"The newspapers are black with fear, threats and rumours. The government seems powerless. A bloody confrontation between the extremist parties appears unavoidable. Despite all this, people go to work, the rain never stops and fear rises like vapour from the cobblestones". These phrases, said by an unknown narrator, are a clear description of the dark mood that permeates this film.
The main character is Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine), an American circus artist who is stranded in Berlin along with his brother Max and Max's former wife Manuela (Liv Ullman), due to an injury that rendered Max unable to perform their trapeze act. Things deteriorate as they run out of money, as the general situation for all those living in Germany worsens too. It is the 1920's, and the whole country suffered from inflation, unemployment, and periodic outbursts of Anti-Jewish sentiment. Berlin wasn't a good place to live for anybody at that time, but the situation for the Rosenbergs was even worse, because they were poor, unemployed, Jewish and foreigners.
"The serpent's egg" (1977) begins with Max committing suicide, as an act of utmost desperation. After that, Abel is left with Manuela as his only ally in a place that steadily becomes fulls of omens presaging misfortune. To endure the mere fact of being alive when his brother is not, Abel gets drunk every day. The irreality that alcohol offers offers him is the only way of fighting fear, fear of what is happening in Berlin, and of what he sees looming in the horizon. In Abel's words, "I wake up from a nightmare, and find that real life is worse than the dream".
Evidently, Abel Rosenberg is an unlikely main protagonist, because he doesn't do much, merely existing in an unfriendly environment, taking in all that is happening without doing anything to change it. But maybe that is the task that the director, Ingmar Bergman, gave to him: to act as an eyewitness of times to come.
Near the end of the movie, we get an explanation regarding the title of this film. One of the secondary characters, a crazy scientist bent on experimenting on human beings, says that "... anybody who makes the slightest effort can see what is waiting in the future. It's like a serpent's egg: through the thin membranes, you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile". I think that Bergman tried to point out that the germs of Nazism were already in place long before Hitler seized power. The serpent's egg was there, and nobody tried to destroy it.
On the whole, I heartily recommend this movie. It is certainly gloomy, and doesn't get better near the end. Nonetheless, it is a masterpiece, because through a simple story, dark colours, metaphors, and flawless performances the director managed to convey what the mood of 1920's Berlin might have been like, and the kind of situation that can pave the way for a totalitarianism. After watching "The serpent's egg" you won't feel like singing, but you will certainly feel like thinking...