Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg: Foreign Tongues

<em>The Touch </em>and <em>The Serpent’s Egg: </em>Foreign Tongues

Why didn’t Ingmar Bergman do drugs? Because, he said, “it’s enough as it is for me.” It was the same reason he didn’t go abroad: “It’s too much impressions always.” 

That was Bergman in 1971, speaking in English to a nervous and awed Dick Cavett, who, minutes earlier, had flubbed his introduction, calling The Seventh Seal “The Seventh Veil” (in his defense, a not unlikely Bergman title). Bergman, himself relaxed in a brown cardigan, was promoting his first English-language feature, The Touch, largely set and shot, like most of his movies up until then, in Sweden. At this point, he had not even visited America; Cavett flew to Stockholm to interview the master.

Five years later, much had changed. In January 1976, two plainclothes policemen arrested Bergman during a rehearsal at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, on charges of tax evasion. Bergman suffered a nervous breakdown. Though the charges were later dropped, he exiled himself to Munich and began making another English-language film: the jarring and tormented yet compelling failure known as The Serpent’s Egg (1977)—the first Bergman movie shot entirely abroad, as well as the only one made for Hollywood. 

The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg remain Bergman’s only two English-language films. They were also both maligned by critics upon their release, and both make reference to the Holocaust. But it is in their very different deployment of setting that the two films reveal the most about Bergman the artist. Whereas The Touch reminds us how much the director can achieve with how little, The Serpent’s Egg is overwhelmed by the foreign “impressions” he so disliked.

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