Ingmar Bergman's THE SERPENT'S EGG
an outcast in the room of dreams: frustrating filmographies #8
This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable,wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.
The subject: Ingmar Bergman
The movie: The Serpent's Egg
Working in this medium and being a man of the theater, I'm like the common whore. I have an enormous need for people to like me and what I'm doing. That it be accepted and praised and so forth. It's always painful to be disapproved of... - Ingmar Bergman
In his defense he would give a short account of his life, and when he came to an event of any importance explain for what reasons he had acted as he did, intimate whether he approved or condemned his way of action in retrospect, and adduce grounds for the condemnation or approval... - Franz Kafka, The Trial
Is The Serpent's Egg Bergman's Curate's egg? Is there even a scant morsel of brilliance to savor in the suppurating muck of its yolk? Does the sulfurous albumen that once stained the figurative vest of the renowned director's irreproachable reputation still reek nearly 40 years later? Or was it just a little unfair of Pauline Kael to declare the film "a crackpot tragedy" and compare Liv Ullmann to a cow?
This is as good a year as any to tackle these questions: we're expecting a big batch of first-time English-language films from such 'Smoke favorites as Arnaud Desplechin, Bong Joon-ho, Marjane Satrapi, Yorgos Lanthimos and Takashi Miike. It's hard to tell whose film will beat the crossover jinx (my money's on Snowpiercer; I'm least confident about The Lobster but remain optimistic) because, as Marcus Pinn recently reminded us in this series' last entry,* successful foreign directors transitioning to English-language features is typically a rocky gambit, most often resulting in what would politely be labeled a "lesser effort." While Swamp Water** certainly wasn't Renoir's worst American movie and there are several notable exceptions to the rule (Robinson Crusoe, The American Friend, Repulsion), efforts such as Truffaut's tepid Fahrenheit 451 have proved that at least a small part of any famed auteur's genius tends to get lost in the translation. This seems to be particularly true of Scandanavian filmmakers: Lasse Hallström, George Sluizer, Susanne Bier and Bergman disciple Thomas Vinterberg (who actually reached out to the legendary director to help salvage It's All About Love) all suffered in their efforts to reach a wider audience that includes those intolerant of subtitles.
Egg was not Ingmar Bergman's English-language debut - that distinction belongs to the almost equally-reviled and subsequently-ignored The Touch - but it was his first completely non-Swedish production, shot outside his home country and featuring not a word of his native tongue. It kicked off what's commonly considered Bergman's "lost years," prompted by a self-imposed exile to Munich after being charged with tax evasion by the Swedish goverment in 1976. The 70's was a tough decade for many a famed filmmaker on their home turf: Kurosawa had trouble getting a new movie off the ground in Japan and had to head for the Russian tundra to set up his next production following a suicide attempt in 1971, Polanski had his famous legal trouble which led to him fleeing the U.S. in 1978, Tarkovsky struggled with Soviet censorship that caused several of his projects to stall and ultimately led to him shooting his last two films in Italy. But his own unexpected circumstance hit Bergman particularly hard, to the point that he was hospitalized following a nervous breakdown. He remained disconsolate even after the charges were dropped, refusing to return to his home island of Fårö despite the pleas of high-ranking Swedish officials, declaring that he'd never make another movie in his own country.
Audiences of the late 70's knew that a secure, in-control Ingmar Bergman, surrounded by familiar cast, crew and locations, could produce a moody movie or two...but were they ready for what a disgruntled, displaced, manically-depressed expatriate Ingmar Bergman would come up with? The director's state of mind informed just about every decision going into his first post-tax evasion project, starting with the setting: a bleak Berlin of 1923, represented by the film's first shots filled with ashen faces, an anguished populace moving at a stagnant pace in muted black & white to contrast the opening credits' jaunty jazz score. An unidentified narrator chimes in throughout the film, listing the sad statistics of these starving people, whose increasing resentment it's later revealed will pave the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler, his vile ambition and the country's nefarious role in the mid-20th century currently shelled up in the symbolic, embryonic stage referred to in the movie's Shakespeare-derived title.
Although it had been gestating in Bergman's brain for years, the resultant production did not hatch the perfect reptile. It was, in fact, a "colossal fiasco," as the film's prophetic mad scientist describes Hitler's upcoming Bürgerbräukeller putsch in Munich. While many factors aside from Bergman's language barrier have been cited over the years - the film's overall joyless sterility and misanthropy, a surrender to excessive genre conventions normally considered beneath Bergman's taste level, David Carradine's almost invisible presence and appalling performance in the lead role and the fact that he runs like a sissy*** - the decision to set the story in such a specific and significant period of history is one of the most glaringly problematic. Bergman specifically avoided the specifics in films like Shame (set in an unnamed country during a phony war), The Ritual (another unnamed country) and The Silence (the fictional, fake war-torn town of "Timoka"), his brand of suffering neither topographically or chronologically bound. Staging the drama in the decadent cabarets and modernist metropolis of the Weimar Republic robbed Bergman of the historical anonymity of his earlier films (even the ambiguous medieval milieu of The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal lend a certain mystery to those mythical stagings). Said anonymity allowed Bergman to focus on his characters' inner struggle without having to consider their external conflict within a distinct historical context like Germany in the gloomy years following the First World War; The Serpent's Egg almost lazily dumps the viewer right in the thick of its characters' misery through the images of the city's forlorn populace.
Bergman himself acknowledged this problem. In The Magic Lantern, he describes a recurring dream in which he's walking through a stage setting of a phantom city,**** one that he hoped to capture on film:
[The Serpent Egg]'s artistic failure was mainly due to the fact that I called the city Berlin and decided to set it in 1920. (sic) That was both thoughtless and foolish. If I had created the City of my dream, the City that is not, never was and yet manifests itself with acuteness, smells and loud sounds, if I had created that City, I would not only have been moving in complete freedom and with an absolute sense of belonging but also, most importantly, I would have taken the audience into an alien but secretly familiar world. Unfortunately I allowed myself to be led astray by my excursion into Berlin in the mid-1930s, that evening when absolutely nothing happened. In The Serpent's Egg, I created a Berlin which no one recognized, not even I.
So Bergman's concept was basically a horror/fantasy film set in a surreal nightmare city founded on a faint aura of actual experience. The result is two hours of illegible suicide notes, chemical-saturated marmalade, the ominously sub-perceptible sound of an engine and scenes of animal cruelty that probably made Bergman's list of reels to keep hidden from the humane society (see also: the murder of the old circus bear at the end of Sawdust and Tinsel, dog hanging and cattle burning in The Passion of Anna, the emaciated horse in The Silence). Around the time a handful of offal is offered to hero Abel, it's obvious that a specter hangs over Bergman's Berlin: not death exactly, more like an impossibility of life - a futility. Bergman once said, "My nightmares are always saturated in sunshine...When I see a cloudless sky I feel the world is coming to an end." This seems to be a direct reference to the prologue of Sawdust and Tinsel, saturated in overexposed brightness (which I'll come back to in a sec), yet it doesn't apply to Egg's dark interiors and gloomy nighttime exteriors. Still, Bergman compresses the dismal ambience into a genuinely out-there premise: people around Carradine's Abel Rosenberg, including his brother Max who we meet as a bloodstain on the wall, are committing suicide, leaving behind rambling notes about a "poisoning going on." The suicides, we later learn, are the results of experiments conducted with "Thanatoxins" and "Kapta Blue" (an odorless gas) used to create "behavior incentives" which tap into the nerve center of human misery, represented in the film as a fear that "rises like vapor from the cobblestones...everyone bears it like a nerve poison...a spasm of nausea." The ultimate goal of studying subjects unknowingly gassed or willingly injected with agents that induce "unbearable agony," it's revealed, is to hone all that pain and humiliation into a concentrated hatred that will ignite an uprising instigated by the children of the downtrodden German people in ten years. The whole idea of bottling human anguish is amazingly audacious, and certainly vulgar enough to turn even audiences patient enough to let the movie reach its big reveal against it.
Now Bergman's not an idiot: he doesn't really believe that melancholy and infinite sadness are manufactured in a lab, but if his work has been its own kind of investigation, it's into why people suffer - this just happens to be the film where he definitively uncovers the origin of his characters' abject existence (and somewhat lets them off the hook - it was grief gas all along!) And suggests that, if misery can be mass produced (like in that Soul Asylum song), then logically wouldn't ultimate evil also come from some synthesized accumulation of said sadness? But since none of this comes out until the end of the movie, Bergman's intentions up to that point are foggy: he wants to focus on his characters' insoluble anguish while also tying that into the unfathomable evil of Nazi Germany, its ascension as confounding to most as Max's suicide is to Inspector Bauer, who shrugs before writing it off as an "unexplainable impulse." Unfortunately, in attempting to capture an intangible concept - what makes people miserable - Bergman was also stuck with the very palpable question of how Hitler came to be.
The evening in the mid-30's Bergman refers to in the quote about his dream city, related earlier in his autobiography, was a sojourn in Germany during which the future star director, then an impressionable student, found himself caught up in the fervor of Führer fanaticism. Bergman, having been dragged to socialist rallies by the family he was lodging with, fully admits to being swept up in the the mob's excitement over Hitler's promises of social reform and economic recovery, an approval that didn't dissipate until years later when the full horror of the Third Reich's atrocities came to light. But this zeal for fascism doesn't play a part in Serpent's Egg: Bergman decided to go back further and focus on the city's widespread despair, the relief of which would galvanize the German people to rally under Hitler's banners. Since he doesn't commit to really examining the spark that transformed the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich, despite providing a bold fantasy scenario of HOW it happened, it's safe to say that Bergman's youthful guilt wasn't the oogenesis of his Osten adventure. So then how did Bergman manage to fall into his own trap by confining himself to a subject he had no serious intention of examining in earnest?
I think the answer is that at the time Bergman wasn't thinking so much about Adolf Hitler as he was Franz Kafka. Bergman was undoubtedly evoking the author's work based on the sheer amount of general Kafkaishness in evidence: Gert Fröbe's cryptic inspector and his vague prosecution of Carradine's passive hero, the labyrinthine corridors of a cell-like underground archive and its useless task of shifting indecipherable paperwork from grey to red folders, the imperceptible presence of some kind of sinister machine that slowly kills existential sufferers. But even moreso, the director must have felt a kinship with Kafka, who had himself left his home country to run off to Berlin with Dora Diamont in 1923, the same year Bergman chose to set his film. It was there that the author wrote Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) the final book completed in Kafka's lifetime. Its title story, first published in a German literary magazine, tells the tale of a performance artist who displays himself in a cage without eating for 40 days, the public's diminishing interest in the unnamed protagonist's art and his own frustration over not being allowed to push his observed fast to even further extremes. In the end he starves to death, forgotten in a neglected section of some cheap circus, confessing as he dies that his perverse dedication to performance had more to do with a general joyless outlook on life rather than a real drive for artistic excellence (he's replaced in the cage by a panther, whose undemanding vitality and presumed lack of pretension pleases the crowds who flock to see it). With "A Hunger Artist" Kafka, whose retreat to Berlin failed to stave off the debilitating symptoms of tuberculosis that would kill him a year later, recognized the need for suffering in the creation of art while also disparaging the artist's complicity in his own suffering.*****
Bergman brought a heavy load of self-constituted torment to the production of The Serpent's Egg. He'd isolated himself from his base of operations, in his mind translating what turned out to be a convoluted Kafka-ick self-tergiversation (he had basically attempted to report income that was already his own money; one prosecutor dismissed the Swiss government's accusations as "charges against a person who has stolen his own car, thinking it was someone else's") into a conspired rejection of his work by the country whose film industry he'd almost single-handedly put on the map. He further sabotaged himself by setting up shop in another country, creating dialogue in a different language and making other drastic changes to his style, later blaming "high blood pressure and hypertension" for clouding his judgement during production while "warnings bells were ringing, but I refused to hear them." The venerated director had geared himself up for artistic suicide...but is that really so out of character? It's clear both from the consistent theme of his films and his personal writing that Bergman was preoccupied with an apparent decline in the appreciation of his craft not unlike Kafka's hunger artist, one that he sought to anticipate - his 1965 essay "The Snakeskin" even opens with the line, "Artistic creativity has always manifested itself in me as a sort of hunger." In the same essay he confessed that, like the hunger artist, he'd lost his appetite: art, he'd decided, was "less complicated, less interesting...less glamorous...lacking importance" and that cinema had become "free, shameless, irresponsible...the movement is intense, almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison; but the skin moves, filled with busy life."
* Pinn also unsuccessfully attempted to bring himself around on Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights as part of our Second Chances column - no dice!
** Swamp Water was remade in 1952 as Lure of the Wilderness, thus earning the Hollywood adaptation of Vereen Bell's novel not one but two awful titles.
*** Bergman met his lead actor for the first time two days before filming began, and later complained that Carradine, a night owl, would fall asleep between takes making communication with the director nearly impossible. Despite this, Bergman claims Carradine was "hard-working, punctual, and well prepared." I'm actually not sure if his sissy way of running has anything to do with why people hate The Serpent's Egg, but it sure bugs the hell out of me - the way he flails his arms around makes him an even fruitier jogger than Steven Seagal.
**** In my dreams, I have often been in Berlin. Not the real Berlin, but a stage setting, a boundless unwieldly city of smoke-blackened monumental buildings, church towers and statues. I roam through the unceasing flow of traffic, everything unfamiliar and yet familiar. I feel terror and delight and know pretty well where I am going. I am looking for the area beyond the bridges, the part of the city where something is going to happen. I am walking up a steep hill, a menacing aeroplane passes between the houses, then at last I come to the river. They are winching up a dead horse as large as a whale out of which water is pouring on to the pavement. Curiosity and terror drive me on. I must get there in time for the public executions. Then I meet my dead wife. We embrace each other tenderly and look for a hotel room where we can make love. She walks with quick light steps beside me and I hold my hand on her hip. The street is brightly lit up although the sun is blazing, the sky black and moving jarringly. Now I know I have at last reached the forbidden area. The Theatre is there with that unfathomable production.
***** From a letter written by Kafka years before: "My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle."
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