The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg: Foreign Tongues

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg: Foreign Tongues

On Film / Essays — Nov 9, 2018


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.

The Touch centers on a volatile affair in an unnamed Swedish hamlet. David (Elliott Gould), a troubled American Jewish archaeologist, has come to Sweden to work on a dig at an ancient church; a kindly doctor named Andreas (Max von Sydow) invites him to his house for supper. David immediately sets about seducing Andreas’s enchanting wife, Karin (Bibi Andersson)—and succeeds in initiating an affair that will last two years and buckle the doctor’s marriage and the sanity of both of the affair’s participants.

Common enough in Bergman’s universe, but Bergman does not tell the story straight: the underlying facts, such as the revelation that Andreas met David when he treated him after a suicide attempt, come to us late, so that we always feel we are swimming in a murk of indecipherable expressions and behaviors. All we know at the outset, for example, is that David is troubled and explosive; his confession of love to Karin, while Andreas is in the next room, is so bold as to seem nearly insane. Later, after the stormy affair has leveled off somewhat, we learn that David lost his extended family in the Holocaust, though he, his mother, and his sister escaped Germany for the U.S. when he was four. But Bergman, the Mozart of ambiguity, never draws a straight line between David’s sexually violent side and the historical atrocity; it is up to us to infer. Rather, we receive David as a new lover would, as a force of nature—a dark-haired, lumbering, hirsute, and even demonic American who has barged into a serene blond universe.

And what a universe it is! Bergman codes the interior of Karin’s home in burnt oranges and tans and furnishes it in the mid-century-modern style that hipsters today worship. When Karin vacuums and stows away laundry in her bright house, the filmmaker throws in a hilarious ad jingle to italicize the moment—a wink, perhaps, to the fact that he first met Andersson while filming a soap commercial.

“Bergman was not, as I had heard, a dour filmmaker; rather, his work was attuned to the comic overturnings and ironies of passion.”

Andersson is magnificent as the reactive but passionate Karin—a woman who, we feel, gets drawn into the affair because, after fifteen years of marriage and two kids, she is charmed by being seen in a new way. “I’m not a very experienced mistress,” she tells David the first time she pays a visit to his Dostoyevskian bachelor pad in town. Like her behavior, her accented English is tentative—you feel that Karin is making a new self for herself in this new language. Minutes before, when they sit side by side on a hideous green rexine sofa, she watches David’s hands shake as he pours sherry. “You nervous, David?” she asks. “Yes, I’m nervous; my pulse must be 690. Aren’t you nervous?” he responds. “Well, I’m almost fainting,” she says with a high, delicate laugh. The acting is so brittle and intimate that you almost wish, as the viewer, to embrace and comfort them. For me, this is the most affecting scene in all of Bergman.

The Touch is a woefully underrated film. Had it not been my first Bergman film, caught on a whim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I might never have watched it at all—the reviews are so tepid, and Bergman himself called it his very “bottom.” But it stayed with me for years—particularly David’s bipolar rages—and pitched me into the Bergman universe. Bergman was not, as I had heard, a dour filmmaker; rather, his work was attuned to the comic overturnings and ironies of passion. Save for the abrupt ending, I consider The Touch a near masterpiece. 

The strength of the movie, as with so much Bergman, is that the background is placid—all the drama is concentrated in the faces and personalities; the wounds are self-inflicted. We feel the full force of James Baldwin’s observation, in a 1960 Esquire profile of the director, that “the landscape of Bergman’s mind was simply the landscape in which he had grown up”—his total identification with his Swedish backdrop renders it eternal. Though mainly in English, The Touch’s dialogue loses none of its power in this translation—in fact, the language barrier forces the lovers to express themselves in essentials. We can even excuse Gould’s occasional overenunciation of his lines as a tic—a way of being intelligible to his foreign mistress.

Above: The Serpent's Egg
Top of post: The Touch

The Serpent’s Egg, by contrast, unfolds against the far gloomier backdrop of twenties Berlin (though it was shot at Munich’s Bavaria Studios). A creepy, horror-tinged historical drama, the film revels in the details of the era: men flinging away worthless billions of marks on the roller-coaster ride of hyperinflation; performers tarting themselves up for sexually deviant cabaret acts; street gangs searching for Jews to beat up; and the news of Hitler’s approaching Beer Hall Putsch seeping through the public consciousness. But while Bergman displays an unerring grasp of the period, the film runs short on wisdom. It reminds you how easily a great talent can get lost in big ideas.

Language is more of a problem here than in The Touch, too. In The Touch, the Swedes talk to each other in Swedish, leaning into stilted English only when David is around. This feels natural. By contrast, in The Serpent’s Egg—perhaps because he was playing it safe for Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had secured for him his largest budget to date—Bergman employs an expedient mishmash straight out of Steven Spielberg. The Germans speak a villainous, accented English to the main American character, Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine). Their English is so perfect and precise that I first assumed it was meant to be a translation; the fact that the Germans speak German to one another soon suggested otherwise.

Carradine was Bergman’s fifth choice for the role of Abel, after Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Peter Falk, and Richard Harris. Though he plays a trapeze artist, he has the vastly curtailed laconic range of an American noir character: tormented, self-respecting, and a little violent. Anyway, the movie hurls him down its deterministic corridors like a Kafka bug. I had trouble finding even his constant drunkenness convincing, because it was so one-note in its sullenness. Liv Ullmann, playing Abel’s dead brother’s ex-wife, Manuela, is wasted: she is perpetually timorous, abused-looking, bewildered, and on the verge of innocent tears, her blue eyes magnified.

The plot is so convoluted—so unlike that of The Touch—that it seems taken from a Bond movie. In the opening scene, we learn that Abel’s brother and fellow trapeze artist Max has blown his brains out. Grief-stricken and drunk, Abel wanders Berlin in a stupor, visiting the cabaret where Manuela works and then getting hauled in for questioning by a potentially anti-Semitic police inspector. The inspector is investigating a series of seven shady deaths that have occurred in Abel’s vicinity—including Max’s suicide. As the movie progresses, we learn that these are in fact murders, the work of an icily demented scientist named Dr. Vergerus (also the last name of Andreas and Karin in The Touch, as well as that of many other Bergman characters), who is conducting horrific experiments on cash-starved Germans as part of the country’s mounting mania for a rational, utopian society. By the end, even Abel and Manuela, who have started an affair, are drawn into the mad scientist’s scheme and effectively destroyed—much as German society will be, Bergman suggests.

Bergman had spent a year in Germany in the thirties when he was sixteen, as part of an exchange. His host family gifted him a photograph of Hitler for his birthday, and Bergman was awed by Hitler’s charisma at a rally he attended. He remained a fan of the Nazis right up until the end of the war, admitting that when “the doors to the concentration camps were thrown open, at first I did not want to believe my eyes.” Perhaps this is why he was tempted, in The Serpent’s Egg, to atone with a grand political statement—as evidenced by the tiresome historical monologue Dr. Vergerus delivers at the end. Further, only those actions that advance the plot are included. Moments of passion, which would have made Abel and Manuela’s affection credible, are elided. We feel, for once, that Bergman has not captured the full range of emotions for which he is celebrated.

Instead, fear dominates. “Everyone’s afraid; so am I,” the inspector confesses to Abel. “I can’t sleep for fear. Nothing works properly except fear.” Later, Abel narrates, “Fear rises like vapor from the cobblestones.” How much do we need to be told that prewar Germany was a scary place? But perhaps this was Bergman’s own fear about being internally and externally exiled: he began writing the film while the tax investigation was under way, and shot it during a period of dislocation.

Eventually—thankfully—he would return home.