by Andrew Mooney
The Serpent’s Egg (1977) – Ingmar Bergman (Dir.), David Carradine, Liv Ullman
There were two criteria for entering a film into the pot. 1) We have to have heard of it or 2) We have to have heard of the director. That was it. Pretty simple, right? Well, this was certainly a gem that only found its home in the latter category. Ingmar Bergman is a name synonymous with cinematic excellence and creepy-as-fuck-people-doing-creepy-as-fuck-things. His work is almost unparalleled. In senior year of high school, I dragged myself through four sittings of his Kill-Yourself-Everything-is-Pointless Magnum Opus The Seventh Seal. It’s an uncompromising view of the end of all life…or maybe just a soldier’s life…or maybe the world…or maybe…just shut up and listen to how absurd a language Swedish actually is. Well, hoping that this little ditty, The Serpent’s Egg, would be of the same caliber as Mox Von Sydow playing death with an IKEA chess board, we turned it on.
It became quickly apparent why this is the only Bergman available on Instant Watch. Seriously. It is a movie about David Carradine, a jewish trapeze artist (how do we know he does trapeze? Because he’s David Fucking Carradine and he fucking says so), wandering drunkenly around 1920s Berlin punching people and sleeping with prostitutes and having mood swings and then (SPOILERS) getting told he was all part of a pre-Nazi experiment. Um…okay…
After researching a little about this film, Bergman described Carradine as “sent from God”. You may remember Carradine as the illustrious and heart-exploded Bill from Kill Bill (SPOILERS…dammit. Late again. Oops)…or dying by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation in Hong Kong a couple of years ago. He’s about a charismatic as that piece of wood Keanu Reeves has been emulating his entire career. This man is a kung-fu artist. He punches people. He kicks them in the face. He reaches into people’s chest and rips out their hearts. He does not sit with existential stillness and channel the horrors of being into corporeal form. It’s just not his strong suit. He stumbles from scene to scene, brokenly speaking words as though he just remembered that his tongue does exist and it’s used for verbal balletics and randomly hitting people (usually of the female persuasion…but who knows? Carradine’s a wild card).
I considered Bergman’s words. As a director, he’s worked with some of the greats. How did he consider Carradine, ‘sent from God’? This was Bergman’s only Hollywood film. Here is my theory: the movie was actually coherent at some point and then some executive informed Bergman that “Carradine is hot shit. Have you seen him punch people in the face? Top dollar! Top shelf! Top dog!” He then sucked on a cigar and petted his obligatory man/boy-sex-slave (they all have cigars…and little slaves. This was the 70’s, let’s be real). Bergman then attempted to make his movie and yet Carradine, upset that he didn’t get a shot at Footloose (which wouldn’t be released for another decade, but Carradine knows kung-fu so he obviously has powers of clairvoyance. That’s science.) insisted upon drinking a fifth of moonshine every twenty minutes and showing off that he can beat the ever-loving-shit out of anybody. Thus, Bergman compensated. And so, he built a perfect replica of 1920s Berlin and allowed Carradine to just kinda wander around, crying, yelling, throwing bricks through windows and hitting whomever he pleased (or getting hit, depending on his current flavor of crazy). Then he filmed it. This is no movie, it’s an extended experiment, investigating the true depths of celebrity/kung-fu-induced insanity. One would expect this to culminate in the “Let’s explain everything but actually explain nothing and end with a Nazi watching himself die in a mirror”…but the true apex of drama in this film is the absolutely inexplicable, thinly-veiled dance sequence in which Carradine light-foots his way through a police station Kevin-Bacon-style.
And then he accidentally locks himself in a cell. Like a champion. And gets beaten senseless. Like a champion.
The other theory is that, somehow, in the future, Quentin Tarantino discovers a time machine and returned to 1977 to lay the prequel work for Kill Bill. Then again, Tarantino with a time machine would be far more destructive… (note to self: movie idea).
What else to discuss with this very odd, aimless movie? Not much of a plot. Like Carradine’s inebriated adventures, it stumbles about before revealing that it was all a hoax the entire time. What do we get along the way? Midget strippers. A heroine, dressed as the Joker, doing her best Liza Minelli impression. Jews getting hit. Horses dying. As my roommate Ryan said, the “one crackhead in all of Berlin”. Prostitutes. Cross-dressing minstrel shows. Pretty much everything on the checklist of a Tommy Lee weekend in Vegas.
Much like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, this is about Nazis. Where they came from. How they came to be. It’s about the birth of hatred. So, thematically, its strangely apt for this last run of films. Plot doesn’t matter. It’s a portrait of a country disintegrating, laying the groundwork for an uprising. Bergman isn’t the peppiest of filmmakers. In fact, he’s about as uplifting as a kick in the nuts…that then leads you to discover that you have inoperable testicular cancer and only 3 months to live…and your house just got foreclosed on…and your dog just doesn’t care anymore. Carradine aside, it’s a fascinating collage of a frustrated nation, cracking at the seams, waiting for the influx of evil that’s only ten years away. As the crazed, yet terrifyingly sane doctor says in the final scenes, “In ten years, the ten year olds will be twenty. The fifteen year olds will be twenty five. This is how hate is born.” For a movie so blissfully incoherent for the most part, its ending makes your skin tingle with irrational rationality. Every single button is pressed, forcing you mental g-spot to overwhelm itself and take into account that, when pushed too far, people will turn to anything to solve their problems. Sometimes it’s constructive. Sometimes…it’s genocide. ‘Haunting’ was the only word I could conjure once the ending credits rolled. Carradine left my mind, as did the rest of it. Every memory of this film flittered away into nothingness and I was left with a single thought.
Hate. It comes when you least expect it, when you most expect it.
Thanks, Mr. Bergman, for ruining my Friday. Great job. You existential dick.
Also, as a little pick-me-up, I had a guest star watching with me. My new roommate Ryan is apparently the worst person to watch a film with if you want to take it seriously. Conversely, he’s about as reverent as a clown taking a shit in a church. Such gems flew from his lips during the course of this film:
“She’s addicted to shitheads!”
“She looks like she’s been infected with the Rage virus.”
And the coup de grace, about Carradine: “This is before he got that boring job jerking off in the shower.”
He will be included in future viewings. He has cemented that right. Be prepared.