Philip Strick

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

It makes sense that [Serpent's Egg] takes up the theme by showing a society in wild confusion and dread, where lives are shattered by the arbitrary malice of unknown controllers…. The undercurrents stemming from the era of The Silence and Persona can be charted through all Bergman's later work, forming a familiar geography for the voyages of all his 'island' characters. One looks the more keenly for them in Serpent's Egg in view of its origins, despite the new international production environment it represented for Bergman. Here he is, under the banner of De Laurentiis, no less. And as it turns out, the links with a Swedish past are the very reasons why the film doesn't function quite as smoothly as it should, why it leaps too readily into a generalised warning from a specific malaise.

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The title is unexplained until the film is nearly ended. Preparing to take a cyanide capsule, Bergman's analyst remarks: 'Anyone who makes the slightest effort can see what's waiting there in the future. It's like a serpent's egg: through the thin membranes you can clearly make out the already perfect reptile.' Spoken in pre-Nazi Germany, the assertion seems unarguable, even startlingly perceptive, assuming we have understood it properly (a complex symbol, the serpent); but if Bergman intends there to be a direct parallel with today something more is called for than the intermingling of Cabaret, The Damned and Mr. Klein in order to prove the point….

The gaping suicide haunts the film, both spectator and symptom of the later bloodshed, until its broken features are aped by Abel himself, clutching in futility at the tiles of his cell. Bergman has used horrific images before (notably in The Shame, with its casual human breakages), but the violence in Serpent's Egg is at a new pitch. Similarly, the glimpsed debaucheries of The Silence have been updated to the fashionably excessive level of the 1970s….

If this is Germany, it's as seen by a Swedish tourist, for whom the priests are perpetually wrapped in guilt (the tragicomic scene of joint prayer from Winter Light is restaged), sheets can conceal living faces as well as dead, and the hour of the wolf, just before dawn, is still a time for the darkest confidences. Newsreels of human suffering, induced by cold chemical curiosity, have also reappeared, examined by Bergman's usual two-in-one team—the dreamer and the pragmatist—who, like their creator, draw conflicting conclusions about the susceptibility of human nature to redirection. 'In ten years,' says Vergerus, 'those people will create a new society unequalled in world history.' Looking at the grey, placid faces drifting slowly down the screen, rightly resembling the victims of the future rather than its masters, one is disinclined to agree. But Bergman has always, it seems, found himself closer to despair than the rest of us.

Philip Strick, "Film Reviews: 'The Serpent's Egg'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by the British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 190.

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