn’t quite come together, but there are some good elements. Its very atypical of Bergman’s films—not a chamber piece on an island in Sweden where everyone’s miserable. It’s an odd movie in the director’s career. Apparently the main rationale behind doing it was that the director got done for tax evasion in Sweden, and had to work abroad for awhile until the issue died down. Just before making The Serpent’s Egg, he had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised for a bit. He considered moving to the US, but decided Germany was a better choice, and remained in Munich until 1984, only returning to Sweden in 1982 to make his last proper theatrical film, Fanny and Alexander.
Bergman teamed up with producer Dino De Laurentis to make the film, who always tried to work with the best directors. By all accounts they got on well, but they never did another film together.
A commentary from David Carradine has been ported over from the old DVD for this release, which also features a new appreciation from Barry Forshaw (who spent a third of it going through all the films Bergman made before this one), an archival featurette with interviews from the main actors, an interview with author Marc Gervais about the film’s connection to German expressionism, a stills gallery, trailer, and booklet with new writing on the film by Jeffrey Macnabb.