The Serpent's Egg

By Serge Daney

For all of Bergman's insistence that this film should be viewed in the light of today, it's hard to see anything more in it than Germany in 1923 (which has little in common with Sweden in 1977, even for those who don't pay their taxes). What makes it even harder is to de-historicize his film and read it as an abstract meditation on the human condition, unlike Shame or The Silence, is its historical framework (a rare occurrence with Bergman and no doubt due to the requirements or a large-scale international production), one almost identical to that of a far better film, Cabaret.

Where Cabaret gave insights into the rise of Nazism within the confines of a stage performance or a song (Cabaret is not "a musical plus serious human problems," rather it's serious human problems are also musical), where Bob Fosse rethinks the genre, however, Bergman shamelessly employs the supposed existing knowledge of his audience to make the film the most smeared with prophecies of the past in a long time. So much so that you begin to wonder how far back we need to go into German history (Bismark? Luther? Otho the Great?) to leave the "rise of Nazism" zone. It‚s an exhausting exercise (as the pathetic nostalgia pieces by Cavani on Nietzsche and Russell on Mahler already demonstrated).

These prophecies of the past pervade the film. We witness the hero, Abel Rosenberg, a complete outsider (American in Germany, Jewish, from a family of performers, and an alcoholic), achieving a sort of radical otherness that turns him - in the voice-over accompanying the final shot - into a sort of wandering Jew. Everything that happens to Rosenberg has a double significance: nothing can happen to me / I knew and have always known that something would happen to me. His alcoholism allows for a different turn of the screw: has this already happened to me or should I continue to be afraid? Witness the scene in which he is questioned by policemen and is suddenly "hit" with the idea that he is accused of all these crimes because he is Jewish, and in which the violence of his own reaction and his headlong flight into a (self-made) trap function as if to say "I know it, but still."

The viewer sits there, knowing very well where the film is taking him (the rise of Nazism), but the film maker (the Master) forces him to rediscover his supposed existing knowledge through a series of unfortunate encounters (cutting up the horse, ransacking the nightclub) at moments when, we might say, his attention wavered a bit and his defenses were lowered. For Abel Rosenberg and for the viewer fear (fear of being taken by surprise by what we already know, fear of being afraid) becomes the motor of the film, making us flee forward, toward a revolting but well-known end, an apocalypse tolerated as long as it absorbs the traumatic moments in an adequately executed work of fiction.

We should see The Serpent's Egg as a kind of retro-ideological serial, which could be a genre for the future. In a serial, the main stake is always a secret heavy with repercussions, kept inside individual bodies or containers. The great serials echoed the fears of their period (Lang of course, but also Gance or Feuillade). They couldn't step back and observe from a distance. Bergman, forty years after the fact, is no longer concerned with secrets but with parading various idées reçues on the rise of Nazism (everything that corresponds to the hideous word ideologem, or discreet signs of ideology). But it is the serial aspect that forms the most successful and surprising part of the film (the final confrontation between Rosenberg and Vergerus, the film screenings, the cyanide, etc.) in as far as the biographical (Vergerus and Rosenberg are childhood friends), sentimental (Vergerus loves Rosenberg), and political (Vergerus the crazed scientist as a future Mengele) intricacies make up a body.

The entirely reactive Serpent's Egg is left-wing anti-fiction. The investigation, the will to solve the mystery is not driven by a hunger for truth, or by the desire to denounce and have clarity of vision, but by fear. The taciturn Abel Rosenberg, whose near-muteness sees him taking on the role of relay, doesn‚t seek the truth (which he has known all along) but his truth, which is to come face to face with filth and enjoy the spectacle. This is how he becomes attracted to Vergerus‚ film screenings, where he can watch himself for a pittance. Poetic art according to Bergman: there's only one point to showing and that is to create fear.

Which is precisely what the policeman played by Gert Froebe alludes to in a scene in which he tells Rosenberg that it is fear that makes him a meticulous cop. Basically, he argues, if everyone keeps doing their daily jobs diligently, we might avoid the worst. Not by confronting it, but by retreating and thinking about it, in other words to fear and, who knows, overcome it. A film on the active nature of fear. As a form of resistance, it doesn't amount to very much.

Cahiers du cinema, issue 285, February 1978. Translated by Tom Mes.