Bergman had exiled himself from Sweden after suffering a humiliating arrest on tax-evasion charges that were eventually dropped. He moved to Germany and got financing from Dino De Laurentis for an ambitious project that may have represented an expansion of his storytelling horizons. Not quite epic in scale, it still has the look of a prestige period piece with detailed recreations of Germany during the great inflation of 1923, the year of Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. In Bergman's Weimar there seem to be three classes of people: those who go to cabarets, those who perform in them, and the wretched of the earth. One such wretch is a fish out of water, the American circus artist Abel Rosenberg, who drops in on his brother only to find him a suicide, his brains blown onto a bedroom wall. Abel (an odd name for the surviving brother) crashes with his sister-in-law Manuela, an emotionally needy cabaret performer, while the police question him, first about his brother's demise, and then about a series of mysterious deaths. Hovering nearby is the mysterious Dr. Vergerus, an obnoxious acquaintance of Abel's past who shows unsavory interest in Manuela. Abel is an alcoholic, aloof and slightly paranoid, and more so as the film progresses. Because he's packing dollars he has a privileged position in a country where paper money is eventually measured by weight rather than face value, but he drifts like the bum that he is in what becomes a paranoid picaresque, as much a film of the time of its making as it is of the time of its setting.
The Serpent's Egg should be a quintessential Seventies movie. Only in those years, you'd think, could you ever see Ingmar Bergman and David Carradine join forces. Maybe we should have expected such a volatile mix to have troubled results, but Das Schlangenei is sadly less a bad film in any interesting way than simply a lame one. Blame Carradine for much of the lameness. He was just coming off his greatest Hollywood triumph in Bound for Glory, but something closer to Kwai Chang Caine showed up in Germany. Don't get me wrong; I love the old Kung Fu show, but Carradine's impassivity, sometimes bordering on inertness, seems wrong for the role Bergman wrote for him, and it makes Abel's occasional outbursts of whining hysteria seem more forced and artificial. Not that Liv Ullmann does much better as Manuela. She's there mainly as a Bergman trademark, but the master seemed to have no good idea of what to do with her. That he wrote and she acted in a second language didn't help. Interviews prove Bergman a fluent English speaker, but that doesn't mean he can be Ingmar Bergman the cinematic auteur in that language. Serpent's Egg is actually his second feature in English, but since I haven't seen The Touch, an Elliot Gould picture, I can't tell you whether the later film is an advance or a regression. But it should be clear that a Swede making a homage to German cinema in English is a potentially toxic compound. As for the homage, Bergman easily out-nerds Woody Allen with the stunt-casting of Gert (Goldfinger) Froebe as a police inspector. Froebe had been the inspector in Fritz Lang's last picture, a Dr. Mabuse reboot from 1960, and his character in the Bergman picture references the Inspector Lohmann character from Lang's 1932 Testament of Dr. Mabuse, mentioning that Lohmann is working "on an even stranger case than mine." That tells you where Bergman's heart was, but where was his mind?
Two factors complicate any modern attempt at a Weimar pastiche: Hitler and Kafka. Bergman falls into both traps. The paranoid storyline that emerges during Abel's adventures is as much Kafkaesque as it is Seventies, and Abel's temporary employment as a file clerk shifting papers from one set of envelopes to another is all Kafka, in the shallowest way. As for Hitler, it's easy in retrospect to see foreshadowings of the Third Reich all over the place in a Germany where contemporaries did not. Bergman plays with expectations a little by having his actual menaces have nothing to do with Hitler -- Vergerus calls the future Fuehrer a "scatterbrain" who'll soon be forgotten -- but he's only having an ironic joke at his villain's expense. He can't help seeing the Third Reich as the inevitable sequel to Weimar, and in doing so he misrepresents the cinematic Weimar he may have meant to honor. Cinema itself comes in for some suspicion here in a way that suggests that Bergman may have been paying homage to Michael (Peeping Tom) Powell along with the auteurs of Weimar. He manages to make science fiction of it by giving his villain a Vitaphone style sound-film system several years ahead of time, so that the film maintains that Langian flavor, or would if Bergman could sustain any narrative momentum. The film picks up the pace in its last third as Abel moves through a visually dazzling contrast of settings, almost living up to its invocation of expressionist cinema, but my final impression was that Bergman had a kind of montage of episodes in his head without figuring out a narrative framework for them. While Serpent's Egg is a pictorial hit thanks to cinematographer Sven Nykvist and art director Erner Achmann, its closing narration of Abel Rosenberg's disappearance only underscores the film's essential emptiness. Watching it is a frustrating experience because the makings of a better film are mostly there in front of you, but you share Bergman's own bafflement over how to put them together properly. Should it have been so hard for such a master, with at least one masterpiece still to come? I leave that to the Bergman experts, who'd know better how this fails to be a proper Bergman film.