Dr. Larson is assistant professor of English and director of composition at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 7-14, 1978, pp. 615-619. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
It is artistic imaginations that can conceive, bring to birth, more intricately detailed human figures, which can give us what we most need now — a conviction of our capacity for life that is textured richly enough to disclose our creaturehood as both problem and promise.
THE SERPENT’S EGG -- the film Ingmar Bergman has been making in Germany since his self-imposed exile from Sweden -- takes as its penetrating metaphor for evil a conspiracy of poisoners in the Weimar Republic. It is 1923: inside Berlin’s familiarly seedy cabarets, where feverish jazz flares up and expires, the dancers’ wigs are tinted gangrene. Outside in the dirty rain, fear rises from the slick cobblestones of the Albertstrasse like a contaminating incense. Fear is this film’s ambience: in the smoky half-light, streets wind into cul-de-sacs where anonymous figures, stuffing shapeless bags, rush furtively away; departing citizens draw their own laden carts through the dismal urban dawn; blood from slaughtered drayhorses seeps steaming into the streets.
The times are harsh: a pack of cigarettes costs 13 million marks; there is no milk; there is scarcely any food. In this apocalyptic postwar landscape, we are warned, fear and despair will one day rise to fury and "this world will go down in blood and fire." Water would equally suffice: the rain’s persistent monotone portends the Deluge to come. At intervals a documentary voice counts down seven days toward November 11, 1923, and the film’s anticlimax in the distant background -- Hitler’s premature Putsch in Munich -- while in the foreground all the arks of refuge are sinking.
Into his historical frame, Bergman puts two fragile characters: Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an American Jew adrift in Berlin and a trapeze artist out of work because his brother and partner Max has broken his wrist; and Manuela (Liv Ullmann), Abel’s sister-in-law, now estranged from her husband, who dances in the cabaret Zum Blauen Esel and hustles enough on the side to survive rather better than most. The story of Abel and Manuela, refugees from the circus who are thrown together after Max commits suicide in the opening scene, is cursed from its genesis.
Accelerating Bergman’s movement away from identifiable film genres, Serpent’s Egg (in color and in English) is an omnium-gatherum of detective thriller, documentary, gothic science fiction, political tract, psychiatric case study, and postwar romance. But it is not a story of love among the ruins, not even of ruined lovers among the ruins. For Abel and Manuela, whatever Bergman’s intention, are not wholly rounded characters in whose gradual disintegration we might trace the effects of "poisoning." Nor do they have a "story": their narrative line curves steadily downward, a mere slope for successive collapses.
While the secret drug experiments in a second plot permit Bergman to pursue his interest in deranged states, he has not in Serpent’s Egg imagined provocatively detailed psyches like those in Persona or even Scenes from a Marriage. Given what Bergman’s devotees have lately come to expect and what this newest, puzzling film fails to deliver, it is no surprise that many critics have found its limited emotional range finally banal. If this be the true estimate, the reasons for Bergman’s failure may lie deeper than a mistaken aesthetic choice to thin the psychological matrix in order to thicken the political soup in which his two protagonists find themselves in the Berlin of 1923.
It is also true, however, that Bergman-in-exile really is up to something new. The genesis of Nazi Germany in the 1920s is Bergman’s historical occasion for projecting the violent political consequences of mass dread for our own time. The Serpent’s Egg is a scarifying sermon on evil’s birth in our century, but more than this it is a metaphysical nightmare about the abyss of guilt engulfing us all since the history of human lapses began. For better or worse, Bergman has rewritten Genesis: the fall and flood narratives and the familiar Cain-and-Abel theme he reworks with a vengeance that aspires to the divine.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth. . . . And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground . . . for I am sorry that I have made them" [Gen. 6:7].
We’ll close earlier tonight and shorten the program. It’s useless staying open. I’ve never seen anything like this rain. Maybe it’s the Flood. Cheers, Herr Rosenberg [Solomon, cabaret owner in The Serpent’s Egg].
When Bergman’s Cain (the trapeze artist Max) "kills" his brother Abel, we witness no straightforward tale of fratricide avenged by the Lord. First of all, in the brutal opening scene, Cain-Max has blasted his own brains to a rosy pulp in the shabby room he shares with Abel. But Max’s shocking self-murder also hastens the last stages of his brother’s moral dying. In Bergman’s version it is Abel who must live with the consequences of Cain’s crime, and Abel for whom spiritual death-in-life means exile from his own recognizable humanity.
From the moment he sees what his brother has done, Abel Rosenberg’s countenance falls (Gen. 4:5) -- and continues to fall lower and lower still as the film rolls relentlessly on. Every sunken line in the ravaged, boyish face of David Carradine incarnates Cain’s cry to the Lord: "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Gen. 4:13). As though he is singled out with the mark of Cain ("lest any who came upon him should kill him" [Gen. 4:15]), Abel miraculously survives blood-curdling threats to his physical person. Perversely he is "saved" not to be redeemed, but to exist as the guilty but impotent witness to the satanic forces that rise all around and within him. Clearly Bergman’s Abel has become Cain: "You’re your brother’s brother," says Manuela, "and no mistake"
What this identifying of the victim with the murderer first of all brings home is the unholy alliance of innocence and guilt -- a theme relentlessly pressed upon the viewer of Serpent’s Egg, no matter which character one looks to for some definitively redeeming grace note of courage, humane intelligence, compassion or simple kindness. A passive wanderer and finally a fugitive, Abel at first has committed no specific crime except the waste of his life in economically hard times that have conspired against him. But the crimes he comes to commit (theft, assault, a partly accidental murder in self-defense) unfold the existential guilt in which Abel has been implicated all along, a "misconstruction" like all his brothers. In Abel’s somnambulism there is an implied sadomasochistic brutality, and when his suppressed violence breaks out against Manuela, an old couple, a whore, an elderly archivist and himself, we see even in this baby-faced victim the archetypal aggressor. Abel too, his "brother’s brother," is direct heir of his father Adam’s fall.
Manuela is also an exemplum in Bergman’s stern sermon on the death of innocence. A whore who compromises her profession with tenderness, and taints tenderness with self-interest, Manuela nonetheless bears the "good" Liv Ullmann face through all her troubles and transgressions. At first she seems to offer the forlorn Abel a place if not of salvation then of refuge -- a nest crammed with Victorian bric-a-brac. But here, more ruthlessly than in Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman exposes the archetype of the maternal figure who would save, who retains an instinctive wisdom from the paradise lost. Manuela does make an effort to save Abel, but she is clearly also the devil’s gateway into false reassurances, an advocate of a treacherous personalism when the world outside is falling down. "We have all we need," she insists, yet she slips off to morning mass, unable to comfort her soul for Max’s death. Here she tells the priest Games Whitmore) that her guilt Is a ‘funny feeling. I don’t understand it; I’ve never felt it before. You’re responsible for someone and you fail in your duty, and there you stand, empty-handed and ashamed, going over and over in your mind what you should have done"
Marooned with Abel in this swamp of existential guilt, Manuela-Eve has also become, quite literally if indirectly, an agent of poisoning. The secret lover whose money and influence are keeping her alive -- a demonic scientist named Hans Vergérus (Heinz Bennent) -- induces her to tempt Abel into a new love nest which, unknown to both, is rigged for an outrageous experiment on human subjects. Here their ragged relationship is observed from behind one-way mirrors, while an odorless gas oozes into the room, causing them alternately to assault and to embrace one another. (What the minors reflect is that the essential narcissism of these two people, like others we glimpse in the Berlin world, has concealed the dangers that encompass them.) Here Manuela mysteriously sickens, her nausea equally the mark of the accomplice and of the victim.
Beyond the yoking of these Cain and Abel roles, Manuela’s remark "You’re your brother’s brother" bears another set of implications. The seemingly random events that befall Abel after his brother’s suicide are thematically coherent: they press home the moral that he is his brother’s keeper. Sven Nykvist’s camera pursues Abel Rosenberg as God pursued Cain, exposing the pretense that he does not know where his brother is. "I tried to keep an eye on him," he tells Manuela lamely, but he admits he "didn’t see much of [Max] these last weeks." He recalls a recent fight over a mistreated prostitute they had shared: "Then he started quarreling and got rough with her. At last I had to give him a thrashing. Then he began to scream like a small child. I didn’t hit him very hard," Abel explains. "I had to think of his bad wrist" This minimal brother-love congeals strangely after Max’s death. Instead of redeeming himself by becoming his sister-in-law’s keeper -- as her landlady and surrogate mother pleads with him to do -- Abel steals Manuela’s savings and squanders them on booze, a purchasable oblivion.
Broadening the brother-keeping theme, Inspector Bauer in an early bizarre scene collars Abel and takes him down to the reeking morgue, where inexplicably he is asked to identify body after mutilated body -- each corpse increasingly distant from his acquaintance. "‘Why are you showing me all this?" Abel at last bursts out. "But surely you don’t suspect me?" Seven mysterious deaths have occurred in his vicinity in the past month; and although Abel is no coldblooded killer, this news afterward works on his imagination while he is unaccountably, but not forcibly, detained in the inspector’s office. In these ambiguously threatening circumstances Abel suddenly leaps for "escape" -- a desperate act that lands him in jail.
That Abel is his brother’s brother makes him both the classic guilty bystander and the next victim. One night passively watching some young thugs in Neues Vaterland uniforms bludgeon a Jewish couple in the street, Abel is suddenly terrified to see that they have turned, smiling with truncheons ready, to advance on him. (Later in a drunken fury he re-enacts this scene in the dual character of aggressor-victim.) More than once the blood of other victims spatters Abel in the eyes or chest, yet he does nothing -- nor does he turn away his face.
Near the end of the film Abel hurls into action to expose the cause of Manuela’s death. But it is too late to halt the forces that propel their drama from behind the scenes. Trapped in an inner sanctum with the scientist whose drugs brought on Max’s suicide, Abel the outsider has at last become the insider, a reluctant and speechless witness. Standing next to Dr. Vergérus in the assistant’s post his brother had occupied, Abel stares at a documentary on the secret experiments at the St. Anna Klinik; and as the film "coils out like a yellowish snake," torturing Abel with its teaching of evil, astonishingly his dark features compose themselves into a horror-struck version of the doctor’s bloodless Aryan countenance.
From the start to this surprising climax and beyond it, what is thematically resonant about the continuing camera focus on David Carradine’s face is that we are forced to see Abel seeing, Abel the witness whose knowledge of evil marks him guilty. We, too, must stand passively by as Vergérus’s movie projector symbolically gives birth to evil, exhibiting atrocity as "art" -- a fact about the film within the film that is weighted with moral implications also for the maker of Serpent’s Egg.
So what does Inspector Bauer do in the midst of his own fear and other people’s horror? What does one do in a nightmare that happens to be real? Inspector Bauer attends to work. He tries to create a little patch of order and reason in the midst of a chaos of hopeless dissolution [Inspector Bauer to Abel].
Although more explicitly in the published screenplay, the film works with an invidious motif of Jewish self-hatred, Bergman’s metaphor for the self-alienation that sets brother against brother. But more than a racial type, Abel Rosenberg is an artist manqué who is detached from human suffering though he suffers, in vain trying to impose a pattern on the world’s chaos. In different ways all the film’s important characters are failed aesthetes -- as, indeed, was young Hitler himself. Bergman’s savaging of the irresponsible artist is perfectly appropriate in this documentary of Nazi genesis, but it also reflects bitterly on personal things past.
In the early ‘30s Bergman had lived as an exchange student with a German pastor’s family whose son belonged to a Nazi youth organization and took his Swedish friend to "stylish" rallies that climaxed in ecstasy at Wagnerian opera. In Bergman’s words, he returned to Sweden from this period of adolescent indoctrination "a little pro-Hitler fanatic" (He particularly recalls the headline "Poisoned by the Jews" -- a slogan much played upon in Serpent’s Egg.) Later when Germany was going under and pictures of the camps came out, a "kind of despair" took hold of him -- bitterness toward his father, brother and teachers, blended with guilt and self-contempt. For 20 years after, he claims, he did not vote or read a single political article. "I’m an artist," he told himself: "I belong to the world."
Bergman’s recent troubles with Sweden’s monolithic tax bureaucracy seem to have reminded him that the world he belongs to is very much a political place. In earlier works Bergman had not ignored the political, but in Serpent’s Egg he spreads before us a most ambitious cinematic tapestry in which politics and the aesthetic impulse are interwoven with the world’s woe.
Thus when a friend reads aloud a November 1923 newspaper item about a "Jewish terrorist pact" to prowl about the country and butcher "honest citizens," Bergman’s brother-artist and fellow cosmopole Abel is neither alarmed nor outraged. "What you say is interesting. But frankly, I couldn’t care less. I swing on my trapeze, I eat, sleep, and fuck," says this contemporary heir of primitive man, tossing down schnapps. "I don’t believe all that political bunkum," he goes on, only to give voice to it. "The Jews are as stupid as everyone else. If a Jew gets into trouble it’s his own fault. I’m not going to be stupid, even if I am a Jew. So I won’t get into trouble." Despite his early declaration of independence, Abel does get into scrapes which partly he brings on himself -- precisely because this former circus artist is still cultivating noninvolvement, now blotting out the rest of the world with alcohol.
Like Manuela’s nest crammed with "everything we need," the circus is portrayed as a false refuge -- both for Abel the "clever little acrobat" needing a secure job and for the audiences that swell the tent. The circus might have been the symbol of a primitive world that Abel needs to get back to. But because Bergman’s circus owner makes it brutally clear that his enterprise thrives on the despair of postwar Europe, the alternative world of magic tricks, clowning and acrobatics cannot be trusted to defy the universal gravity of everyone’s plight.
If the artist is one who rearranges the world to suit his or her pleasure, the film also suggests that the creation of art can be a form of prostitution -- the work a whorehouse where "it’s warm" and "you can have it any way you want" (a streetwalker’s plea to Abel), and the artist a whore who merely performs the procreative act, in deliberated contempt of human feeling. The link between prostitution and the circus is made by the cabaret, a border territory of artistic perversions and couplings impersonated as theater.
When a band of stormtroopers crashes onto the stage of Zum Blauen Esel yelling anti-Semitic slogans, the crowd of terrified artist-degenerates only watches as the Jewish owner’s face is smashed, methodically, to a grotesque pulp. As they leave, the Nazi hoodlums make their own sign of the apocalypse by setting ablaze the sign of the Blue Ass at the door. Their "act" is utterly nauseating, but at the same time it is impossible to disagree with them that such art as Zum Blauen Esel represents is poisonous in the Germany of 1923.
Like the circus and the cabaret, Nazi method is also perverse artistry and a form of refuge predicated on the evil from which it would deliver the times. Even the solid Social Democrat Inspector Bauer is very much a product of this Nazi-nurturing milieu he so deplores. Diligently he works to unravel his murder mystery, creating "a little patch of order and reason" for his own sake. But Bauer’s old-fashioned modes of sense-making are not that far removed after all from the avant-garde experiments of his antagonist at the St. Anna Klinik. The scientist Vergérus also imposes an aesthetic pattern in his self-appointed role as Divine Artificer, creator not of an idyllic "patch" but of a whole new society "unequaled in world history." Yet the chaos erupts: none of these figures of the artist can have things any way they want,
Anyone who makes the slightest effort can see what is waiting in there in the future. It’s like a serpent’s egg. Through the thin membranes you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.
The sermon text for Serpent’s Egg comes at the film’s climax from Vergérus, the epitome but not the sum of all the evil we have seen. What is most disturbing about the title image, however brilliantly ironic, is that it points to the kind of failure in moral imagination this film represents.
Vergérus’s rhetoric of absolute certainty -- that his conspiracy for humankind’s future is assured -- is an analogue for the insistent cinematic language through which Bergman pronounces his own assurance of our doom. The one is grounded in radically misguided hope, the other in determined hopelessness, but they come to much the same thing: both are victims of their own "conspiracy thinking," an aesthetic attitude only in that it imposes a total -- not to say totalitarian -- pattern. Another aesthetic in another film might have evoked through pattern and texture a sense of mysterious complexity in human affairs, intimately persuading us of our paradoxical potency for evil and for good. But this sense of mystery at the center of art is missing from Serpent’s Egg.
Certainly the film is abundant in mystifying visual and plot details, and through it all leers the riddle of evil that begets only. itself (which came first, the serpent or the egg?). What is so simplistically certain in the film is Bergman’s conviction -- one might almost call it a faith -- that "man is an abyss" (the epigraph from Georg Büchner) and that the abyss is all, Peering into it, Bergman has clearly discerned the already perfect reptile -- and it is that reductive vision, in all its expanding horror, that ineluctably shapes the film’s formal pattern; its visual repetitions in the gothic nightmare collage, its narrative tautologies, and its minimally human characterizations.
Thus the conspiratorial surface of things -- hidden engines ominously vibrating the walls, Kafkaesque stairways shooting off on giddy diagonals, passages winding labyrinthine through the bowels of buildings, elevator shafts gaping beyond the familiar enclosed world of office and boudoir -- all this is confirmed by the slowly closing steel trap of the narrative. And even when Inspector Bauer resolves the conspiracy plot, beyond his neat conclusion stretches the masterplot of human guilt. Abel Rosenberg’s random crimes, like the rational murders at the heart of the detective thriller, provide the perfect set of corollary proofs for this vaster conspiracy. Just as in the Genesis account no motive is given for the archetypal crime except Yahweh’s capricious disregard for Cain’s offering, so in the film the universal indifference seems to goad Abel to his criminal acts and deceits. No humane and honest response to the cosmic vacuum is conceivable, or capable of being sustained.
In the unrealized psychological portraits of Serpent’s Egg, a kind of conspiracy thinking also impoverishes the imagining of experience. The Marianne and Johan of Scenes from a Marriage were at least endowed with tenacious tenderness despite their brutality. Through all their absurdities -- at times disarmingly zany -- we saw two real people longing (and sometimes lunging) for authentic life, Like other Bergman characters, they were redeemed by the immanence of their own detailed humanity. In Serpent’s Egg we wait almost breathlessly for Abel and Manuela to disclose the texture of their inner lives, but the miracle of realization -- which would have evoked the sympathy we are ready to give -- never comes off. In these vacant characterizations, it seems that their creator is determined to obliterate the last. refuge, human nature itself, from the earth’s face.
What the film successfully presents through the transparent membrane of these lives is a shape more terrifying than psychic ruin: the serpent on the brink of birth. But the evil Bergman dreads is inevitable if lives are this transparent, this bereft of language and a future. And what, after all, does the impending catastrophe matter if people really are as lifeless as the Abel and Manuela of this film? The way that Bergman has ordered -- and failed to texture -- his cinematic world does little to counter the Vergérus theory that "man is a misconstruction" Bergman’s relentless punishment of humankind for its piteous inadequacy is finally more than we can bear, for his specimens offer so much less than what we are capable of caring about.
Tomorrow the abyss will open and everything will vanish in a final catastrophe, So why bother about a few paltry deaths? [Abel to Inspector Bauer].
In The Rebel Albert Camus located the genesis of despotic and apocalyptic ideologies of the West in the romantic quest for totality, an extremism that willingly yields up human happiness in the present to an abstract conception of the future. In the 20th century Camus saw this romantic hubris take one form in the Nazi reign of irrational terror, inaugurated in the name of German idealisms. "A savior is born," says one of the Nazi apologists in Serpent’s Egg. "but the delivery is taking place through pain and blood. A terrible time is at hand, but what is 30 or 40 years of suffering and death?" Like Vergérus, this littler man’s commitment to intemperate absolutes urges him, in Camus’ words, to justify the assassins of justice. But there is no moral distance between his utter faith in the future and the nihilism of Abel Rosenberg, the futureless man who also seems to care little about "a few paltry deaths." If the messianism both Bergman and Camus abhor leads to monstrous violence, so does the sort of absolutist nihilism that saturates Serpent’s Egg, a film so gory with corpses that one soon becomes deadened to it all.
A big thinker with an impoverished moral imagination, Vergérus has set up his experiments to confirm a preconception about the depths of evil to which people can be driven -- but by the scientists themselves, the men behind the cameras who document the experimental world they have made. Bergman’s cinematic experiment seems likewise tautological, his set rigged against the puppets whose jerking impersonations of humanity "prove" how abysmally dark things are. But the intemperate absolute they are invented to serve is poisonous for those among the film-viewing crowd who are becoming more and more accustomed to the abysmal dark. As Sartre has suggested, for the bourgeois theater audience the fatalistic version of human nature is ultimately reactionary: it provides the perfect pretext for preserving the way we live now.
In Serpent’s Egg Bergman has dismantled many a refuge, only to contrive a film world whose fatalistic pattern is in itself an escape, a magic act ("tomorrow everything . . . will vanish"). Hopelessness can also be a place of retreat from the agonizing possibility that life’s enigma has more than evil at its heart, and that whatever is "more" exists nowhere in this world as unfettered romantic possibility, but comes enfleshed in finitude. In Camus’s novel The Plague, when Dr. Rieux offers the judgment that "there are more things to admire in men than to despise," he risks an act of moral temperance, the intelligent and compassionate weighing of human nature. We do not have to come up with Rieux’s balance to see that this art of measure which novelists and filmmakers can teach us -- ascertaining the weights of finite things with patience and humility, and rendering them as precisely as possible in words, images and actions -- can open up the world as an arena for limited freedom, for solidarity and for occasional feats of imaginative transcendence.
The mystery which Bergman has left out of his revised Genesis is the enigma of Noah, the heroic survivor saved to ensure the rebirth of the race despite the Divine longing to blot out all misconstructed creation. The alternative ‘to conspiracy thinking, however, is not any of the modern varieties of "possibility thinking" that rouge the prospect with rainbows as though serious engagement with human problems did not also force upon us the honor of the demonic portrayed so compellingly in Bergman’s films.
Rather than either of these extremities of vision by themselves, it is artistic imaginations that can conceive, bring to birth, more intricately detailed human figures, which can give us what we most need now -- a conviction of our capacity for life that is textured richly enough to disclose our creaturehood as both problem and promise -- simul justus et peccatur. Whether their works are explicitly religious or militantly not so, modern artists can through the fullness of their fictions offer persuasive evidence for the mystery which Christians apprehend through the pattern of a story, a paradoxical action: that falling, even plummeting, we are caught by grace.