The Serpent's Egg
HOW DO YOU MEASURE YOUR OWN SANITY IN A WORLD GONE MAD?
In 1977, legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Persona) teamed up with the equally legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (La strada, Danger: Diabolik) for what would be the director’s one and only Hollywood feature.
Berlin, 1923. Out-of-work circus performer Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine, Bound in Glory, Kill Bill) is living in poverty. When his brother commits suicide, he moves into the apartment of his cabaret singer sister-in-law (Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants, Scenes from a Marriage), but the pair soon attract the attentions of both the police and a professor with a terrifying area of research when they start to make enquiries about his mysterious death.
One of Bergman’s darkest – and most unlikely – films, The Serpent’s Egg is a hypnotic, Kafkaesque tale of paranoia in a poisoned city.
Arrow Academy presents Ingmar Bergman’s English-language feature The Serpent’s Egg on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The picture has been encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition.
Arrow’s notes around the presentation simply state they received the HD master from MGM, which would occasionally mean they're working with an older restoration and/or master. I don't think that's the case, though, and I strongly suspect Arrow’s is sourced from the same restoration Criterion used for the title in their large Bergman box set. Though the films open differently—Arrow’s with the new MGM logo before jumping right into the film, Criterion’s with the old MGM logo before jumping to Svensk’s Swedish title card detailing the restoration—the presentations look very similar, even showcasing some of the same artifacts. Arrow's notes don't indicate the source materials, but Criterion’s notes state the 2K restoration was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative.
The end results do look decent if a bit murky. A lot of that comes down to the general look of the film, which is one of Bergman’s gloomier looking ones, an impressive feat for sure. It’s laced with grays and greens and beiges and so on. Blacks are decent enough though can come off a bit muddier in the shadows, limiting details there. Arrow's presentation is a touch greener than Criterion's, but it's an incredibly faint difference. I did detect some minor macroblocking, or a similar effect, in some of the darker shots, like during the opening sequence where David Carradine’s character discovers the aftermath of a suicide, but Criterion’s presentation shows the same thing.
Still, if I had to clearly pick one over the other, I’d give the edge to Arrow’s presentation because it does manage to render grain better. Arrow’s presentation renders the fine grain in a cleaner, more distinct manner whereas Criterion’s rendering can look a wee-bit blockier in places. Finer details also manage to look a little bit sharper within Arrow’s presentation, probably because of the cleaner encode. Arrow's also gives the film just aboutt he whole disc to breathe, while Criterion has the film share a disc with The Touch, resulting in a smaller file.
Restoration work has been thorough, a few blemishes remaining, but this is the same with Criterion’s. There’s also a shot about 38-minutes in, when Carradine’s character is taken to a morgue, where the image takes on a very dupey look, almost like the frame was zoomed in on. Criterion’s presentation also shows this. Details overall are impressive, though I think limited a bit by the photography and/or lighting.
In all it’s decent presentation if not exactly a knockout, and while it edges out Criterion’s presentation, they’re both still quite similar.
As with Criterion’s release, Arrow delivers the English-language soundtrack in lossless 1.0 PCM monaural. There can be a bit of a flatness to the dialogue at times, but overall fidelity isn’t too bad. Music sounded a bit more impressive, the film featuring some jazzy cabaret numbers and music overlays, all of which deliver strong depth and range.
Bergman has delivered a wide range of films throughout his career but for me, of the films I’ve seen, The Serpent’s Egg sticks out most thanks to what a bizarre genre-blender it is, mixing historical drama and paranoia thriller, with a sprinkle of science-fiction and horror, all in the effort to tell a tale around the rise of Nazism during the Weimar period in Germany. Throughout interviews (a lot of which can be found in Criterion’s big Bergman set) he occasionally talks about his admiration of Hollywood films, pointing out the Bond films specifically at one point, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe he was trying to dip his toes in such things. Unfortunately, Bergman’s attempt at a “thriller” barely registers as such, limping along until the antagonist gleefully reveals all the details of their grand scheme in a manner that would make a Bond villain blush, but not before Bergman delivers a fight on an elevator that lacks even an iota of tension. It has some of the expected Bergman touches that come out when it focuses on its two central, damaged characters, and it seems determined to investigate the nature of evil and how it can root itself into a society, but it is, in the end, a bit of a mess.
Still, it’s an interesting mess, and there’s some fun to be had in seeing later Bergman attempt something along the lines of a genre film, and it’s a topic well worth exploring in detail. Sadly, that’s not this edition.
To be a bit fair, I can see Arrow not wanting to invest too much into this title, and outside of one feature they’ve chosen to simply reuse the features MGM created for their 2004 DVD edition, all of which are of the standard studio DVD supplement fare of the time. I was intrigued at the inclusion of an audio commentary featuring actor David Carradine, though it ultimately proves disappointing. Carradine’s contribution is most interesting when he’s talking about how Bergman worked, Carrading seeming to say Bergman didn't care much about directing the actors, instead focusing on the film’s visuals, though that runs counter to what Bergman's regular company of actors have said over the years. He talks about having to do many takes, having to reshoot scenes and the intense rehearsals that would occur before filming the actual scene. Unfortunately, Carradine is quiet a lot of the time and really only chimes in here and there, usually to talk about the other actors, specifically Liv Ullmann and James Whitmore, the latter of whom he describes as being “even old then!” I was hoping he might comment on the film itself a bit more but rarely does, only explaining that Bergman described it as a horror film and talking about a few plot points here and there. Whatever his feelings about the film he keeps it mostly to himself.
Arrow also carries over two featurettes from the MGM disc, including Away From Home, running 16-minutes, and featuring interviews with Carradine, Liv Ullmann, and author Marc Gervais. It’s a pretty standard studio produced making-of featurette, summarizing some of the material Carradine covered in his commentary track. Gervais talks a little about the influence of German Expressionism on the film and Ullmann recalls rewatching the film with Bergman and how the director has turned around on it since its filming; he had disliked it initially. Again, it’s nothing mind-blowing or revelatory but it does offer a so-so overview of the film’s production and initial reception.
The other MGM featurette is a 5-minute solo interview with Gervais, who explains how he came to reassess the film after his initial disappointment with it, now looking at it away from Bergman’s other work and putting it alongside the German Expressionist films of the 20s (which the film is clearly inspired by) and Noir of the 40s. Though Gervais delivers a decent argument for the virtues of the film it’s far too short to get much deeper than a cursory examination.
I was hoping that Barry Forshaw’s exclusive contribution to this release would fill in that gap, but alas it proves to be a disappointment. Though 26-minutes in length, Forshaw spends most of the program’s time talking about Bergman’s other films, explaining how he became such a force in the world of filmmaking. Only the last 10-minutes or so are around The Serpent’s Egg, and he just points out common Bergman tropes (like weak, abusive men and the women that love them!) and the Fritz Lang influence. That’s ultimately it. For anyone unfamiliar with Bergman this is a decent primer but as an examination of the film it leaves a lot to be desired. The included booklet, featuring an essay by Geoffrey Macnab does fill in the gap a bit, looking at the film somewhat from the perspective it’s Bergman’s attempt to atone for his “childhood naiveté;” Bergman having believed in Hitler in his youth, only to be horrified and disgusted when he learned the truth later.
But that ends up being the extent of the analysis and “reassessing” of the film, the remaining material on the disc consisting of the original Paramount trailer, pushing the film as a thriller, and a lengthy image gallery, featuring photos and promotional materials. I was actually looking forward to going through this material, as I missed MGM's previous DVD, but I was ultimately underwhelmed.
Arrow’s presentation is fine, and does better the one found in Criterion's huge Bergman set, but the supplements are a let down for not delving deeper into this oddity in Bergman’s filmography. For those that simply want the film this edition is fine (if one can find it on sale) but if the mostly exclusive supplements are not a concern I’d still point everyone towards Criterion’s box set.