Celebrity Death Match Christmas Special: The Serpent's Egg versus Fun in Acapulco
A lot of nonsense has been written about The Serpent's Egg. Some people find it confusing. Some dare to doubt Bergman's decisions to make a movie in English, set it in 1923 Berlin, use a strong political theme or cast David Carradine as the lead. Some complain about the script. But, though I hate to put it so bluntly, everyone has missed the point. Using recently released papers from the Bergman Archive in Stockholm, I can now, for the first time, reveal the truth: this movie is the fruit of Bergman's lifelong obsession with the works of Hal B. Wallis, and is an hommage to Wallis's 1963 masterpiece, Fun in Acapulco.
The merest glance at the two films is enough to show the strong parallels. At the beginning of the Wallis movie, Elvis Presley, in one of his most poignant roles, plays a failed trapeze artist named Mike Windgren. (Note the Swedish name). It transpires that he has fled to Acapulco after a tragic accident which caused the death of his brother, his co-star in their joint circus act. Similarly, the Bergman movie opens with Abel Rosenberg (Carradine), also a trapeze artist, arriving home in Berlin to discover that his brother has committed suicide. The subsequent development is also similar. Windgren and Rosenberg are both typical Americans, lacking even the most basic linguistic skills: Rosenberg has as much trouble understanding German as Windgren does Spanish. Each one finds himself lost in a directionless existential nightmare, scattered with random acts of violence and meaningless sexual liaisons. The only commentary is provided by tangentially relevant song and dance numbers.
Of the two films, one must reluctantly admit that Wallis's is the more successful. Bergman daringly decided not to let Carradine sing, but it doesn't quite come off, and the songs anyway aren't as good; there is nothing remotely as memorable as Presley's "Bossa Nova Baby" or "You Can't Rhumba In A Sports Car". And although Liv Ullmann's performance is as excellent as ever, she is, paradoxically, given both too much and too little to do. She displays her technical virtuosity in seamlessly transitioning from vamp on stage to frightened, insecure woman at home, but Wallis's use of Andress is both simpler and more effective: he effortlessly establishes her character with a few poolside bikini shots and the excellent scene where she throws a book at Presley's head, while Ullmann struggles throughout.
To my mind, the most interesting questions are raised by the ending. Wallis, again, opts for a simple treatment. Windgren overcomes his fear of heights by diving off a cliff; the movie concludes on a high note, with Andress and her rival both apparently agreeing to share Windgren, who is about to resume his circus career. Bergman's take is less optimistic, as Ullmann's character commits suicide and the German doctor reveals the truth about his Satanic experiments with human nature before also taking his life. Bergman's version provides a direct and accessible commentary on the Holocaust and the rationale of the totalitarian state, but Wallis, in his delightly indirect way, perhaps reveals a deeper lack of coherence in the 20th century Weltanschauung. It is hard to say which is more insightful; only time will tell.
Winner: Fun in Acapulco, on points