It’s set in Berlin (recreated in Munich) in November 1923, simultaneous with the Beer Hall Putsch that brought Hitler to the world’s attention, and stars David Carradine as Abel Rosenberg, an unemployed Jewish circus performer adrift in a city whose language he doesn’t speak and with only a bottle to keep him company. The film begins with him finding the body of his brother Max, who has committed suicide, and subsequently re-establishing an at first platonic relationship with Max’s estranged wife Manuela (Ullmann), before coming under police suspicion following a string of other mysterious deaths in the quarter – all seemingly connected with the cabaret at which Ullmann works in one of her two part-time jobs.
All of this is merely a metaphor for Berlin at the height of its post-Great War depression, of course, Bergman’s film following five years on the heels of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and taking place eight years ahead of it - thus effectively working as a kind of de facto prequel. The lighting isn’t always great and Bergman doesn’t seem to have as much control over his zooms and close-ups as he might have liked, although the lovely print on this fantastic Blu-ray edition does bring clarity to the presentation. Despite a bit of loose camerawork, Bergman tries his best to create a sort of reverse film noir, transposing the European-influenced genre back into its native territory in a way that gives it a kind of post factum relevance.
It’s actually tonally something like an early Scorsese picture, at least at first - Boxcar Bertha meets Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; a story about lost souls cut loose in an impermanent, alien and changing environment, never quite marrying their priorities or meeting emotionally. Ullmann is terrific as the film’s emotional centre, Carradine mostly so as its taciturn pivot. As the third act drives the slightly ineffective paranoia Bergman has been building down a Boys from Brazil-shaped tunnel, even the inconsistencies turn out to have been logically employed.
It’s a great set from Arrow, despite not being Bergman’s most focused production, with around an hour’s worth of interesting archival retrospective extra features. Well worth forking out for if you are a Bergman aficionado, or even just if you’re interested in seeing the factors that led to World War II represented in a crime theatre scenario.
Extras: trailer, commentary with David Carradine, Bergman’s Egg, Away From Home, German Expressionism
THE SERPENT’S EGG / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: INGMAR BERGMAN / SCREENPLAY: INGMAR BERGMAN / STARRING: DAVID CARRADINE, LIV ULLMANN, GERT FRÖBE, HEINZ BENNENT / RELEASE DATE: 3RD DECEMBER