Sometimes, consensus has it so spot-on that it's downright gratifying to agree with what everybody else has already said on the matter. To wit: yes indeed, 1977's The Serpent's Egg is the worst movie Ingmar Bergman ever directed, finally toppling his 1950 make-work misfire This Can't Happen Here from its 27-year reign of terror, if not by any extraordinary margin. And wouldn't you just know it, both films are political-adjacent thrillers involving the impending threat of fascism in a northern European country. Much as a film director may have specific things that he's especially good at, he also might have things he very distinctly sucks at. And this time in a new language, on top of it!

For aye, The Serpent's Egg is Bergman's second, and thankfully last film in English, six years after The Touch. It's also the first film he made outside of Sweden, after storming out of the country in a huff early in 1976 after being arrested on (later dismissed) tax evasion charges. And perhaps most importantly, it's the second and final time he worked with producer Dino De Laurentiis, following Face to Face the year prior, and this meant among other things that the film had the highest budget Bergman had ever worked with to that point. This may or may not have been to his benefit, though in his memoirs he does suggest a certain fondness for the production and suggests that he learned enough from making it that he considered it a worthwhile, rewarding process even despite the critical lambasting (outside of Sweden, where it was received more neutrally) and commercial failure. I mean, good for him. I'm glad somebody was able to get something positive out of this.

The film opens in Berlin on Saturday 3 November, 1923. Those of you who are fans of German history and/or the run-up to the Second World War will recognise as just a few days before the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, when young Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party failed to complete a coup, sending Hitler to prison and quelling the threat of Nazism forever. Or least this is what the complacent classes of Weimar Germany imagined to themselves, till it was impossible to keep imagining. Hitler's coup attempt is conspicuous in its absence from The Serpent's Egg, mentioned only briefly in dialogue near the end, but it hangs moodily over the entire film, which is very much about the abyss yawning right at the feet of all the characters in the movie, and their confidence that, as it were, this can't happen here.

So far, so good, but when it comes right down to it, I don't know that Bergman has much of anything to say about the rise of Nazism other than it was very bad, and (this part is being said in a very tiny voice) he regrets that he supported it in his foolish pre-war adolescence. I don't know that he has much of anything to say about anything in The Serpent's Egg, in fact, and he seems to have been so overwhelmed with what  he could get from all of that De Laurentiis-arranged money - from Hollywood, no less, making this (unless I am forgetting something blatant) the only time he got involved with the American film industry on the production side of things - that he has lost sight of why that money might be of use to him. It is possible to imagination this exact same blindness leading him into a messy boondoggle, too much movie for one director to handle; I am thinking of something like Michelangelo Antonioni's first American film, the magnificently broken Zabriskie Point. Something indulgent and absolutely fucking bonkers. Instead, unfortunately, The Serpent's Egg is just about the worst thing for a film like this to be: it is indulgent and mercilessly dull.

Liv Ullmann, who starred in the film as an immigrant cabaret performer named Manuela (it is not clear by what mechanism the extremely Norwegian Ullmann is meant to have picked that up as a given name), adroitly noted that Bergman's ordinary obsession with actors' faces has, in this case, been replaced with an obsession with the buildings in the full-sized city block he had built, and this is certainly part of what makes the film so turgid. Not that I want to demand any film artist make one and only one kind of movie, but Bergman was extremely good at making actor-driven films based on long-take close-ups. While there are certainly examples in his filmography of movies that are concerned with the spaces around actors, and the way the environment feels, that hadn't really been the point of anything he'd made in well more than a decade, by this point, and even then, it wasn't ever the focus. Well, it's the focus here, and it's not something the director is intuitively good at. There are a whole lot of airy wide shots with big volumes of head space, looking around the decaying squalor of this recreated Berlin, and they aren't usually very good at helping us extract whatever Bergman wants us to extract. So it's a lot of shots that feel very "look at my sets! Look at how many extras I could put into them!". The most egregious examples are crowded interiors, such as a scene in a bar that watches as David Carradine, playing the expatriate American Jew Abel Rosenberg, shoves his way through a crowd, that yields nothing tangible to the movie, not even a the level of pure plot mechanics. But there are plenty of scenes that don't even need that impulse behind them to feel out of place; late in the film, there's an unendurable sequence in which Abel meanders into a room where two German prostitutes are making fun of an African-American john, and it just goes on and on and I have to presume it meant something to Bergman, but there's not one single thing I can come up with, good or bad or otherwise, that can point me what that might have been.

But again, penetrating what The Serpent's Egg is "saying" is rough as hell. It's anti-Holocaust, at least, though only actively so in the last 20 minutes, and being anti-Holocaust is a position, not the fuel for a story. Oh, and here I haven't even talked about the story, have I? Well, it starts with Abel's brother, Manuela's husband, shooting himself dead, and police inspector Bauer (Gert Fröbe - one of the few active pleasures of the film comes from hearing Goldfinger speak in his own voice) hasn't come up with answers that make the two survivors feel like the whole story has been told. So they drift around Berlin, looking for clues, but mostly just trying to stay alive in the face of desperate economic malaise as the Germany economy reels in the wake of the sanctions levied upon it by the victors of the recent war (November, 1923, was the peak of Weimar-era hyperinflation, the period when all those history book photos about taking wheelbarrows full of Marks to buy a half-loaf of bread were taken). And that's really what the movie is about: living through a period of societal collapse as literally everyone from every stratum of society tries to grasp onto whatever vague distraction will keep them from wallowing in the day-to-day horrors of life.

That I couldn't find this theme compelling even in the waning weeks of 2020 speaks to just how badly Bergman fucked up in his exploration of this theme. Who knows why this is; maybe it really is as simple as "he cared more about his sets than his story". The film's sketch of Weimar culture is entirely shallow, taking us just about as far as "they had lots of naughty cabaret routines", which feels even more superficial and pointless coming only five years after Bob Fosse's monumental deconstruction of the relationship between those naughty routines and the decay of the Weimar era in his film adaptation of Cabaret. One of the places where the film does flicker to life is in the portrayal of the theater life of Berlin, capturing the scruffy energy of the seedy cabarets, the seedy people attending them, and the worn-out professionalism of the people putting on the shows; but this isn't really tied to anything in the film.

Nor does it work on the level that Bergman films always work: as a character sketch. This comes down to Ullmann and Carradine, the former of whom gives what I am sorry to call a genuinely bad performance, the only one I know from her. I assume this is partially due to the fact that she gives most of it in English; for in the moments when she is good (and they exist), she's either not talking, or lip-synching a German musical number. We're introduced to her doing the latter, in fact, and it's easily my favorite scene of Ullmann's performance in the whole movie, communicating not just the sexy innuendo of the song but also the difference between the character and the character's own performance, particularly in her brief distracted glances offstage. But when she has to get to naked emoting, she flatlines, hitting one note of desperation and hitting it real hard to show us how seriously she means it. It's as if Bergman looked at her most squawking moments of overacting in Face to Face and demanded "more of this, but louder". Carradine, meanwhile, is just out of place: he and Bergman never gelled, by his own account, and there's no real reason to assume from the rest of his filmography that he'd be a natural fit for the still rhythms of a slow-paced European art film. And that is, indeed, the biggest problem: he feels callow and lightweight, an aw-shucks performance in a film that glistens with a pitch-black shine.

And to be sure, the film isn't helping its actors out any with its disinterest in focusing on the characters, when it can wander around and gawk at the sights of this rotting Berlin. Nor is anybody helped by the very odd, blobby pacing and tonal irregularities - the latter starts literally with the opening credits, which cross-cut between bleak, grainy black-and-white footage of suffering faces and jaunty cabaret-style music by Rolf Wilhelm; whatever ironic contrast was meant to be generated doesn't come off. It feels more like the opening to a Woody Allen comedy than an Ingmar Bergman drama. The pacing and the tonal confusion go together all the way up to the film's deadly climax, a terribly long villain monologue that just drones on and on and tries to marry the conventions of a crime thriller with a morally-outraged condemnation of the Nazis' human experiments.

Not all is lost; Sven Nykvist is doing everything in his power to make the damp, moldy-looking sets gleam with malicious dark lighting; it's one of his best-looking color films with Bergman, in fact. And there's an argument to be made that the plodding, aimless narrative is simply trying to match the hollowness and hopelessness of life in Germany in the '20s, though I think it would be awfully generous to the movie to make that argument on its behalf. And we do have those moments when Ullmann actually feels like herself, and not a squealing amateur abandoned by her director. Still, there's preciously little that's obviously good, and nothing about the film encourages one to want to spend time teasing at it see if there are subterranean moods and themes that might be more powerful than just the bland surface. Fortunately, having bottomed out, Bergman rebounded quickly; it's not all flawless masterpieces from here on out, but at least there's no more of this.