The Serpent's Egg (film)

The Serpent's Egg is a 1977 American-West German drama film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring David Carradine and Liv Ullmann. The story is set in 1920s Berlin and features English and German dialogue. It was Bergman's only Hollywood film. The title is taken from a line spoken by Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: And therefore think him as a serpent's egg / Which hatch'd, would, as his kind grow mischievous; / And kill him in the shell. Even though the film was a critical and commercial failure upon its initial release, Bergman was reported to be happy with the film.[1]

The Serpent's Egg
Directed byIngmar Bergman
Produced byDino De Laurentiis
Written byIngmar Bergman
StarringDavid Carradine
Isolde Barth
Heinz Bennent
Toni Berger
Christian Berkel
Liv Ullmann
CinematographySven Nykvist
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • 28 October 1977 (1977-10-28)
Running time
120 min.
CountryUnited States
West Germany


The scene is Berlin in late 1923. Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an American-born Jew, is an unemployed alcoholic and former trapeze artist who uses alcohol to help him deal with the horrific nature and uncertainties of life in post-war Germany, poverty and inflation having crippled the German economy at the time. He returns home one night to discover that his brother Max has committed suicide. Abel meets up with his old boss who gives him some money in an attempt to persuade him back to his now successful circus. Abel realizes he will not be as good as he was with his brother and so declines but his boss allows him to keep the money anyway. The Jewish community is being portrayed in the media as a drain on society; despite being a Jew himself, Abel has little sympathy for anyone, Jewish or otherwise, who gets themselves into trouble for "acting stupid". He goes to see his brother's wife Manuela (Liv Ullmann) to break the news of Max's death to her. She asks what triggered Max's suicide, but Abel is unable to provide a solid answer. The only sentence in Max's suicide note Abel can make out reads: "There's poisoning going on".

In an attempt to drown his sorrow Abel goes on a drinking binge which lingers into the early hours and spends the night at Manuela's house. The next morning the two discuss possible new career paths Abel could look into. After Manuela leaves for work Abel steals from her in order to buy alcohol. He is later taken by police to the mortuary in order to identify a series of bodies, the first of which turns out to be that of Gretha Hofer, his brother's former fiancée who died by drowning. He is also shown the body of another man who was murdered by a lethal injection; he does not know the man but comments that he looks remarkably like his deceased father. Next he is shown the body of an old lady whom Abel identifies as a woman who used to deliver papers to his village, who he is told committed suicide. Finally he is shown the body of a young boy who was killed after being hit by a truck, but does not recognize him either. Abel asks why he is being shown all of these horrific bodies and is told that all of the mysterious deaths happened within the vicinity of his home. He is told that he will have to remain in police custody until they are convinced of his innocence. Convinced that he is being set up due to his Jewish heritage he tries to escape the police station, but is quickly recaptured.

Manuela visits Abel in hospital where she informs him that all her money is gone but Abel does not confess. Abel is released due to lack of evidence and returns home with Manuela. However, on returning home Manuela is told by her landlady that Abel must leave because he and Manuela aren't married which the authorities do not approve of, so Manuela decides to leave with Abel. As they prepare to leave, Manuela confesses to Abel that she actually works as a prostitute and merely made up her office job out of shame.

November arrives and Germany has become ever more fearful that a bloody confrontation between extremist parties could soon plummet the country into another war. Abel and Manuela have found residence in another apartment on the outskirts of town. Manuela leaves for work one morning but Abel secretly follows her, discovering that she has actually been going to church. She confides in the priest that she feels responsible for her husband's death and is struggling to maintain her new life with Abel as the two have become consumed by fear.

That evening Abel discovers that Manuela acquired their new apartment by providing sexual favours to the owner of the brothel where she works. He is initially disgusted and decides to leave and find his own place to live, but he soon returns and shares a passionate kiss with Manuela. One night while Abel and Manuela are enjoying a drink in the brothel and enjoying the cabaret, the brothel is over-run by soldiers who beat the owner to death before burning the building to the ground.

Abel manages to secure himself a new job working as a clerk in a hospital, assisting with the archiving of patient cards while Manuela gains employment at the hospital clinic. They are also given an apartment surrounded by many derelict or empty buildings. One night Abel is alerted to files containing detailed reports of graphic and inhumane experiments conducted on patients at the hospital throughout the years. Suddenly Abel becomes even more fearful and paranoid, to the point where he won't even allow Manuela to touch him, and she herself starts to suffer from extreme mood swings. Abel gets drunk at a local bar and on his way home vandalizes a bakery and gets into a fight with the baker and his wife, but immediately has no recollection of why he did so. He is found in the street by a prostitute who convinces him to have sex with her. They enter the brothel already occupied by another prostitute and an African-American man. The man was hysterically ranting about the prostitute he was sitting with on the bed with spreading rumors of him being homosexual and that he would easily have sex with the prostitute that Abel had walked in with at any moment but not the other. Abel propositions that he have sex with her for money, which he attempts to but cannot maintain his erection. Abel then begins to have sex with the prostitute who had mocked the man and struck her to make her stop laughing.

Abel returns home to find Manuela dead on the kitchen floor and that the whole apartment is littered with cameras. He flees the scene and soon finds himself in a mysterious, seemingly abandoned industrial building. Eventually he is discovered by an unknown attacker and the two fight in an elevator which Abel uses to cut off his attacker's head.

He returns to the hospital and confronts the doctor about the inhumane experiments carried out at the hospital. This time Abel is shown footage of the horrific experiments which includes a woman left in a room for 36 hours with a brain-damaged baby who will not stop crying, to the point where the woman was driven insane and smothered the baby. The doctor claims that all of the subjects of these experiments were volunteers who he states "would do anything for a little money and a warm meal". Abel is then shown footage of a young man injected with a serum that drove him mad within the space of a few minutes, the effects of the drug wore off but the man committed suicide a few days later nonetheless. It is then revealed that Abel's brother Max was an assistant who was very interested by the experiments and against the objections of the doctor he opted to inject himself with the serum which later triggered his own suicide. Abel is shown a video in which a man and a woman living in the same apartment he and Manuela inhabited driven into a frenzy due to an odorless and frequently administered gas which caused an array of extreme mood swings. He also states that it was not his intention to subject them to any detrimental experiments, as the buildings connected to the apartment had already been vacated. He was sincerely trying to help them and was fond of Manuela. As the police arrive on the scene and attempt to enter the laboratory, the doctor swallows a cyanide capsule and states that Germany is in need of a revolution that ordinary people are too weak to carry out and that these experiments will benefit mankind in the long run, before dying.

Abel is later shown recovering from his ordeal in a psychiatric ward. The chief of police arrives to tell him that the circus have offered him his old job back and forces him to accept the offer to begin right away. He also mentions that the Nazi party's latest attempt to seize power has failed.

In the film's closing moment a voice-over reveals that Abel escaped from police custody on the way to the train station and was never seen again.



Elliott Gould claimed Bergman wrote the lead role for him, but that producer Dino De Laurentiis overruled this; David Carradine was cast instead.[2]

The film was released one year after Ingmar Bergman left Sweden for Germany, following a tax evasion charge.[3]


The Serpent's Egg opened to mostly negative reviews from critics. In the Chicago Reader Dave Kehr opined that Bergman "comes very close to camp", and argued that the suffering throughout the work "has no shape or substance, apart from pointing out that Nazis and their progenitors were not nice people."[4] Roger Ebert likewise wrote that "there is no form, no pattern, and when Bergman tries to impose one by artsy pseudo-newsreel footage and a solemn narration, he reminds us only of the times he has used both better."[3] The film currently holds a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes from 17 reviews.[5]


  1. Ullmann, Liv (27 April 2004), Interview in The Ingmar Bergman Collection DVD, MGM, retrieved 22 October 2019
  2. "At the Movies: Elliot Gould Speaks Well Of 'Silent Partner'". Flatley, Guy; The New York Times, 2 September 1977: 50.
  3. Ebert, Roger (1 January 1978). "The Serpent's Egg Movie Review & Film Summary (1978)". Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  4. Kehr, Dave. "The Serpent's Egg". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  5. "The Serpent's Egg (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
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