The Serpent's Egg (1977)

R | 120 mins | Drama | 1977

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HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Robert Vaszari, a student at University of California, Los Angeles, with Jonathan Furner as academic advisor.

As stated in an 11 Feb 1978 Toronto Globe and Mail article, The Serpent’s Egg was writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s first movie produced outside his native Sweden. Bergman fled Sweden in 1976, according to a 24 Sep 1990 LAT item, due to the humiliation he endured after an arrest on tax fraud charges that were later dismissed. The filmmaker relocated to Munich, West Germany, where The Serpent’s Egg was filmed.
       A 20 Mar 1977 LAT article stated that Bergman wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1966, but did not finalize the script until Jan 1975, shortly before his arrest. The story was partly inspired by Bergman’s experience as an exchange student in Thuringen, Germany, in 1935, when he stayed with a family whose children participated in Nazi youth groups. The title was taken from the following line in the William Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, in which Brutus describes the danger Caesar represents to Rome: “And therefore think him as a serpent's egg/Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous.” According to Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography (New York, 1982), the screenplay began with the following quotation from the nineteenth-century German dramatist Georg Büchner: “Man is an abyss and I am giddy when I look down into it.”
       Producer Dino De Laurentiis obtained worldwide distribution rights to Bergman’s 1975 Swedish ... More Less

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Robert Vaszari, a student at University of California, Los Angeles, with Jonathan Furner as academic advisor.

As stated in an 11 Feb 1978 Toronto Globe and Mail article, The Serpent’s Egg was writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s first movie produced outside his native Sweden. Bergman fled Sweden in 1976, according to a 24 Sep 1990 LAT item, due to the humiliation he endured after an arrest on tax fraud charges that were later dismissed. The filmmaker relocated to Munich, West Germany, where The Serpent’s Egg was filmed.
       A 20 Mar 1977 LAT article stated that Bergman wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1966, but did not finalize the script until Jan 1975, shortly before his arrest. The story was partly inspired by Bergman’s experience as an exchange student in Thuringen, Germany, in 1935, when he stayed with a family whose children participated in Nazi youth groups. The title was taken from the following line in the William Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, in which Brutus describes the danger Caesar represents to Rome: “And therefore think him as a serpent's egg/Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous.” According to Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography (New York, 1982), the screenplay began with the following quotation from the nineteenth-century German dramatist Georg Büchner: “Man is an abyss and I am giddy when I look down into it.”
       Producer Dino De Laurentiis obtained worldwide distribution rights to Bergman’s 1975 Swedish film, Face to Face, before working with the writer-director on The Serpent’s Egg, a U. S. and German co-production with a budget of $4 million, as stated in the 20 Mar 1977 LAT. Principal photography was underway as of 1 Nov 1976, as noted in a LAT article of the same date, and in its final days of shooting on 20 Mar 1977.
       Richard Harris was originally cast as “Abel Rosenberg,” but could not work on the project due to physical exhaustion from filming Orca (1977, see entry). He was replaced by David Carradine after Bergman viewed the actor’s performance as “Woody Guthrie” in Bound for Glory (1976, see entry). According to a 24 Sep 1990 LAT news item, both Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford turned down roles in the film.
       Set designer Rolf Zehetbauer, who was not credited onscreen, also worked on Cabaret (1972, see entry), a film that similarly depicts Berlin cabarets during the economic and political turmoil prior to the rise of Nazism.
       A 15 Oct 1977 LAT news item announced that Paramount Pictures acquired domestic distribution rights to The Serpent’s Egg, which was set to be released Dec 1977 in Los Angeles, CA, for Academy Award qualification.
       Critical reception was largely negative; reviewers generally considered the film a puzzling disappointment from a master filmmaker. The 24 Jan 1978 Washington Post review observed that the film was “hatche[d] in a nest of confusion,” while a 28 Jan 1978 NYT review by Vincent Canby deemed it “inconceivable” that a genius filmmaker like Bergman did not understand what he was doing. Revisiting his own appraisal of the film in the autobiography Images: My Life in Film (Stockholm, 1990), Bergman described how he came to view The Serpent’s Egg as a failure, stating, “After the film’s release, my life began to calm down; then I painfully realized the extent of my failure.” More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Film Comment
Jan/Feb 1977
pp. 18-21.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Nov 1977
p. 4, 13.
Los Angeles Times
1 Nov 1976
Section F, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times
20 Mar 1977
Section V, p. 1, 34.
Los Angeles Times
15 Oct 1977
Section B, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1977
Section H, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
11 Feb 1978
Section B, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
13 Feb 1978
Section E, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times
15 Oct 1978
Section M, p. 1, 34.
Los Angeles Times
24 Sep 1990
p. 10.
New York Times
27 Jan 1978
p. 8.
New York Times
28 Jan 1978.
---
The Ottawa Citizen
10 Mar 2000
Section E, p. 1.
Toronto Globe and Mail
11 Feb 1978
Section P, p. 35.
Variety
2 Nov 1977
p. 17.
Washington Post
24 Jan 1978
Weekend, p. 16.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Dino De Laurentiis Presents
A Film by Ingmar Bergman
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Prod mgr
Unit mgr
Unit mgr
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Still photog
Asst cam
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Prop master
Set des
COSTUMES
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Ward
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd mixer
Sd asst
Sd asst
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
DANCE
Choreog
MAKEUP
Make-up and hair
Make-up and hair
Make-up and hair
Make-up and hair
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod exec
Casting dir
Translation
Dial coach
Continuity
Unit pub
Prod auditor
Prod accountant
Prod secy
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Das Schlangenei
Release Date:
1977
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 9 December 1977
New York opening: 27 January 1978
Production Date:
late fall 1976--late March 1977 in West Germany
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
120
MPAA Rating:
R
Countries:
Germany (West), United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

Having lost his job in a traveling circus, Jewish American performer Abel Rosenberg, his brother and trapeze partner, Max, and Max’s ex-wife Manuela, struggle to survive in 1923 Berlin, Germany. One night in early November, Abel returns to his boardinghouse room and finds that Max has shot himself in the head. At police headquarters, Abel informs Police Inspector Bauer that he and his brother were let go from the circus because Max hurt his wrist and could no longer perform. Bauer asks if Max was depressed, but Abel does not know. When Bauer asks if he is Jewish, Abel does not answer, suspecting that Bauer is anti-Semitic. At the cabaret where Manuela works, Abel delivers the news of Max’s suicide, but Manuela is not surprised. They read Max’s suicide note, which is mostly illegible but contains the cryptic phrase, “There’s poisoning going on.” Backstage, Abel runs into Hans Vergerus, a childhood acquaintance. Leaving the cabaret, Abel sees a group of thugs beating a man, and, sensing danger, runs to a bar. Later, Manuela finds Abel drunk outside her building and takes him in. The next morning, she offers to take care of him for a while. After she leaves, Abel steals cash from Manuela’s dresser and returns to his boardinghouse to pick up his things. However, Inspector Bauer stops him on the way and escorts him to the morgue, where Abel is asked to identify several corpses. The bodies, all found dead under mysterious circumstances, belong to Max’s fiancée, a woman Abel recognizes from the boardinghouse, and a boy who worked with Manuela at the cabaret. After admitting to being an alcoholic, Abel deduces that he is a murder ... +


Having lost his job in a traveling circus, Jewish American performer Abel Rosenberg, his brother and trapeze partner, Max, and Max’s ex-wife Manuela, struggle to survive in 1923 Berlin, Germany. One night in early November, Abel returns to his boardinghouse room and finds that Max has shot himself in the head. At police headquarters, Abel informs Police Inspector Bauer that he and his brother were let go from the circus because Max hurt his wrist and could no longer perform. Bauer asks if Max was depressed, but Abel does not know. When Bauer asks if he is Jewish, Abel does not answer, suspecting that Bauer is anti-Semitic. At the cabaret where Manuela works, Abel delivers the news of Max’s suicide, but Manuela is not surprised. They read Max’s suicide note, which is mostly illegible but contains the cryptic phrase, “There’s poisoning going on.” Backstage, Abel runs into Hans Vergerus, a childhood acquaintance. Leaving the cabaret, Abel sees a group of thugs beating a man, and, sensing danger, runs to a bar. Later, Manuela finds Abel drunk outside her building and takes him in. The next morning, she offers to take care of him for a while. After she leaves, Abel steals cash from Manuela’s dresser and returns to his boardinghouse to pick up his things. However, Inspector Bauer stops him on the way and escorts him to the morgue, where Abel is asked to identify several corpses. The bodies, all found dead under mysterious circumstances, belong to Max’s fiancée, a woman Abel recognizes from the boardinghouse, and a boy who worked with Manuela at the cabaret. After admitting to being an alcoholic, Abel deduces that he is a murder suspect and worries that Bauer has targeted him because he is Jewish. Abel escapes Bauer’s office but gets trapped in the gated corridors of the building before being knocked out by guards and jailed. While in custody, Abel receives a visit from Manuela, who has become sick. She reports that her savings were stolen from her apartment, but Abel does not admit guilt. Once released from prison by the sympathetic Bauer, Abel finds Manuela with Vergerus at the cabaret. Abel becomes suspicious that the two are in a relationship, and Manuela later confirms it, also revealing that she has been working as a prostitute during the daytime. Abel secretly follows Manuela to a church where she confesses her guilt over Max’s death to an American priest. Unable to grant assurance that God can hear their prayers, the priest prays for Manuela and grants his personal forgiveness. Continuing to follow Manuela, Abel discovers that Vergerus has given her a new apartment. Initially angry and opposed to living there, Abel finds that he cannot abandon her because they have developed an emotional connection. That night at the cabaret, Abel listens to the woes of the cabaret owner. Suddenly, anti-Semitic soldiers raid the theater, smashing the cabaret owner’s face and setting the establishment on fire. The next morning, Abel goes to work at the archives of the St. Anna Clinic, a position offered him by Vergerus. He is introduced to the two archivists, Dr. Soltermann and Dr. Silbermann, who show him to his workroom deep within the labyrinthine complex. During a break, Abel visits the clinic’s laundry site, where an increasingly ailing Manuela has gotten a new job, also thanks to Vergerus. That evening, a fearful Dr. Silbermann shows Abel a collection of secret files containing reports on Vergerus’s medical research involving experimentation on human subjects. At Manuela’s new apartment, Abel complains of an incessant engine-like noise, and Manuela loses her patience, ordering him to leave. When she softens and tries to kiss him, Abel stops her and refuses to make love. He flees to a brothel where he spends the night with two prostitutes. In the morning, Abel returns to the apartment to find that Manuela has died of her illness. When a man behind a one-way mirror snaps a photograph, Abel detects the flash and realizes the entire apartment is being surveilled by movie cameras behind two-way mirrors. Running downstairs, Abel finds a complex of abandoned medical facilities, the original site of Vergerus’s human experimentations. When ambushed, Abel holds his attacker’s head under a descending elevator and kills him. Returning to the St. Anna Clinic, Abel takes Dr. Soltermann’s keys and heads into a vault where Vergerus projects films of his experiments. As Abel views the films, Vergerus explains what is happening onscreen. In one, a young man’s descent into emotional terror is brought on by the injection of a drug. Vergerus says the subject committed suicide after he was released from the clinic, then explains that Max’s depression and suicide were the result of his participation in the same experiment. Max had been one of Vegerus’s assistants, and though he was warned against trying the drug himself, Max’s fascination led him to take it. Vergerus describes his experiments as the beginning of a social program based on the ideas of eugenics. Although believing that the conditions are not yet right for the implementation of a new society and that the Nazi party leader, Adolf Hitler, is too dimwitted to lead a revolution, Vergerus is convinced that a new Germany will emerge in ten years when angry youth converge with a strong leader. Vergerus predicts that Germans will effectively exterminate inferior human beings, and the records of his experiments will serve as inspiration to future scientists. The police arrive and attempt to break down the vault door, prompting Vergerus to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule. Abel wakes up from a drug-induced sleep two days later at police headquarters. Inspector Bauer happily informs him that Hitler’s attempted putsch in Munich failed and laughs that the Nazi leader underestimated German democracy. Bauer says he found Abel a new job at a traveling circus. However, as a police escort transports him to the train station, Abel escapes and is never heard from again. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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