Monday, April 20, 2009

TOERIFC: The Already Perfect Reptile

Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg begins with a gray image of people marching towards doom. We might think, at first, and depending on our knowledge of the film’s subject, that these people are Jews, possibly being rousted from a ghetto, or herded to a gas chamber (and that is where this film is heading, though Bergman ends his story before it gets there). But these miserable people, shown in clips throughout the very Woody Allen-esque opening credits, which are played over cabaret jazz, are in fact the people who will either actually carry out the Holocaust, or will facilitate it through their indifference, fear and callousness.

The Serpent’s Egg is set in Berlin, in 1923. Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), the film’s protagonist (“hero” seems like the wrong word), is an American Jew who has been living in Berlin with his brother Max for the last three years. With Max’s ex-wife, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), the brothers formed a circus trapeze act, until Max hurt his wrist. Since then, Max and Manuela have divorced, and both Max and Abel have descended into a kind of nightmare depression, which Abel dulls with alcohol, and which Max ends, at the beginning of the film, with suicide. After meeting with the police, in the form of Inspector Bauer (Gert Frobe), Abel goes to the cabaret where Manuela works to inform her of Max’s death. He shows her Max’s suicide note, and she stares at it uncomprehendingly, saying it is completely illegible. She asks Abel to try to read it, but he can only make out one line: “There is poisoning going on.

That line is, really, the film. Bergman’s vision of 1920s Germany is one of endless grotesquerie and madness, one where an evil is growing quietly from within. Those who are not directly linked to the creation of Germany’s monstrous future, like Abel and Manuela, can only suffer through the country’s devastating poverty and try to make their way, while either choosing to ignore, or smile their way past, what they see going on around them, as Manuela does, or let the nightmare consume them, which is the route that Abel chooses, for a while. He gets drunk every night, and later in the film, when he’s moved in with Manuela, he complains that a noise from outside their room, the rumbling of an engine, is “driving him wild”. Manuela can’t hear the engine, unless he mentions it, and then she can almost make it out. This is because Abel is tuned into the great and Hellish machine that’s revving to life beneath them, because he knows the world is about to end in fire. Manuela secretly knows the same thing, but tries to forget it. And it’s the knowledge, not the sound, which drives Abel wild. Berlin’s upper classes pursue their decadence with a forced and manic joy, but the wildness of Abel’s knowledge drives him to pursue similar diversions the same way he pursues waking up in the morning, which is to say: grimly. Abel throws a brick through the window of a Jewish shop, and humiliates a fellow patron at a brothel he visits late in the story, a scene which ends with him hitting one of the prostitutes – such are his tools for dealing with the engine.

Before going any further, it should be noted that Carradine is a spectacularly weird choice for a lead in a Bergman film. His gaunt, old-before-its-time face and mopey eyes are just right for Abel, and in that sense he’s not unlike Bergman favorite Max von Sydow, but his line delivery can sometimes seem over-pronounced (Carradine’s excuse -- given on the commentary track – that Abel is an American surrounded by Europeans, and that’s how people often speak to foreigners, doesn’t quite fly with me) and carry only the weight that the words had as originally written, but no more. And his drunk walk, which he performs regularly over the course of the film, is of the exaggerated, 1930s comic hobo variety. When faced with Nazi atrocities while stumbling down the street, I kept expecting him to stop, rub his eyes, look at the half-full bottle in his hand, and then pitch the bottle to the side.

“Drunk” and “sad” aren’t the only things Carradine has to do, however, due to the fact that Abel is not an entirely passive victim -- he nearly is, but not quite – because The Serpent’s Egg has a structure that is unique, in my experience, in Bergman’s work. It flows like a mixture between a mystery story and a horror film, with the emphasis on the latter. In its basic narrative line, The Serpent’s Egg most resembles horror films like Angel Heart (itself a horror film mixed with detective fiction) and The Ninth Gate, the kind where the hero follows a set of clues that lead him from a dark crime to a darker, often occult, revelation that either destroys him or at least opens his eyes to the broad-spanning and evil truth at the heart of his society, or the secret mad powers that will tear that society apart.

As I say, these stories are told as mysteries, and end up in the horror genre based, generally, on what is discovered. The beginning of this mystery is the suicide of Abel’s brother Max, although given the relentlessly grim nature of Bergman’s film, it’s less surprising that Max, who we only ever see as a corpse, blows his brains out than that everybody else in Berlin doesn’t follow his example. The mystery is deepened, however, when Inspector Bauer calls Abel to the morgue to show him a series of corpses, asking, after revealing the face of each body, if Abel knows them. A couple he knew in passing, one female was engaged to his brother, and another reminds Abel of his father. It appears at first, to Abel and to us, that Bauer is looking at Abel as the killer of all of these people, so it would appear that, along with everything else, Bergman is setting Abel up as a “wrong man” figure. But Bauer’s suspicions, if he ever even had them, ultimately go nowhere. In any case, when Abel clues into these suspicions, he accuses Bauer of doing this because he, Abel, is Jewish. This stops Bauer cold, which Abel takes as confirmation that he was right.

Another staple of the various genres Bergman is poking around with is the former acquaintance of the protagonist, now the villain of the story. In this film, that man is Hans Vergerus (Heinz Bennent), who Abel runs into, for the first time in ten years, in the wings of the stage at Manuela’s cabaret. He begins peppering Abel with questions about their mutual past, but Abel acts as though he doesn’t know him. Later, Abel tells Manuela that when he and Hans were children, Hans tied a live cat down and dissected it. He describes seeing its heart still beating very fast. This incident, not surprisingly, has lingered with him, possibly in the back of his had as an indicator of the future, or as a clue to the world’s infernal secrets. It’s certainly a clue to the character of Vergerus, who he will meet again, and learn more about. Among other things, Manuela has a menial day job in Vergerus’s clinic, and Abel eventually will, too, in the clinic’s archives.

All of this is leading us to the solution of a mystery – to be honest, Abel, in his role as the protagonist, isn’t much of a seeker of facts, but he does have a talent for stumbling across them. And he trips face first into the truth when he returns one morning, from the brothel mentioned earlier, to the room he shares with Manuela, and discovers her dead. Here, also, Bergman’s sense of logic shatters – deliberately, I’d guess -- along with all the mirrors that Abel breaks in the room, revealing behind each one a camera. In a scene that seems to challenge us to locate ourselves within any kind of physical geography that pertains to what we’ve seen, or thought we knew, before, Abel climbs into one of those hidden camera rooms and finds himself running around a subterranean series of rooms, filled with metal walls, metal staircases, and metal bars (in fact, it looks not unlike his work area at the clinic’s archives). We realize, before Abel does, that someone is following him through these rooms, and finally attacks him – and, due to the way the subsequent fight is shot, we never see the assailant’s face. The fight ends on an elevator, with the attacker being decapitated, and the horror film feeling Bergman has been toying with all along is now put in the forefront.

The motives of the man behind all this, Vergerus, might be considered muddy. The human experiments he’s been conducting – which, like the similar Nazi experiments that followed in reality, result always in torture, and often in death – are intended to indicate what is weak about humanity, and what is strong, so that the weak can be eliminated. How injecting a man with a drug that causes him to endure unbearable dread until he’s driven to suicide is supposed to indicate what’s weak about humanity is anybody’s guess, but Vergerus’s methods aren’t exactly that far-removed from those of the Nazi scientists he, in Bergman’s world, gave birth to. And unclear motives are simply something you have to come to terms with when considering Nazi atrocities. The genocide they perpetrated wasn’t just genocide (but then, genocide never is); these atrocities included, in some cases, turning their victims into furniture. Such acts inspired several generations of serial killers, so, with the Nazi Germany, what you have, at the core, is serial murder on a national scale. Horror film tropes and general illogic might be the best approach to a fictional tale of the Holocaust or its beginnings, even if your style is intended to be naturalistic, which Bergman’s isn’t.

The horror idea is carried further in the film’s climax, which features Vergerus swallowing a cyanide capsule. He says he knows Bauer is on to him – these experiments aren’t yet sanctioned by the government – so he takes the capsule without regret, knowing that what he has helped set in motion is much bigger than anyone’s romantic ideas of justice. Just before the cyanide takes effect, Vergerus positions a bright light over his head, and holds a mirror to his face, so he can clinically observe the way the muscles in his face distort as the poison shuts down his body. This is a psychopathology so far removed from any sense of human worth and dignity, and so dedicated to its idea of a better world, that when the pathology grows, and cracks its shell and steps fully formed to take its place in the world, the option -- for those among us normal enough to regard the serpent with an overwhelming incredulity -- of going mad right along side it might seem, must have seemed, awfully tempting. You can’t beat, or reason with, or argue with, or feel superior to, or react to in any rational way, that which you have no hope of understanding.

In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman says of The Serpent’s Egg:

If I had created the city of my dreams, a city that does not exist and never has, and yet manifests itself acutely with smells and loud sounds, if I had created that city, not only would I have been moving in it with total freedom and an absolute sense belonging, but also, more important, I would have brought the audience with me into an alien but secretly familiar world. In The Serpent’s Egg, however, I ventured into a Berlin that nobody recognized, not even I.

I pulled that quote from the internet, not the book itself, so I don’t have the context necessary to tell me if Bergman thinks the result was good or bad, although the tone implies that he had regrets. The film is generally regarded, in truth, as one of Bergman’s worst, and it’s true that there are hiccups along the way – when Abel tells a prostitute to “Go to hell!”, and the prostitute laughingly responds “Where do you think we are?”, it’s hard to believe that Bergman didn’t know that he’d already made that point several times over – but I really don’t think his Berlin is one of them. The desperate decadence we associate with the country at that time is all there, to the point where it seems like, as shown by the bizarre, but not unfamiliar, cabaret acts in Manuela’s club, even Germany’s distractions were insane. The madness of the society is so deeply rooted that the entertainments available are grotesque enough to be slightly removed from humanity, which will be necessary to do the work asked of them some ten or fifteen years later. At one point, Inspector Bauer sees a street musician, the kind with an accordion and a monkey, performing with a blank faced to a crowd of people just as dull-eyed as he. Although Bauer is actually a fairly sympathetic character, the way he makes a point to give the musician money seems to say, “Keep it up. You’re doing good work.”

Humanity isn’t completely dead in Bergman’s Berlin – it’s just dying. Manuela clings to it, smiling sometimes insanely, and Ullmann’s performance, considered shrill by some, I think is hysterical in just the right way. Manuela is a fundamentally decent person, one of the few left in her world who can still feel guilt, which she does, over Max’s suicide. In one of the film’s best scenes, she goes to see a Catholic priest, played with a kind of simple warmth by James Whitmore. The priest is at first dismissive of her, based on her inability to come to the point, but when she does, and he sees that she wants forgiveness for something she most likely isn’t even guilty of, his wall of apathy crumbles, and he tells her that God is so remote that he probably can’t even hear our prayers for forgiveness. But, on His behalf, he, the priest, will forgive her, and ask her forgiveness in return, for his previous indifference, which she grants. In Bergman’s long battle with God, here he seems to allow for the possibility, at least, of His existence; he just doesn’t see what good that existence does anybody. But at least two of His believers, Manuela and the priest, seek and bestow forgiveness. There won’t be much more of that in the years ahead, so you take what you can get.

When the film ends, we’re told by Inspector Bauer that Hitler’s Munich putsch has failed completely. Vergerus has already predicted this to Abel, and said that Hitler was a dullard, and would not be the future of Vergerus’s dream. Little does he know, although this low opinion of Hitler as an intellect might tie in with the film’s title, which supposedly comes from this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which hatch'd, would, as his kind grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell.

But that’s not what happened, is it? And as it pertains to The Serpent’s Egg, the line comes off as an optimistic fantasy, because you read the words “kill him in the shell” and you have to think: if only.

183 comments:

Ed Howard said...

This was a great choice, Bill, and your write-up does a fine job of dealing with the film's themes of Germany on the verge of the Nazi era. It's an unusual film, very sleepy and meandering, the rhythms of the film itself seeming to match Carradine's drunken haze. And then everything suddenly sharpens, snaps into focus, with that bracing final sequence in Vergerus' laboratory, a really horrific scene, if not quite outright horror. It's not until the ending that the real parameters of the film become apparent, that its themes are really explored in full, and the revelation of Vergerus' very Nazi-like evil casts a new light on the rest of the film.

Of course, as good as that ending scene is, there's no denying that the rest of the film kind of staggers around like one of those 1930s hobos you mention; it's very aimless at times, and though its weird disjunctive tone makes a certain sense aesthetically and thematically, it's still often off-putting. And the acting is just a mess. It's easy to pick on Carradine, who's really awkward here, but it's more surprising that even Bergman regular Ullmann, usually so dependable, is shrill and melodramatic, the opposite extreme from Carradine's sleepy-eyed non-entity.

bill r. said...

Ed, the first time I saw this film, I felt pretty much the same as you. But watching it again for this post, I reall kind of loved it. It has its problems, God knows, but I felt so much more in tune with it from the beginning, not least because it hits on certain interests and genres and runs with them. Bergman himself described this as a horror film, and I think he made a great one.

And, as you may have noticed from the post, I thought Ullmann was good. I've heard "shrill" to describe her here, but I don't think she is, or at least she's not shrill in a negative way. Manuela is more lost than anybody else in the film. At least Abel has a sense of what's going on. Manuela tries to soldier on with a smile on her face -- a smile which frequently slips, but still -- and the whole effort, when faced with the truth, is slowly making her hysterical.

Greg said...

Quickly, I just want to say this is a great post, not too long at all.

I'm with Bill on the overall quality of the movie. I kept thinking it would be awful from what I'd heard but was pleasantly surprised. As to the acting, Carradine was my only major problem. I thought Ullman was very good, I didn't see shrill or melodramatic like Ed did.

And Frobe - man, he was just great. Best performance in the movie by far.

More to come in a minute, just wanted to quickly say that.

Ed Howard said...

I first saw this a few years ago, and both times I've seen it now I've had the same mix of fascination and repulsion, which may be exactly what Bergman is going for. What I think is most interesting about the film is that almost all of the things that annoy me about it can be justified and explained by the themes that Bergman is exploring. Carradine's drowsy, exaggerated drunkenness and Ullmann's over-the-top melodrama are both expressions of their confusion and desperation -- which doesn't mean that they're not *also* annoying performances. The same thing goes for the rambling plot, which reflects the hazy state of pre-WW2 Germany and the willful ignorance of people ignoring what's going on right in front of them. Bergman manages to make everything that seems like a defect of the film into an integral component of the film's thematic undercurrents.

Pat said...

I'll be honest, Carradine was a huge problem for me. I found his performance so bad that it kept pulling me out of the movie. His slight resemblance to Max Von Sydow wasn't lost on me. But it seemed like he had this one, all-purposed, "haunted and confused" facial expression that stayed glued on all the time, and then occassionally it was like he suddenly remembered "I'm supposed to be really upset here so I should do something else like put my hands over my eyes for a few seconds."

I like Ullman's performance a lot, myself. When we first see her, on stange at the cabaret, she's really alive and fun to watch, even though she sings so badly.

Anyone else realize that Heinz Bennent, who plays Dr. Vergerus, is the father of David Bennent who played Oskar in "The Tin Drum." I actually saw the resemblance before I confirmed the relationship via Google search.

More fro me later, have a meeting now.

bill r. said...

Greg - Thanks. And I was really surprised how much I liked this film the second time around. Honestly, it's now one of my favorite Bergman movies. And favorite Carradine movies, too!

And Frobe was, indeed, great. I'd say Whitmore, too, but his performance was all too brief.

Greg - I'll grant that the plot is kind of a mess, and I do wonder how much of that was intentional. At the end, Vergerus says that he knows that Abel has been feeding information to Bauer, but when the hell did Abel do that? Is this sort of a reverse Kafka situation, where the hero gets things done without even trying? And Abel's connection to the seven deaths is just dropped. Intentional? If so, why?

bill r. said...

I'm supposed to be really upset here so I should do something else like put my hands over my eyes for a few seconds."...

Ha! That's not untrue... I did sort of like Carradine's reaction -- bizarre as it kind of is -- to Bauer stopping dead when accused of hassling Abel because he's a Jew. That sort of sudden yelp of despair was powerful, if out of the blue.

Anyone else realize that Heinz Bennent, who plays Dr. Vergerus, is the father of David Bennent who played Oskar in "The Tin Drum." I actually saw the resemblance before I confirmed the relationship via Google search....

I did NOT know that, but it's weird, because he's a striking guy, and I happened to note the similarities of the last name to David Bennent (though I realize now I misread Heinz Bennent's name, and also, as a result, misspelled it in the post).

Greg said...

I didn't know the Bennent connection either.

The plot is rambling but still I liked it. One of the problems I have with it is the speech that Dr. Vergerus gives at the end. It is so dead on accurate that it takes me out of the movie. I thought, "Well I know this written decades after the fact but did they have to make his predictions of 10 years so completely and utterly accurate?" It also felt like piling it on. Like somehow, in some way, we hadn't already gotten that.

Pat said...

BTW, Bill, you analysis of the film is great, and put the themes into better perspective for me. For me "The Serpent's Egg" just never quite came together, at least not until that final scene with Vergerus, which is pretty chilling. But I'm not sure how much of that disjointed feeling is the (perhaps intentional) result of the film itself and how much is due to the poor quality of the DVD I watched. As I noted in my comment on your previous post, I had a tough time getting through it - there was skipping, a loss of audio in part of one scene, plus I was finally forced to watch James Whitmore's scene on You Tube. So I probably don't have the best basis on which to judge its merits.

bill r. said...

Yeah, Vergerus's speech is a little too much like the standard, cliche' "villain speech". Considering the brilliantly disturbing way the scene ends, it ultimately doesn't matter much. Also, it makes me wonder even more, now that I think about it, how intentionally Bergman wanted this to play as a genre film.

bill r. said...

Pat, that's an awful way to watch any movie, and it certainly can't have helped you get into the groove with this one. I don't know what you missed, so I can't say if the disjointed quality comes from that or the film itself, but I'm inclined to think the former. And thanks for the compliment.

Greg said...

One of the best things about the movie for me, which you mention at the start of the post, is the bookended black and white imagery of the huddled masses. Your first thought is, "They're Jews" and then at the end you realize they're the German Anglos who will facilitate their destruction. What an amazing bait and switch. An extraordinary way to show how the victim becomes the perpetrator. The beaten desperate masses revitalize themselves by scapegoating another group and destroying them.

Ed Howard said...

I loved those black and white images as well. I also loved the whole credits sequence, which as Bill mentions in his post is very Woody-esque. I'm guessing that's got to be intentional, right? It felt like a little tip of the hat from the old master to the younger filmmaker he inspired -- Bergman influenced Woody and then playfully incorporated Woody's style into the opening of one of his own later films. I wonder if Woody has ever commented about that anywhere, or been asked his feelings about it.

bill r. said...

Greg, that beginning, and that music, is so haunting. It's one of my favorite parts of the film. And Ed, I thought at first that it was Bergman tipping his cap to Allen, but The Serpent's Egg came out in 1977, and from what I've read, Allen didn't make those credits a habit until Annie Hall, from the same year. So I don't know what's going on.

Pat said...

I'll join Ed and Greg in admiration for the use of those black-and-white images of the crowd, and the way they're used to subvert our conventional expectations.

Another random observation: the final scene in which Vergerus watches himself die from cyanide poisoning was doubly chilling to me for the way it evoked Powell/Pressburger's "Peeping Tom" - a film in which murder victims are forced to watch their own frightened reaction to impending death in a mirror. (It's considered to be much more frightening to watch themselves than just to experience the fear and subequent death.) That Vergerus volutarily watched himself die just makes him even seem even sicker and creepier.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, a good choice, and your write-up was very good.

I have to admit that upon first viewing, I didn't like it at all. First of all, like Pat, I found Carradine's acting almost ludicrously bad. Early on, in the first scene of Frobe and him, you can catch him taking direction very clumsily, gesturing just a beat behind the point, as if Bergman was standing beside the camera and saying "now, gesture," which undoubtedly he was.

And Bennent -- whom I loved in "The Last Metro" was just cartoonishly-Nazi. In that first scene, I expected him to say "Ve haff vays of makink you acknowledge our boyhood connection."

Then again, when Ullman first appeared, I was appalled: her cabaret makeup, I was thinking: what have you done to her pristine, uncluttered beauty, you hack Bergman? God, she is so garish, you've ruined her!

And then I got to thinking: exactly! That is exactly how I am supposed to react. Bergman -- wily that he was -- is purposely playing off our image of the un-adorned beauty of Ullman, largely created through his own movies, and saying: see? See how the building storm corrupts?

And your fine write-up has made me re-consider my verdict of awful, and I will probably see it again.

Good job!

Greg said...

and from what I've read, Allen didn't make those credits a habit until Annie Hall, ...

Bill, I've got damn near every Woody Allen movie made before 1992 on DVD and they all had those credits way before Annie Hall. Sleeper starts that way and it has nothing to do with jazz.

bill r. said...

Pat, when I saw the image of the crowd at the beginning (forgetting what it meant), I thought I even saw a Star of David on one of the men, but when I looked more closely, I realized I was wrong.

And Vergerus's death is so bizarre, one of the oddest and most chilling things I've ever seen in a film. His doing it out a warped sense of "scientific discovery", but it's not like he can jot down notes for posterity. It's like this is his last and most grand experience, and he wants to experience it fully.

Greg said...

So Rick's a huge fan of this movie huh?

"Ve haff vays...

Did you get that from Jarvis?

And Rick, you're not just joining Pat with the Carradine, both Ed and I too remarked upon the awkward badness of his performance. Aside from going with a back up because Dustin Hoffman turned down the role, I think Bergman picked him because he was a star, coming off a very successful star turn in Bound for Glory and on tv with Kung Fu. Since we've already brought up Woody, look at his movies through the years. They're overflowing with "who's big at the moment" actors. You can practically use Allen's movie to chart out who was currently a big deal in pop culture.

Allen has done that for years as a way to bring in some kind of box office since his films are never big draws. Bergman was simply doing the same thing.

Rick Olson said...

Greg, I know you and Ed remarked on it, I just had a more violent reaction ... Pat said she almost couldn't get around it ... that was kind of the way I felt.

"Who's big at the moment actors" ... that's true about Woody, but not about Bergman, who used the same actors again and again over 20 or thirty years ... are you saying that Bergman imitates Woody in this as well as his jazz opening? I think that Bergman could have found a lot better actors than Carradine ... if Hoffman wasn't available, what made him say ok, so I'll go with a two-bit TV actor who looks good in a kung-fu suit?

Rick Olson said...

As you might be able to tell, I don't like Carradine, I don't like him in a car, I don't like him as a star, I don't like him in a house, I don't like him as a louse.

Sorry, this is supposed to be serious discussion ...

Fox said...

Hey Bill-

I haven't read any of the above comments yet. I just wanted to get in a quick initial word before joining in on the discussion going....

The biggest barrier for me with this film, initially, was the perfomance of David Carradine. You mentioned this in your review (the walking, the inunciation of words - the way he says "stupid" near the beginning of the film, his facial expressions), and it was something that really threw me off so much that I had to watch it a second time just to get past it.

But then I thought maybe it was laziness on Bergman's fault. I couldn't help getting over the feeling that he kind of mailed-in his directing and passion for this story and this movie. Scenes feel half done and incomplete.

For example, the scene with James Whitmore (as the priest) and Liv Ullman. You mention that his apathy crumbles in that scene, but I'm not so sure it does. He apologizes for it - and his "indifference" - but he doesn't seem to toss it out. It's as if he's saying, "Yes, I'm apathetic and indifferent to you. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is." Now, that would make for an interesting scene no matter the interpretation, but, to me, Bergman seems to glide through that scene too quickly. Thinking of earlier films of his like Winter Light, he would have spent more time on a scene like that between a priest and parishoner, and I was disappointed that he didn't.

bill r. said...

Rick - Regarding Ullmann, I honestly don't know how else she could have looked in the cabaret scenes. Isn't that how those people dressed? You know, like lunatic clowns?

Greg - So I'm wrong about Woody Allen. Sorry! Okay, so it was an homage. Now I want to know if Allen ever did comment on that.

And I really don't think Carradine is that bad. I don't think he's great, but he has his moments. Although, Rick, it's funny you mention that about him gesturing just when Bergman tells him to, because on the DVD commentary, Carradine says that's the only kind of direction he got. Bergman never talked to him about his emotions, just how he was supposed to move.

Rick Olson said...

Fox, I'm glad you brought up the scene with the priest. I liked it, but I thought it was too schematic: Whitmore stated flat-out what Bergman has shown thematically in many of his films: the distance of God, the unavailability to do anything meaningful for his people. As Bill points out, it's not so much that he's an atheist -- although he said time and again that he was -- he almost admits the possibility, but he's pissed off at God for being absent. And the scene with Whitmore underlined that with a singular lack of subtlety, even for Bergman.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, about Ullman: but to have the first scene of her over-made-up and garish? Bergman had to know how that would play to all of his fans, used to her being made up as invisibly as possible.

And that does indeed explain things about the gestures ... I didn't listen to the commentary track. Maybe I'll go back and do it when I see it again.

bill r. said...

Fox and Rick - Whitmore's apathy may not crumble permanently, but it does so temporarily, for that scene. As for the subtlety, what's a priest supposed to talk about, other than the presence or absence or remoteness of God? I haven't seen Winter Light, so I don't know the scene Fox is comparing it too, but when you're dealing with the idea of God, a priest can get away with saying things that another kind of character couldn't.

Ed Howard said...

I really loved the scene with the priest, which to me read like a very conscious reference to Winter Light -- it's basically a condensed version of that earlier film, which is all about a priest struggling with his apathy and nagging atheistic doubts. It's like the Cliff Notes of Winter Light. I don't think it would have benefitted from being any longer here, especially since Bergman has already dealt with those themes so thoroughly. Here, it works as a quick reference to the earlier film, a powerful and effective brief conversation before the story moves on.

Greg said...

are you saying that Bergman imitates Woody in this as well as his jazz opening? I think that Bergman could have found a lot better actors than Carradine ... if Hoffman wasn't available, what made him say ok, so I'll go with a two-bit TV actor who looks good in a kung-fu suit? ...

Not imitating necessarily, but for an English language film, yes, he was going for someone bankable and despite your derisive kung fu reference, had you read my entire comment, you would have seen that Carradine had just had a very successful star turn in Bound for Glory. Just because you don't like Carradine doesn't mean you can pretend Bergman was hiring a nobody at the time. He wasn't. He was hiring a currently popular star. I mean, geez, I didn't think Carradine was that good either, but it sounds like you hate the guy on a personal level.

bill r. said...

Rick -

but to have the first scene of her over-made-up and garish? Bergman had to know how that would play to all of his fans, used to her being made up as invisibly as possible....

Well, maybe you're right. Looking back on the first time I saw it, I do remember being pretty jarred by her first appearance -- that's not how she's supposed to look! In fact, gearing up for this second viewing, I remembered it being more over the top than it really was. Now that I'm more used to the movie, and whatever Bergman's intentions, her appearance in that scene is almost functional, at least as far as 1920s Berlin cabaret performers go.

bill r. said...

Greg, I'm not saying you're wrong regarding Bergman's reasons for casting Carradine, and I know this was the 1970s, but I still think the idea of anything possibly making The Serpent's Egg bankable is kind of hilarious. "David Carradine! He'll put asses in seats! This movie's gonna take off like Jaws!"

Fox said...

Rick & Bill-

Maybe it's that I felt that Bergman didn't show any empathy for Whitmore's apathy???

Or maybe it's just the way Whitmore performed in that scene. Maybe there was such a difference in his acting styles from that of the actors in the regular Bergman acting troop that it threw me off.

Or, is Bergman saying that sense the priest is American, he is feeling "indifferent" to this foreign land just wants to get the hell out of Berlin and back home. I wouldn't blame him!

SIDE NOTE: Did anyone else see Whitmore's face in the black & white footage that Vergerus shows to Abel when he's giving him his speech about "10 years from now"? I thought I did but I wasn't sure.

Rick Olson said...

it sounds like you hate the guy on a personal level.Ah, you caught me: Carradine stole my girl lo these many years ago. I think it was all those cheesy kung-fu moves.

I said "But Dave, she's MY girl" and he said "Not any more, loser." And then he kicked me in the head. That kind of thing can scar a guy for life.

Greg said...

Or, is Bergman saying that sense the priest is American, he is feeling "indifferent" to this foreign land just wants to get the hell out of Berlin and back home. I wouldn't blame him!...

I wouldn't disagree to that possibility. The Americans went into World War I at the tail end, then came up with big plans for afterwards, like The League of Nations, then didn't join and hit the road. I think that might be what Bergman is conveying there.

Fox said...

I don't think it would have benefitted from being any longer here, especially since Bergman has already dealt with those themes so thoroughly.---

That's a good point, Ed, but it would seem, then, that viewers would have to have a prior knowledge of Bergman to then appreciate that scene.

But that's kind of one of my beefs with The Serpent's Egg. Bergman seems to be weaving in and out of what style or rhythms that he wants to roll with. Why even have the priest scene in the movie at all? In a way, it feels like a crutch for a director that, to me, appears to be lost and limping around.

I didn't feel so - as Bill or maybe you and Greg did - that this was such a successful horror movie. It feels to me like a movie where Bergman is getting out of his comfort zone, a zone he knows well, and kind of ends up stubbing his toe. Carradine's performance just kind of enhanced that feeling in me. I wasn't convinced by Ullman either.

bill r. said...

Maybe it's that I felt that Bergman didn't show any empathy for Whitmore's apathy???...

Well, it's true, he didn't. I can't blame him for that, though. Bergman sets up this nightmare of a world, which as far as nightmares go isn't even a patch on what's to come, and even the priest can't show any kindness! That'd piss me off, too! But of course, the priest finally does show kindness, and I love Bergman for that. Warmth towards the priesthood (ESPECIALLY the priesthood) is a rare thing among atheists -- present company sincerely excluded -- and I thought it was, finally, a wonderfully moving scene.

Rick Olson said...

Or, is Bergman saying that sense the priest is American, he is feeling "indifferent" to this foreign land just wants to get the hell out of Berlin and back home. I wouldn't blame him!I'm not sure you have to go that far ... as a priest, Whitmore is a stand-in for God, and his indifference mirrors God's indifference, the absent/non-existent God that Bergman rages about in many of his films.

Only, interestingly, the human actually asks forgiveness for this indifference, God doesn't. A humanist statement if there ever was one ...

bill r. said...

But that's kind of one of my beefs with The Serpent's Egg. Bergman seems to be weaving in and out of what style or rhythms that he wants to roll with...

I don't agree with that at all. I thought The Serpent's Egg had a very consistent tone, style and rhythm. The rhythm is discordant, maybe, but that doesn't mean it's not a successful rhythm. And what was out step in tone and style? You cite the Whitmore scene, but is that just because it's really the only one that deals directly with genuine kindness and feeling (feeling that isn't either despair or horror, anyway)? I mean, yes, in that sense, it's not in keeping with the rest of the film, but that's not quite the same as saying it's out of place.

I didn't feel so - as Bill or maybe you and Greg did - that this was such a successful horror movie....

Looking at it squarely as a horror film, what didn't you think was successful about the film? I'm genuinely asking. And what about Bergman's other work in the genre? Hour of the Wolf is unquestionably horror, so Bergman wasn't a first-timer when it came to make The Serpent's Egg, although they're different kinds of horror films.

Did Bergman work in the genre any other time?

Fox said...

I wouldn't disagree to that possibility. The Americans went into World War I at the tail end, then came up with big plans for afterwards, like The League of Nations, then didn't join and hit the road. I think that might be what Bergman is conveying there.---

Is that maybe why Abel seems indifferent as well? Even when Vergerus is showing Abel the experiment films, he doesn't seem too horrified. He kind of has a dumbstruck look on his face.

Maybe indifferent is the wrong word, because Abel obviously seems shaken by what he sees happening in the streets, but he never acts. He just runs away. He stands by as his friend gets his face bashed in at the cabaret. I'm not saying he would've been smart to have acted (he would have been bashed in too), but I wonder what Bergman's intention of showing Abel as passive - and kind of dumb looking - was.

bill r. said...

Only, interestingly, the human actually asks forgiveness for this indifference, God doesn't. A humanist statement if there ever was one...

Rick, do you think Whitmore's priest was losing his faith, or was he heading more towards retaining a belief in God, but hating God for his remoteness?

bill r. said...

but I wonder what Bergman's intention of showing Abel as passive - and kind of dumb looking - was.I think he was saying that in Germany at that time, and certainly during the war, passivity, at best, was the name of the game. Passivity, at the very least, had to be a part of the daily German mindset, otherwise what happened couldn't have happened. Even ordinary Germans often went beyond passivity into actual barbarity, but passivity still had to be the bedrock.

Passivity. Sorry, I just wanted to say it one more time.

Greg said...

but I wonder what Bergman's intention of showing Abel as passive - and kind of dumb looking - was....

I agree with what Bill said but the fact that Abel is American speaks volumes. The Americans and the British were the world's best shot to stop the serpent before the egg hatched, or once it hatched, and they didn't. They just watched, dumbfounded.

bill r. said...

They just watched, dumbfounded...

Right. Although, when it comes to foreign policy reactions to someone like Hitler, "dumbfouded"
is a really unfortunate one, it's almost the only rational one. I'm not excusing the fact that action wasn't taken sooner, but, to a point, I can understand.

Pat said...

On a completely different track -

I've read this several times, and think it's worth metoning. Bergman made "The Serpent's Egg" while exiled from Sweden on some tax-related charges. (I don't recall the details). So he's working in a foreign country and in a foreign language - might that not have thrown him off his game?

I will admit that I'm not well-versed in Bergman - to date, I've seen only "Persona," "The Passion of Anna," and "Autumn Sonata" (but there are lots more in my Netflix queue!) But this film does not feel like what I'd expect from Bergman at all. It feels more "mainstream" to me, if that makes sense.

And the "Winter Light" reference in the Whitmore scene obviously went right past me, though now I want to see "Winter Light" just to see what Bergman does with that idea of a distant God.

Marilyn said...

Hi, back from the doctor's; hubby's procedure went well. Now, on to a movie that didn't go so well.

I agree with everyone on how godawful David Carradine was. The film was structured well and had an intriguing "plot" (regarding the murders), but he just made everything clang rather than resonate.

I liked Ullman - and I really liked her turquoise eyeshadow. I wonder if you can buy that.

I watched the extras, and the consensus is that Bergman was making his German Expressionist film with this. He moved to Berlin after complaining about Paris being too "sunny" (he left Sweden in disgust over tax-evasion charges levelled at him), and was given an enormous budget by Dino di Laurentiis for this film - one he didn't quite know what do with. I think the references to "M" and "Dr. Mabuse" are pretty striking - this is a 30s horror expressionist film, and given the arch context of what he was imitating, I think it is a success.

That said, I think the visual look is jarring for a film of this type - we expect realism but are not given it. Carradine's performance could be said to mirror this cartoon presentation, but given this context, he still was terrible.

I thought the portents of things to come were laid on with a trowel. I don't think a proper sense of irony was achieved.

Fox said...

Looking at it squarely as a horror film, what didn't you think was successful about the film?Honestly, I never had the idea of it being a horror film until today when I read your review and the comments in the comment section. I saw it as more of a mystery (why did Max kill himself, and why are people dying?) than anything else.

Personally, I felt detached from the film as a whole and had a hard time following it. Perhaps that explains why I didn't feel wrapped up in its horror. Again - going back to Carradine - I couldn't feel frightened when he was screaming or running through the halls of the jail because he just looked so goofy doing it (what was that run?!?). I felt the same way about the morgue scene. To me, that scene should be heavy, but it wasn't, for me, it was clunky.

And I concede that the movie is consistent in tone and style. Me saying it was "weaving in and out" wasn't the accurate thing for me to say. But I disagree that the Whitmore scene is one of kindness. I just don't read it that way. He seems to me annoyed, done with it, looking at his watch etc. I agree that it's annoying when atheists piss on believers - and I don't think Bergman was doing that at all - but I don't necessarily think he was being charitable to a man of faith in that scene either.

But since others here do, perhaps I should go back and watch it again.

Rick Olson said...

Rick, do you think Whitmore's priest was losing his faith, or was he heading more towards retaining a belief in God, but hating God for his remoteness?I'm not sure losing his faith is right ... I think he retains the belief, as you say, but hates God for his remoteness.

If you look at the Hebrew poetry in the Psalms, you'll see that this is pretty common ... the Israelites railed against God, but still believed.

Greg said...

I thought the portents of things to come were laid on with a trowel. I don't think a proper sense of irony was achieved....

I agree and said earlier that it kind of took me out of the film but I do believe it was more of a success than it's given credit for (Carradine's performance notwithstanding).

Can anyone give me their take on the brothel scene? Bill, you touched on it ever so briefly in the post but I'd like to hear more because I thought that was another scene that came off as way too heavy handed for me. And it was another instance where Carradine's acting seemed all wrong in his reactions.

Rick Olson said...

And Fox, I don't look on it as a horror film, either, though it does have some of the surreal elements -- like Bill's pointing out of the spatial discontinuities -- that Bergman's other films have had.

Fox said...

Right. Although, when it comes to foreign policy reactions to someone like Hitler, "dumbfouded"
is a really unfortunate one, it's almost the only rational one. I'm not excusing the fact that action wasn't taken sooner, but, to a point, I can understand.
---

I'm not really as history-headed as the rest of you are here, but...

You know that scene where Vergerus kind of scoffs at Herr Hitler as some small potato who is going nowhere? Well, I know that people laughed at him in his beginnings, but did the German establishment think he was largely a goofball as well? Or, was Bergman just playing that scene up for dramatic effect because we know what became of Hitler.

P.S. I do really like the scene where Vergerus is showing the B&W footage of a depressed populace and talking about 10 years down the road. It was very effective and makes you think of the power in populism as a whole.

bill r. said...

Pat -

But this film does not feel like what I'd expect from Bergman at all. It feels more "mainstream" to me, if that makes sense.It does make sense, but only in comparison to other Bergman films. No one who favors mainstream films would consider The Serpent's Egg mainstream. Still, it is structured, roughly, as a mystery, and pays off the mystery, though it pays it off like a horror film.

I did wonder if the fact that Bergman was working in a foreign country with foreign actors (some, anyway) contributed to some off moments, or at least I thought that when I first watched the film. Second time around, I'm not so sure. I think there are certain effects that may not work for a lot of people, but which he nevertheless intended to play the way they do.

Anyone else have a better knowledge of what Bergman himself thought of the film?

Marilyn said...

I think the priest scene ultimately ended on a sympathetic note. Clearly, the priest had lost his faith, so he put his faith in people, including himself as a person needed absolution as much as Manuela did. That he chose to accept it from her was a very telling point for me - one that fits with Bergman's world view and one that implies the German Master Race idea in which Aryans become gods.

Marilyn said...

Bill - In the interview extra on the DVD, Liv Ullman said Bergman was very unhappy making the film but that they got together a few months before Bergman's death and watched it. Both Ullman and Bergman said they thought it was a good film.

Fox said...

Greg-

Yes. I'm also curious about the brothel scene. I don't really have anything to offer up, sadly.

Is there something to be said there about a Black American that's impotent? That scene felt out-of-time to me, as if it could've been in the 1970's rather than the 19020's.

Greg said...

Well, I know that people laughed at him in his beginnings, but did the German establishment think he was largely a goofball as well? Or, was Bergman just playing that scene up for dramatic effect because we know what became of Hitler...

Fox, that was Bergman playing it up for dramatic effect. If you read up on the Beer Hall Putsch (there are volumes out there but for today's purposes just spend ten minutes reading Wikipedia's entry) you will find that Hitler was much admire for his appeal to the masses and ability to bring people together with his rhetoric. He was tried for high treason and given an easy sentence in a cushy prison because he was looked on as a hero by most of Germany after the putsch. One eyewitness in the beer hall even remarked he had never seen anyone turn a hostile crowd to his favor as fast as Hitler did.

bill r. said...

Marilyn -

That said, I think the visual look is jarring for a film of this type - we expect realism but are not given it....

Maybe my understanding of German expressionism isn't that strong -- actually, I'm sure it's not -- but realism isn't what one would expect from that, is it? Mabuse isn't "realistic", so why should The Serpent's Egg be?

The "portents laid on with a trowel" comment is, unfortunately, something I agree with. And I wonder, what was Bergman's felicity with the English language? Because in the opening credits, there is a credit for "translator". Does this mean his script had to be translated from Swedish to English, and could that account for some of the dialogue being so heavy-handed?

Greg said...

That scene felt out-of-time to me, as if it could've been in the 1970's rather than the 19020's....

Me too. The whole scene was jarring to me. Like it was from a different time and movie. Perhaps from something Kurt Vonnegut would have written.

Marilyn said...

The brothel scene was strange, but if I looked at it symbolically, I would say that it expressed a hatred and fear of the feminine, the peace-loving side of human nature. This entire film is a look at human nature, from the experimentation to Abel's "conversion" into a serpent himself. He beats the woman the black man can't screw. Abel won't connect with Manuela. Transvestites are playing women in the cabaret. Max literally takes his fiancee down with him into death.

Marilyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marilyn said...

Bergman's English was excellent. His German, however, not so much. I think it was interesting that the German speech in the cabaret was not translated (we had the English subtitles on because of problems with understanding Ullman's quiet, accented tones).

What I meant is that the film was consistent with German Expressionism, but putting it in a realistic setting and shooting in color took it out of the abstractions of expressionism, making us expect one thing while Bergman was trying to deliver another.

Marilyn said...

Let me clarify that last comment. I think Bergman was expressing a disorientation about being in Germany by not translating the German dialogue. In a sense, Abel was Bergman in this regard, a man who could have gone back to his own country, but may not have. Abel disappears and is never heard from again. What does that say about Bergman?

bill r. said...

The brothel scene is, indeed, a bizarre one. It's hard to know where to go with it. I agree with Greg and Fox that it sounds like something from the 70s...which it is, actually, and I've often thought that films from the late 60s and 70s that are set in the 20s, 30s, etc., often have an anachronistic feeling. The swearing, for one thing, seems out of place. I honestly don't think that profanity had quite taken off back then the way it has since. Not that no one swore, but not to that degree, or at least not in the same way. It's a stab at realism that achieves the opposite effect.

It's also tempting for me to say that Bergman was showing a little bit of racism here, although generally speaking, that's not something I'm likely to say. But a scene in a brother featuring a black American in 1920s Berlin who cusses a blue streak and can't get an erection is really asking us to think a whole mess of things.

PS - Having a real hard time keeping up with these comments now. Don't stop -- please, don't stop -- but this is hard!

bill r. said...

like Bill's pointing out of the spatial discontinuitiesDid I do that??

Greg said...

Bill, Marilyn - I can't get much more out of the brothel scene either which makes me wonder why it was there.

I do love the Dragnet like narration which is essentially meaningless. The last bit, about Abel never being seen again. Well, who the hell would bother to look for him? It's funny in it's utter meaninglessness, intoned with such solemnity.

Marilyn said...

Yes, Greg. I think that was interesting. Who would care about him when the entire world was going to hell (or was hell). Did he escape hell? Did he try to save the Jews? If we never heard from him again, it's unlikely he joined a resistance movement. Most likely, he drank himself to death. But if this really is set up as a horror film, perhaps it was meant as the mock ending for a sequel.

bill r. said...

The brothel scene was strange, but if I looked at it symbolically, I would say that it expressed a hatred and fear of the feminine, the peace-loving side of human nature...

I could more easily buy that if the prostitutes had seemed more like Manuela, and less like so many other drugged-out, hazy, mocking character in the film's margins. I got the sense that the woman Abel hits didn't even seem to mind that too much, although maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, since the camera cuts right at the hit. But she was laughing when he threw her, pretty violently, to the floor.

bill r. said...

Well, who the hell would bother to look for him?That's funny, and it hadn't occurred to me.

Most narration is unnecessary, as far as giving information goes, and it fails or succeeds as it applies to the film's tone. And I did like the narration here. I don't know why, exactly, but the guy's voice worked for me. And who was that, anyway? I couldn't find the credit. It sounded a little like Scorsese, though I know it wasn't him.

Marilyn said...

Yes, I think the punch came as no surprise and maybe showed she could still get a rise out of a man. And I mean that literally. Abel is taken down into a small room - I noted his descent down a dingy staircase. It's almost as though he was being escorted into a hell he didn't readily acknowledge. Catching a live one must have been a feather in the caps of the trio in the in the basement.

Individually, I can admire scenes, but the whole was much less than the parts.

bill r. said...

Something just occurred to me: After Abel hits the prostitute, and they cut to the two of them in bed, do you get a good look of the woman's face? As I remember it, you do, and you see a little blood on her mouth. If I'm right, this matches Manuela, when Abel finds her dead in the next scene.

Marilyn said...

I don't remember seeing that, but you could be right.

Fox said...

Just a quick note...

Sadly, I have to step away for a bit for work. I will check in as I can b/c the discussion is great, but if you don't see any comments from me for a while DON'T THINK THAT I'M NOT WATCHING THROUGH A CAMERA BEHIND A MIRROR IN YOUR OFFICE!!!

Keep it up!

bill r. said...

What I meant is that the film was consistent with German Expressionism, but putting it in a realistic setting and shooting in color took it out of the abstractions of expressionism, making us expect one thing while Bergman was trying to deliver another....

I've been thinking about this, and while I get your point about color, I don't agree with you about the realistic setting. Yes, this takes place in a time and a city that really exist(ed), but I think one of the main points Bergman is making, and why the horror elements seem so strong (to me, anyway), is that despite the fact that all this, in a manner of speaking, really occurred, it is nevertheless incomprehensible, and fundamentally irrational. Therefore, abstractions are fitting.

Greg said...

As I remember it, you do, and you see a little blood on her mouth. If I'm right, this matches Manuela, when Abel finds her dead in the next scene....

I didn't notice that. If correct, then the whole brothel scene is just a hallucination on Abel's part as he is killing Manuela. That would fit with the slow madness provided by the experiment.

Is the person Abel decapitates a hallucination as well?

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn said: I watched the extras, and the consensus is that Bergman was making his German Expressionist film with this ... I think the references to "M" and "Dr. Mabuse" are pretty striking - this is a 30s horror expressionist film, and given the arch context of what he was imitating, I think it is a success.

That said, I think the visual look is jarring for a film of this type - we expect realism but are not given it. Carradine's performance could be said to mirror this cartoon presentation, but given this context, he still was terrible.
In addition to the references to German expressionist film, I think Bergman was also adapting the style of one of his German contemporaries, namely Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It's very hard to look at this film's garish color palette and stylized melodrama and themes about pre-WW2 Germany without thinking of Fassbinder. I don't know how conscious this reference was for Bergman, or even how much of Fassbinder's oeuvre to that point he would've seen, but at the very least films like Fear of Fear and Fox and His Friends and Merchant of Four Seasons would seem to resonate with the themes and aesthetics that Bergman was channeling here.

I'll also add that I didn't find the lack of realism jarring. Again, possibly because I've been exposed to so much Fassbinder, I almost expect films of this type to have a certain Germanic cabaret vibe.

Marilyn said...

Bill, you're right about that, though I'm not sure I'd label them abstractions. Watching a child collect and stack dead rats, seeing a man deliberately shown with more teeth than can fit in a mouth and then spitting them out after a brutal beating (I was sure they were killing him, so the fact that he didn't die is itself an abstraction), the experiment footage (how Sam Fuller/Shock Corridor, and did you ever think that film and Bergman would be mentioned in the same thought?). Nonetheless, the film is almost hyperrealistic. Carradine definitely was trying to be more realistic in his characterization (he mentions he inserted the acrobatic scene where he runs and jumps over the railing to show the man was a skilled acrobat). The film was just at war stylistically in certain key ways, despite an admirable consistency of tone.

bill r. said...

I didn't notice that. If correct, then the whole brothel scene is just a hallucination on Abel's part as he is killing Manuela. That would fit with the slow madness provided by the experiment.

Is the person Abel decapitates a hallucination as well?
...

I don't think that necessarily follows, though, do you? I mean, it's a possibility, but it could also mean that, by abandoning her that night, he, in effect, killed her, or allowed her to be killed. If he himself had killed her, would Vergerus have taken some pleasure in pointing that out?

Even so, I've always wondered if the elevator decapitation was a hallucination. The cut to the next scene is just so abrupt. The only reason I think it could have happened is that Abel storms into the archives with a real sense of purpose. Although, if he believes the hallucination was real, the sense of purpose would be there regardless. Hmm...

Marilyn said...

Ed - I haven't seen much Fassbinder, but from what I have seen, I agree. I'm thinking especially of Lili Marlene, which does track with this film in important ways.

Greg - I wondered if these were hallucinations as well. I don't believe Vergerus that he was just letting them stay at the room out of a desire to help. You may be right that he was able to induce homicidal psychosis in Abel, or was experimenting with Manuela, which is why she became ill in the first place.

Greg said...

And that would be why the seven other murders subplot is dropped, because the viewer can now instinctively connect them to Abel at the end without the police details.

Maybe Abel even killed his own brother.

Ed Howard said...

I didn't mention Lili Marleen because it was actually made after Bergman's film, as was Fassbinder's brilliant BRD trilogy (Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, Lola), which along with the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz was his most extended rumination on German culture in the pre-WW2 period. So maybe the influence flowed both ways, since Fassbinder made some of his most pointed films about this period after Bergman made The Serpent's Egg. It'd be funny if RWF was inspired, in part, to deal with this stuff in more detail because some foreigner came in and made a weird movie about it starring David Carradine.

Greg said...

Ed - I'm going to put together a new banner - "Cinema Styles: the blog with that certain Germanic cabaret vibe"

I love it! Thank you so much for that. Seriously. Now to pick the perfect screengrab.

Ed Howard said...

Actually, the BRD films were about postwar Germany. Momentary brain fart there.

Ed Howard said...

Greg: Awesome. TOERIFC threatens to maintain that Germanic cabaret vibe when we get to my choice of Black Book a few months down the line. And Fassbinder's looming on the horizon, too! Everyone keep your blue eyeshadow and green wigs handy.

bill r. said...

And that would be why the seven other murders subplot is dropped, because the viewer can now instinctively connect them to Abel at the end without the police details...

But that doesn't explain why Bauer dropped it. He wasn't working for Vergerus, so if he had reason to believe Abel was the killer, presumably he would have pursued it. I assumed those seven victims were really victims of Vergerus's experiments.

Maybe Abel even killed his own brother...

Him too. Doesn't Vergerus even say as much? That Max took the same drug that caused that other patient to shoot himself?

Marilyn said...

I'm going to be offline for a short time to let the hubby use the computer. I'm officially on vacation this week and getting ready to go down to cover Ebertfest. See you in a few.

This wasn't a good film, in my opinion, but it IS a good discussion. Y'all rock!

bill r. said...

I wondered if these were hallucinations as well. I don't believe Vergerus that he was just letting them stay at the room out of a desire to help. You may be right that he was able to induce homicidal psychosis in Abel, or was experimenting with Manuela, which is why she became ill in the first place...

That Vergerus, what a card. Plus, when Abel finds Manuela, one of the cameras goes off. Why take a picture if they're not being experimented on?

Then again, that flash could explain who the headless elevator guy was: He was the photographer.

Greg said...

But that doesn't explain why Bauer dropped it. He wasn't working for Vergerus, so if he had reason to believe Abel was the killer, presumably he would have pursued it....

No, I agree I'm just thinking maybe he figured out it was Abel and that Abel was being manipulated by Vergerus so he dropped it to move in on Vergerus instead. And knowing evidence might eventually get out that Abel was a murderer (but against his will) he pays to get him out of Berlin at the end.

All just wild specualation on my part. Just one remotely possible interpretation.

bill r. said...

Something else about elevator guy: how creepy was the moment when the hand comes in off-frame and almost touches Abel, but then pulls back? Abel couldn't have hallucinated that. But he turned around right away, and saw no one. How could the guy have not made a sound? Those floors were metal, weren't they?

By that point, the film is running on pure nightmare logic.

Greg said...

Well I have to go now too, to pick up the daughter from school.

But just one more spastic, random speculation on hallucination. Whether it be bedframes, window frames or gates, Abel finds himself behind bars a lot in this movie. He is metaphorically imprisoned throughout. But...

take the scene where he is trying to flee the police after he freaks out with the inspector. Suddenly, a simple police station becomes a maze of halls, stairwells and doors. As is the archives later. So...

Could the whole damn thing be an halluciation, with he and Manuela in an enclosed environment under study the whole time?

Flickhead said...

Bill, good work. It's an excellent critique.

Pardon my not participating more this month, but my work schedule has limited my time considerably.

Greg said...

Abel couldn't have hallucinated that....

But he had to because no one was there. Personally, I don't think Bergman cared about the ending making sense in any real way, do you?

bill r. said...

No, I agree I'm just thinking maybe he figured out it was Abel and that Abel was being manipulated by Vergerus so he dropped it to move in on Vergerus instead...

It could also explain Vergerus's line to Abel, when he says that Abel has been giving Bauer information. Maybe that's what Vergerus thinks has been going on, but in reality Bauer has just been tracking Abel closely, and making the connection himself.

I don't fully buy the theory, and honestly think I might like the film a bit less if I did, but it does have legs.

bill r. said...

But he had to because no one was there....

He hallucinated not knowing anyone was behind him? And someone WAS there: the guy who gets his head cut off.

Personally, I don't think Bergman cared about the ending making sense in any real way, do you?...

No. Like I said: nightmare logic.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Flickhead. I hope you can swing by later tonight.

Greg said...

And someone WAS there: the guy who gets his head cut off....

Well, not if it's a hallucination. Then no one was there. you know, because it was a hallucination. And seeing the hand move up behind him? Films cheat all the time with stuff like that, no reason to exempt Bergman from it.

I don't fully buy the theory, and honestly think I might like the film a bit less if I did...

Why like it less? It's just an extension of the secret experiment plot.

Greg said...

I'll have to read your answer a little later. I'm off.

bill r. said...

But see, it's not a hallucination if the guy's really there. Which he was.

And saying that Bergman cheats because other directors cheat doesn't fly. What's on screen indicates it's not a hallucination.

And I'd only like it less because "it was a hallucination!" plot-turns tend to bug me, although in the case of this film, should I buy into that argument, the theory is more strongly supported than is usually the case.

kassy said...

Even so, I've always wondered if the elevator decapitation was a hallucination. The cut to the next scene is just so abrupt. The only reason I think it could have happened is that Abel storms into the archives with a real sense of purpose. Although, if he believes the hallucination was real, the sense of purpose would be there regardless. Hmm...I had a problem with the cutaway, when we next saw Abel's face it didn't have any blood on it, but he got a lot of it on his face at the elevator. I can't see Abel stopping to wipe his face because he had nothing to wipe with, so maybe it was a hallucination.

Sorry to be so late, I'm behind on schoolwork and am trying to get all caught up in one day.

I've only seen Wild Strawberries so I can't comment on Bergman as compared to his other films, but the first part of the film (the last 20 minutes being the second part) seemed too big to me. Does that make sense? I was interested in Abel and Manuela as a character study, watching them fall to pieces after Max's suicide, but the city felt like another character and at times the city character overtook the story. Liv Ullman even commented in one of the extras about Bergman directing the buildings themselves and not being sure what to do with such a big budget, I think that definitely came through in the film.

I didn't really have a problem with David Carradine, I thought his lack of emotion was a nice counterpoint to Liv Ullman's excess of emotion.

I never once thought of the film as being horror until I read Bill's review (great review btw), it seemed to wander too much and never seemed to be building up to anything, I got the sense of dread but never felt anything really horrific was going on until the end. The last 20 minutes were pretty darn good, although when my boyfriend asked me how I liked the film, I said I wasn't sure because it felt like two movies stuck together.

The Heinz/David Bennent connection is cool, I thought of The Tin Drum during the scene where the horse is being killed, two Bennent movies and two dead horses, poor horses.

I must go study plate tectonics now, thank you for another enjoyable discussion.

Greg said...

But see, it's not a hallucination if the guy's really there. Which he was.

And saying that Bergman cheats because other directors cheat doesn't fly. What's on screen indicates it's not a hallucination.
...

Look, I don't necessarily buy into the hallucination angle, but what I'm saying is "what's on the screen" is what the director chooses to put there. It's like saying Tyler Durden is real because he's up there on the screen. Well, of course he is! To fool the audience. He's still a hallucination. Just because the audience is being shown it doesn't mean it's not. I've never ever seen a movie where "it was all a dream" where the audience sees nothing except the main character projected against a white wall because to see anything else would indicate it wasn't a hallucination. You always see stuff on the screen with dream or hallucination sequences.

So to wrap it all up, I'm not even saying it necessarily is a hallucination but that it's odd to use the defense of "well it's up there on the screen" to argue that it's not. You see what I'm saying? No one else in the movie corroborates the existence of the elevator guy so we have nothing to go on except our best judgment call one way or the other.

bill r. said...

It's like saying Tyler Durden is real because he's up there on the screen. Well, of course he is! To fool the audience. He's still a hallucination...

You're missing my point. I'm not saying the fact that we can see him means he's not a hallucination. I'm saying he's not a hallucination because we can see him even when Abel doesn't know he's there.

bill r. said...

Kassy -

I didn't really have a problem with David Carradine, I thought his lack of emotion was a nice counterpoint to Liv Ullman's excess of emotion...

I honestly don't disagree with that. I have my problems with Carradine's performance, but I think some people are really piling on, and I don't think he was THAT bad. You'd think Freddie Prinze, Jr. played Abel, the way these people are carrying on!

it seemed to wander too much and never seemed to be building up to anything...

You didn't think that, as a mystery, it was at least building to some resolution? I thought it had a pretty strong narrative drive, myself, though of a sort different to mainstream genre films.

Greg said...

No I got that, but he does know he's there, that's why he turns around. I agree he doesn't see him and that's where I was saying it could be a cheat on Bergman's part. Perhaps. Again, all wild speculation.

Greg said...

I have my problems with Carradine's performance, but I think some people are really piling on,...

I think Rick got mad at me for saying it seemed like he disliked him on a personal level. That's why I dropped the whole thing. Rick, I wasnt' trying to make you mad or anything, really. Sorry if I did.

bill r. said...

I don't know that he got mad -- he kept commenting, after all -- and I wasn't singling out Rick, in any case. I was singling out everybody, because I honestly thought Carradine had his good moments, and I'm not sure where all the vitriol is coming from. Also, his commentary, what I heard of it, wasn't bad. He seemed honored to have worked with Bergman, and he acknowledged that his performance is at least weird, though he defends it (why shouldn't he?). Also, he doesn't act like a loony tune, which I was half expecting.

Anyway, we've broken 100 comments. Whatever happens from here on out, I can rest easy.

Greg said...

All TOERIFC posts must reach 100 on their first day. I hereby forbid any post that does not.

This was a great review Bill and you helped me understand the movie a lot better than I had. As always, you should get more comments tonight and more tomorrow so you're not even close to being done. I'll check back in later myself but for now I'm off to take care of family matters such as homework, dinner and downtime.

bill r. said...

No I got that, but he does know he's there, that's why he turns around...

Then why didn't he seem him, hallucination or not, when he turned around?

I think the point is that it doesn't matter, but I like the movie more believing the guy was real.

bill r. said...

dinner and downtime...

I so very badly want those two things myself...

Rick Olson said...

Everyone keep your blue eyeshadow and green wigs handy.Mine are always near-by, dahlings.

Sorry to be absent for awhile ... work beckoned. But while I was away, the number of comments doubled. Way to go, Y'all.

You might be interested to know that TOERIFC hit IFC Daily today, courtesy of Marilyn's blog, and that it set off a mini-tempest over at Film of the Month Club. Why are you stabbing us in the back, and all that.

Not to beat the hallucination thing into the ground, but I honestly never thought they were hallucinations when I watched it, but it does make a lot of sense. The nightmare logic was certainly in evidence, from the screwed up spatial logic to that incomprehensible brothel scene.

What a fabulous buncha' blogging folks y'all are!

(aw shucks ... I wanted to be the 100th comment!)

Rick Olson said...

And no, Greg, it didn't make me mad at all ... did you not see my tongue-in-cheek reply? I commented a fair amount after that, I thought ...

bill r. said...

Rick, the thing is, I don't think that "nightmare logic" and "hallucinations" are the same thing, or don't have to be. David Lynch operates on nightmare logic, but that doesn't mean that nothing that his characters experience is actually happening to them in the film. That's what I think is going on in The Serpent's Egg, or anyway that's how I choose to read it.

Now...I want links to this mini-tempest! I love that stuff, especially when I'm very indirectly involved.

Rick Olson said...

By the way, the tempest thing at FOTMC happened in the member's email stream, to which I (and Marilyn and Ed and Flickhead) are still subscribed.

We represented!

How the hell are you guys separating the beginning italics from the rest of the post? Rotten blogspot ...

Rick Olson said...

Bill, I agree about the nightmare logic thing not necessarily having to be hallucinations, but they support the argument that they are.

Btw, check your email, the one posted on your site.

Marilyn said...

I certainly think that by the time Abel is in the elevator scene, the film is tripping across the real/fantasy line. The hand behind him wasn't really there - it's his own paranoia working overtime, whether created by the times through which he is living or through some experimental means Vergerus is engaging in. I think there is a lot in this film to suggest that events are clouded in hallucination - the long nightmare of a country spiraling out of control. I like how indistinct the lines are, that eventually we end up a bit like Abel, not able to trust anything we see or hear. I just wish the film were more competent in suggesting this blurred line.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

So Bill, here's the problem.

When I got through watching this movie, last night around 4AM I didn't like it very much. In fact, I was mad that I even spent time watching it.

The acting was all over the place. The pacing was totally off. The point of the film was lost on me.

But now, after reading your write-up, I have to reconsider. After all, there were a few scenes that I'd say were great.

The first being the part with the priest. What a lovely simple and touching moment that was. I could see Bergman's touch in that scene shine through.

The other scenes I thought were worth a damn were pretty much the exact opposite. I love the scene with the horse, when the woman offers Carradine the heart. Totally surreal, unnerving and scary.

When the doctor at the end turns the mirror on him self to watch his face as he died, I also felt this sense of surreal oddness. Very interesting.

I think where the movie is most off putting is the pacing though. It just plods through the story with no real climax or point. This, I'm not dismissing. I just don't think it worked here, but once again, like Rick said above, I think I owe it another watch down the line, because of your well written and defendable post.

Now I have to go back and read all the comments because the overnight shifts I work SUCK.

bill r. said...

Rick and Marilyn - What, sepcifically, is the evidence that these are hallucinations? We don't doubt that the cameras are behind the mirrors, right? Veregus built the damn place, after all. So do we doubt that one of those cameras went off? Why doubt that? It seems to fit? So then Abel breaks through to the other side, into the lab/work area. And the photographer's there. Doesn't that make sense, within the logic of the film?

Rick - Thanks for the e-mail. I shall read it shortly...

Oh, and to separate the italics quotes from the response, add an ellipsis AFTER the close italics code.

bill r. said...

Joseph - So we agree on James Whitmore's scene, but I also agree about the dead horse, and the woman offering Abel its heart. Just insane and surreal and chilling.

As for the pacing, the first time I watched the film, about a year ago, I agreed with you. Completely. I thought it was dull and all over the place, and never really worked for me until the last fifteen minutes or so. But watching it a second time, I thought it was truly great. I don't expect you to change your opinion that drastically, but you should give it another look some day. Also, to be honest, this movie does hit on a lot of my particular interests and tastes, which shouldn't be disregarded when reading my post. And thanks for the compliment, by the way.

Fox said...

I certainly think that by the time Abel is in the elevator scene, the film is tripping across the real/fantasy line. The hand behind him wasn't really there - it's his own paranoia working overtime, whether created by the times through which he is living or through some experimental means Vergerus is engaging in....

That's an interesting theory to think on, but I'm not so sure I could buy it.

Marilyn said: "the hand behind him wasn't really there".

Perhaps, but when I saw that scene I took it as that that hand was about to push Abel down the empty elevator shaft and then he heard the person coming up behind him so the person took off.

As Bill said, what do we have to really lead us down that line of fantasy? I suppose we could say that Abel is under the influence of pumped-in gaseous drugs, but then that kinda contradicts the "fantasy" world he finds behind the mirrors and back by the elevators.

Marilyn, did you take Abel waking up in the hospital to mean that perhaps he dreampt it all?

Interesting...

Pat said...

Sorry I had to check out for most of the afternoon. That damn work thing gets in the way of my blogging fun.

Anyway, some great discussion going on here. I concur with just about everyone that the brothel scene seems to belong to another film altogether. About what was hallucination and what was real, I can't comment. That's one of the places the DVD was skipping.

I'm guilty of piling on Carradine in my comments,but I wans't doing so just to pour on the vitriol. I honestly had major problems with his performance. Bill,if you saw some good moments in his work,that's great; unfortunately, it didn't work at all for me.

And now, I'm gonna duck out again as I'll be heading out to choir rehearsal soon. Mondays are long days for me. It's been a pleasure to participate - as always, everyone's insights are fascinating to read and ponder.

Take care,all!

Fox said...

Whoa, Pat kinda looks like Jennifer Jason Leigh...

OK, so I just did a quick look of reviews on the internet for The Serpent's Egg (I didn't find many), but one of them said that Liv Ullman plays a Mexican woman. Her name is Manuela, so that fits, but... really?!?!

Did I completely miss something (did they mention she was from Mexico in the movie?), or is that person just reaching? B/c if she was playing Mexican, that wasn't a very convincing Mexican accent.

Also... I knew I knew the black guy in the brothel scene, but I didn't realize he had this type of career. It's interesting that one of his earliest gigs was The Serpent's Egg.

Greg said...

Fox, mistakes like the Mexican woman line happen all the time with reviewers writing up movies they haven't actually seen.

Perhaps, but when I saw that scene I took it as that that hand was about to push Abel down the empty elevator shaft and then he heard the person coming up behind him so the person took off....

Boy, he sure took off fast and silently! Here's the thing with me on this: I really don't care if it was hallucination or not, I have no personal stake in this. It's just that when someone asks what evidence is there of it, well... there it is. There's your evidence. People don't disappear. Movies cheat all the time by showing things the characters can't see just to fool the audience. In The Wizard of Oz it's revealed to be a dream and yet the audience is shown the witch in her castle spying on Dorothy, which Dorothy couldn't possibly see. In The Serpent's Egg his character thought someone was behind him and Bergman personified that by showing a hand. Guys, in art, it really is okay to not take everything- absolutely literally and at face value. Really, it is. It's okay.

Ed Howard said...

I agree with Greg: just because we see the hand behind Abel doesn't mean it's really there.

Personally, I took that as a visual representation of a feeling: Abel has the feeling of being watched, of someone hiding just behind him, and Bergman visualizes this with that very eerie image. I imagine we've all had a feeling like that, that creepy hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck bristling that Abel has there, but when he wheels around to look no one's there. I don't think that particular scene is meant to be taken literally at all, whether it's a hallucination or just a clever way of indicating Abel's paranoid, jumpy state of mind. The fact that he actually wrestles with a guy later either proves that Abel's right and someone was watching him, or it's a hallucination.

bill r. said...

Guys, in art, it really is okay to not take everything- absolutely literally and at face value. Really, it is. It's okay....

Oh yeah? Well thanks for the tip.

There's a lot that I don't take at face value in this film, but I have reason to believe the guy was real. That doesn't mean I don't know how movies work. I also don't know what Wizard of Oz has to do with anything. Again, what one filmmaker chooses to do in one film has no direct bearing on what Bergman did in this one.

Marilyn said...

The hand was too close to him to just have him turn around and not see a person. To me, it was clear that this was a visual representation of paranoia. After that, the pursuit seemed to me to be Abel wrestling with his own demons, which wouldn't have taken Vergerus's intervention to create (though he could have had a hand in it). I liked this scene very much; it worked for me in ways others didn't. It didn't announce the obvious. It had some mystery.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Totally agree with the comments here that the hand was a phantom.

It existed in his paranoid mind. There's no way that it could have belonged to a human

A. because a human couldn't duck and cover as quick as that person had to.
B. because why would anyone get close to a person, stick out their hand and run away? It just doesn't make sense.

There are many dreamlike parts in this film, and I really wished Bergman would have pushed sequences like this to the extreme.

I find it interesting that Bill compared this film to a horror movie. It certainly has those elements, but I wish it would have been taken further. If any movie deserves to be looked at as a horror film, a movie about an oncoming genocide definitely should.

Greg said...

I also don't know what Wizard of Oz has to do with anything. ...

Uh... it's called an "example." You may have heard of things called "examples" before. They're used in things called "argumentation." It's fairly common.

Bill, don't get mad, I was just giving you a hard time. Really, the part about it being okay, I put that in to get a rise out of you, which I apparently did. I wasn't really trying to fill you in on how art works or anything.

Fox said...

Greg, Ed, Marilyn-

That makes sense, I just didn't see it that way. It's still difficult for me to see that sequence being a hallucination, but I think you make a good point about the hand disappearing quickly.

I guess we'll just have to chalk it up to seeing different things. I definitely find your interpretation interesting.

How about this: The hand really was there but he hallucinated NOT seeing the guy run away when he turned around (just kidding).

Fox said...

B. because why would anyone get close to a person, stick out their hand and run away? It just doesn't make sense.
Joseph-

I will admit that I thought the same thing ("why didn't he finish the job and push him in?") in that scene. Even if he turned around he still could have pushed down the elevator shaft.

However, what makes it difficult for me to buy the hallucination line is that I didn't feel Bergman communicating that level of paranoia through his filmmaking (the way it's felt aesthetically in, say, Coppola's The Conversation). No doubt Abel is a paranoid dude, but I didn't feel it was totally at his core the way a depression or a malaise was.

Of course, again, it's all in the eye of the beholder. Maybe some of you think Bergman did this successfully, but it just didn't hit me that way. Plus, I don't really see how Abel's hallucination really fits into the ending, which is the big reveal that we're being led to.

Greg said...

Well, I know you're just joking but that could be an interpretation too. It could be the doctor's hand but Abel's mind is so screwed up he turns around and sees no one until he goes through his psychotic episode. I think it's more plausible that it's just a personification of paranoia but pretty much any interpretation could work with that ending.

Including that he's really Dorothy on a farm in Kansas. In this interpretation Gert Frobe is totally the Lion I think.

Greg said...

I was referring to Fox's prior comment with my last one.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Fox-

I agree with you. I don't think that Bergman constructed the type of paranoia and fear the we see at the end of THE CONVERSATION.

But that's the flaw in the film. It's not most the most tightly woven film. The construction is loose. The genre's are mixed.

It is an interesting film, and I'm glad I watched it, but like I said before, I may need to give it another go before I can appreciate it for any of the things Bill is raving about.

But there are choice scenes here that are brilliant. Namely, the one with the priest.

Fox said...

The Wizard of Oz thing could actually work a little here b/c Vergerus is totally the mand behind the curtain.

And I hate to make a dirty comment here, but did anyone else notice Carradine's schlong in the scene where he is have coffee and jam with Liv Ullmann?

Bill, in the matter of poor tastes ruining a good debate you can totally delete that last comment, but I had to get it out b/c it was so obvious to me in that scene and I wanted to mention it. (Plus, it's after 10:00 PM, and all of our young readers are asleep).

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

I noticed a shadow of a dong when he got up after the brothel scene.

Does that count?

Fox said...

It is an interesting film, and I'm glad I watched it, but like I said before, I may need to give it another go before I can appreciate it for any of the things Bill is raving about....

Joseph-

I definitely enjoyed the movie more the second time I watched it. I don't know what that says (about me or the movie), but my opinion of it increased on a second viewing.

I've been hard on The Serpent's Egg in this comment section, but I don't think it's a bad film. Like Marilyn, I see this as a movie that I enjoy in parts and not as a whole.

And I'm really glad Bill picked it b/c 1.) it's been another great TOERIFC of comments and debates, 2.) it's a Bergman film I've always put off watching, and 3.) despite the limitations I see in the film, I've enjoyed thinking about it.

I do think that The Serpent's Egg is the weirdest Bergman movie I've ever seen.

BTW... our group seems to have German/WWII/Nazi fixation on the first year of TOERIFC. Greg had The Tin Drum, now The Serpent's Egg, then Ed has Black Book, and I have a Fassbinder movie.

Rick Olson said...

BTW... our group seems to have German/WWII/Nazi fixation on the first year of TOERIFC. Greg had The Tin Drum, now The Serpent's Egg, then Ed has Black Book, and I have a Fassbinder movie.()
Goddammit, mine was French. French! do you not understand, American pig? No Nazis here!

Ok, so I've had a little wine.

But now that I know Carradine's schlong is in it, I HAVE to go back and watch it again. Thanks a lot, Fox.

Rick Olson said...

And by the way:

I've only seen one Fassbinder movie, and so I'm not an expert or anything, but I didn't know he was a Nazi.

bill r. said...

Bill, don't get mad, I was just giving you a hard time. Really, the part about it being okay, I put that in to get a rise out of you...

Another way of saying that would be "Bill, don't get mad. I only said that to make you mad." But fine, I'm not angry anymore.

I will ask again, though, of the hallucinationists around here: If Abel is hallucinating, when does it begin? Before or after he finds Manuela's body? Before or after he sees the camera flash? He shouldn't have any reason to know the cameras are back there, without that flash, right? Or are the cameras not there? If Vergerus really is conducting experiments on Abel and Manuela, the presence of the cameras makes sense. So if the camera flashed, who took the picture? And so on.

I think the guy was there, but at the very least, it's highly ambiguous.

Greg said...

Well, I meant get a rise in a playful way. Geez. Anyway, I'm happy to know I'm a hallucinationist.

If there is any hallucination going on I would say it starts at the beginning of the movie and the audience isn't made aware of Abel's insanity until late in the game. But really, all I'm arguing for is that the hand is a personification of paranoia that Bergman provided. As to the killing of the man, the death of Manuela, and everything else I could accept none or all of it being hallucination.

Another good explanation would be that the cameras are automated and the person Abel encounters is not the photographer but the person who is responsible for the murders that Dr Vergerus has let loose. And then Abel kills him. In fact, I think that's a definitely possibility because why would the photographer want to kill him. But a lunatic made homicidal by Vergerus, well that's a different story.

bill r. said...

Maybe the photographer wanted to kill him because Abel just smashed his way into the secret lair.

And automated cameras in the 1920s? Was there such a thing? I'm honestly asking, although my ignorant gut says no.

And what killer? I wasn't under the impression there was a "killer" on the loose. My take was that the seven deaths were all people who were "patients" of Vergerus, and died as a result of whatever experiment he conducted.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, so this movie has a nice, clear, easy to follow narrative, huh? Seriously, I think this back and forth only proves just how confused and ambiguous this story is.

My own take on it is that the dead bodies are indeed patients of Vergerus, and the guy behind the wall is actually the photographer. Don't we even see someone behind the glass when the flash goes off? Someone who then runs away? So unless the whole movie is a hallucination (which is not at all impossible), then I think Abel really does go behind the mirror and kill the photographer, who must've attacked him because he discovered the experiment going on. Vergerus was obviously filming Abel and Manuela while pumping gas into their apartment to alter their moods, the way he does in one of the videos he shows Abel at the end. Of course, that leaves the question of who killed Manuela, or if she killed herself or if she simply died from too much exposure to whatever gas Vergerus was hitting them with. I don't know. Bergman intentionally leaves all this stuff muddy and unresolved, just like he lets the earlier thread about Abel being investigated for murder just drop without any further word.

bill r. said...

Ed, the movie IS clear. It's just that Greg doesn't know how movies work. He thinks they're all supposed to be like The Wizard of Oz.

I never have claimed the film wasn't ambiguous or deliberately murky, although your reading of the plot is very much in line with my own.

As for Manuela...I honestly don't know what happened to her. Maybe the photographer killed her, on Vergerus's orders, to spur Abel into the actions he takes from that point on.

Ed Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Howard said...

Bill, you must've nodded out for the part with the flying monkeys.

And the movie CAN'T be all that clear if we outright don't know how or why one of the main characters died.

bill r. said...

I was joking about the movie being clear. It was all part of my master plan to get a rise out of Greg.

Greg said...

I was joking about the movie being clear. It was all part of my master plan to get a rise out of Greg....

You'll get no rise out of me, sir, only my wife and my hand can do that. Now then, apart from the circus guy being the Tin Man, my take is that Abel freaked out and killed Manuela. Just a couple of scenes before he smacks her in the head during dinner and smacks the prostitute and is clearly getting more violent. I think he kills Manuela and blacks out on it until he sees her again. But again, nothing is clear.

I didn't hate the movie, finding it better than I thought given its reputation but if you're going to make a statement on the birth of evil or fanaticism it would be helpful to make the point a little more clearly.

bill r. said...

Oh, I don't know. I mean, as I've said, "incomprehension" is, I think, one of the themes. And I don't think Bergman is trying to make a "statement", at least not as I understand the word. He's trying to evoke a feeling of horror and dread and insanity, all tied to a world that would give birth to an incomprehensible, but human, evil. I don't believe Bergman is saying, "Here's how it happened and why it happened."

Greg said...

I don't believe Bergman is saying, "Here's how it happened and why it happened."...

I don't either which is why the ending speech by Vergerus is too much because he does say the how and why, although it's kind of worth it to see that slow-mo black and white footage again, which is so evocative.

Marilyn said...

I'm very glad Bill chose this film because it is a noble attempt to concretize the nightmare of post-WWI Germany. I don't think Bergman succeeded - in part because of his own limitations, in part because his leading man kept trying to play it straight - but all the elements are there. I wonder what the film would have been like if he hadn't been given all that money Ullman says he didn't know how to use. We could have had a masterpiece!

bill r. said...

I'm declaring The Serpent's Egg to be the best movie we've watched for this club, and the best movie Bergman ever made!

Honestly, I did like this movie a lot, more than everyone else, apparently, but it's certainly no masterpiece. And Marilyn, based on your points about German Expressionism, I've wondered what kind of movie it would have been had Bergman shot it in black and white. And weirdly, I can't quite see it. He would have had to make a much different movie.

Marilyn said...

I think Bergman understand B&W better, certainly in terms of paranoia, fantasy, and the supernatural. I think it would have been a much different film - one that would have succeeded in communicating the nightmare but perhaps not one that would have shown that it was real as well.

Matt said...

a great film from bergman. I think he deals with some of the anxieties and fears that lurk under the surface of other films and just put them right out in front of you. I enjoy seeing something so divergent from the rest of his stuff.

bill r. said...

a great film from bergman. I think he deals with some of the anxieties and fears that lurk under the surface of other films and just put them right out in front of you. I enjoy seeing something so divergent from the rest of his stuff.Thanks for stopping by, Matt. And I agree, part of what I liked about this film is that it subverted what I've come to expect from Bergman, at least to a degree. I mean, it already did that simply by featuring Carradine as the star and being in English, but it's more than that. This film sticks out from his other work, and not, in my opinion, because it's so much weaker. I think it's great. Flawed, but great.

bill r. said...

I think Bergman understand B&W better...

I can't say if I agree with this or not, because this is the first of his color films that I've seen. It's interesting how different directors have their specialities in this regard. I think Melville was at his best in color, and Lynch, I think, has an incredible skill with black and white, but he doesn't seem to want to go back to it.

Off topic, but still.

Pat said...

I didn't love the film, but I still enjoyed having the opportunity to watch it, discuss it, and be led to see even more dpeth and meaning than was evident on the first viewing, based on everyone's insightful comments.
That's what makes those TOERIFC days so great.

I think this was a fine choice, Bill. And I'll think I'll probably watch it again when I can get my hands on a better, undamaged disk.

Greg said...

I can't say if I agree with this or not, because this is the first of his color films that I've seen....

You haven't seen Fanny and Alexander yet, I thought you had and had brought it up at some point but I guess not. Anyway, that film is great with it's use of color so he certainly came to understand it as well as he had black and white.

Ed Howard said...

I think Cries and Whispers is decisive proof that Bergman understood color just fine. It's a gorgeous film and uses color in very interesting ways, thematically as well as visually. Moreover, Bergman's great epic Fanny & Alexander is in color and is also a very striking-looking film.

So I'm not convinced that the problem with this film is that it's in color. He had already made several color films by this point and, if you ask me, shown real aptitude for working in color. It's more like Bergman was out of his element in other ways: in a foreign country, directing actors in a foreign language, handling a much bigger budget than usual, working on a huge studio set, trying to tell a historical story. Given how unfamiliar this territory is for Bergman, it's not surprising that the film should be rather conflicted and confused. The color photography would have been one of the few elements Bergman was comfortable with, and indeed the film is frequently satisfying on a visual level.

bill r. said...

Greg - No, I've never seen Fanny and Alexander. If I brought it up before, I probably did so only to marvel over the deal I got on the Criterion DVD (theatrical cut only) -- I picked it up for something like 5 bucks, used.

bill r. said...

Pat - I'm glad you liked the film. And I'm truly impressed that you went to Youtube to catch some of the film the scratched disc wouldn't play. Really. I appreciate your dedication. I probably would've just said "Ah, screw it!"

bill r. said...

Ed - Why would the historical element be a problem? The Serpent's Egg doesn't depict any actual historical events, so by "historical" I assume you mean "period piece", and he made a lot of those, including Fanny and Alexander.

bill r. said...

Pat again - Sorry, I meant, "Glad you liked the discussion", not film, since you DIDN'T like the film that much.

Ed Howard said...

Bergman made lots of period pieces, but this is the only film of his I can think of that's leading towards a specific historical event and trying, however obliquely, to deal with the historical factors leading up to it. The film doesn't depict the Holocaust, but it's obviously an attempt to explain the situation that led to it. But I don't think it was nearly as much of a problem as the other factors I mentioned.

And incidentally, watching the theatrical cut of Fanny & Alexander is like reading only selected chapters of a book. The theatrical cut isn't bad on its own terms, but the full miniseries version is a masterpiece.

bill r. said...

The film doesn't depict the Holocaust, but it's obviously an attempt to explain the situation that led to it....

I really don't think that "explain" is the right word. "Deal with it" is maybe better, because I don't think he's trying to offer an actual, usable answer.

And I know the F&A miniseries is supposed to beat the theatrical cut all to shit, and I knew that when I bought the DVD, but what am I supposed to do? It was a Criterion disc for five bucks!

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, "deal with it" is better.

On another note, one thing I loved about this film and haven't mentioned so far is the visual use of bars and gratings layered over Abel's face. This was a common film noir trope -- and Abel often looks like a noir hero in his fedora and trenchcoat, wandering through rain-streaked streets -- to indicate the trapped, walled-in state of a protagonist. Here, even when he's lying in bed at Manuela's house, the iron bars of the bed across his face look like prison bars. And the shot is mirrored not long after when he's actually in prison, reminding us of the earlier shot. There's a sense that it doesn't really matter where Abel is: he's trapped wherever he goes. These images recur throughout the film, especially in the apartment towards the end of the film.

bill r. said...

Yeah, the bars are a big thing, so it's funny I didn't bring them up, isn't it? Anyway, I kind of liked how, a couple of times, when Abel was faced with another set of bars, he'd get this look on his face like, "What, are you kidding? Again??" Even HE was aware of it!

Fox said...

I'm gonna be a booger here...

But Bill, I strongly urge that you watch the television version of Fanny & Alexander if you can. $5 is a good deal fo' sho, but I watched the theatrical one after I had seen the 5 hour TV one, and it was kind of a rape of the movie in comparison. It's like watching Citizen Kane in a condenced 25 minute version, or something.

Also, Ed, is correct about the use of color in Cries and Whispers, and I think having seen some of Bergman's other color films prior to seeing The Serpent's Egg, is the reason I saw Bergman's effort with it as "lazier".

Greg said...

How quickly we forget:

Whether it be bedframes, window frames or gates, Abel finds himself behind bars a lot in this movie. He is metaphorically imprisoned throughout. I said that like 70 comments ago. I can't believe Ed doesn't have every single comment memorized. I do. For instance, the word "the" has been used 847 times so far. And that's just off the top of my head.

bill r. said...

Fine, Fox and Ed, I'll watch the miniseries. Are you guys happy? You made me feel bad for spending that five dollars.

Greg - What about "in"? I was trying to keep track of that word, but I lost count.

Fox said...

You made me feel bad for spending that five dollars....

I bet Jarvis would buy it for at least $20. He's pretty gullible.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Bill-

If I once found a criterion copy of CARNIVAL OF SOULS for $10 used and I bought it...

But I already owned the disc!

Criterion, at a cheap price, means purchase in my language.

On the use of color in this film, I think it's a little murky. I've recently watched THE VIRGIN SPRING which makes each shot look like a carefully exposed photograph. EGG is a just dirty feeling. Maybe this is the intention?

On the subject of the phantom hand...

Why do we have to pin point the moment of hallucination? Does it matter. A movie is a movie. It's never real life, so why does it matter if we know exactly what is supposed to be real and what isn't. It's like watching MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Sure, we can make our guesses as to what is happening in the story, but I love the fact that it all seems real and a dream at the same time.

bill r. said...

Joseph -

If I once found a criterion copy of CARNIVAL OF SOULS for $10 used and I bought it...

But I already owned the disc!
...

I have yet to go that far...but I can kinda understand.

EGG is a just dirty feeling. Maybe this is the intention?...

I would think so. How else should it look, after all?

Why do we have to pin point the moment of hallucination? Does it matter. A movie is a movie. It's never real life, so why does it matter if we know exactly what is supposed to be real and what isn't. It's like watching MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Sure, we can make our guesses as to what is happening in the story, but I love the fact that it all seems real and a dream at the same time....

Well, we don't have to, you're right. The reason I've pushed that is because the crazy hallucinationists we have running around here talk about that scene as though it could be seen as nothing BUT a hallucination (some, like Greg, would have you believe they have no stake in this, and are playing Devil's Advocate, but don't you believe them!). I just want to point out that IF it's a hallucination, than presumably it would have to start somewhere, and how far back are you willing to go, and at one point does the hallucination theory begin to contradict the other things you believe to hold true for the film? "Hallucination" just seems like an easy way out to me, the same as the theory that Mulholland Drive is all a dream. Yeah, okay, that works, I guess, but it's also, to me, a very boring approach to the film.

But I agree with you 100 per cent that The Serpent's Egg is ambiguous, and I like that about it.

Ed Howard said...

Greg: "I said that like 70 comments ago. I can't believe Ed doesn't have every single comment memorized. I do."

Damn, I was hoping no one would remember you said it first. I was trying to look all smart and steal your thunder.

Oh well. Reading 150+ comment threads while also trying to get at least something done at work isn't always optimal for reading and remembering everything.

Fox said...

What if this entire TOERIFC post is a hallucination?!?!?

bill r. said...

Um...Fox? You just blew my mind all over my pants!!

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Bill-

I don't mean to get all New Age on you, because I hate that bullshit, but what defines a dream reality if reality is just perception?

I really hate the way I just sounded but it's true, no?

bill r. said...

I don't mean to get all New Age on you, because I hate that bullshit, but what defines a dream reality if reality is just perception?...

Sleeping. That sounds pretty glib, but I do kinda mean it. If we're talking about our -- yours and mine -- actual existence. If we're talking about The Serpent's Egg, or Lynch, then...well, with Lynch, probably nothing really defines it. It's all a nightmarish jumble.

Fox said...

Dude... are really gonna NOT let this post get flipped??? I think it deserves it.

bill r. said...

What am I supposed to do? Just keep typing gibberish comments until the thing flips over? Besides, once it flips, I think that means we have to do all the comments again in reverse.

Rick Olson said...

!%@!^t^$#(&$()*_)*(&*)%)^&$
Gamar, blat park gammati ek tuo bartimi.

worass pi numini deckir sudomoni.


rpout!

Greg said...

If it flips it flips. Enough stragglers in the comments and it will. But a forced flip - that's just not the real thing and Bill would always know it.

This is comment 176. I just checked the other three and Marilyn had 176, Rick had 185 and I had 235.

However, mine would have stopped around 175 to 180 but then the whole child pornography thing started up which led to a discussion of prostitution. So basically what I'm saying is, of my 235 around 180 are active commenting about the movie.

So I think 175 to 185 is about the average for all of us to get through the discussion.

So basically, Pat, Ed, Fox, Flickhead and all the rest - If you don't reach 175 we will all consider you inadequate.

Ed Howard said...

You know, usually I throw a party if I reach 10 comments. I don't know if my blog can handle more...

Pat said...

If you don't reach 175 we will all consider you inadequate.Yikes! The pressure's on!

bill r. said...

I just realized that nobody brought up the fact that Carradine's character is named "Abel" and he has a brother, and even though the brother isn't named "Cain" and doesn't murder him, nobody names a character "Abel" on accident, so Bergman must have meant something by that. If I'd remember to bring that up, this thread probably would have reached 317 comments!

Greg said...

But Cain killed Abel, not the other way around. Hey, you just made it to 180!

Anyway, this is the third day of the post. Any comments after the second day don't count towards the official total tallied by the World Blog Comment Counting International Association.

bill r. said...

But Cain killed Abel, not the other way around...

I know, I said that! But it still has to mean something!

And I do not recognize the authority of the WBCCIA.

181!

Dot B. said...

I can't believe you folks did all this over analysis in just a couple of days. I just wonder if it occurred to any of you that Bergman hired Carradine because he liked him for the part and that Carradine did just what Bergman wanted him to do. Just a thought.

Brett Gerry said...

As a film, The Serpent's Egg fails to achieve what its more distinguished model is mostly famous for: http://bit.ly/alaCl8

Followers