Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bergman's The Serpent's Egg and Berlin

Preliminary sketch notes about my knowledge of Berlin, my experience of Germany, the rise of Fascism, Bergman and the Serpent's Egg, together with the Christopher Isherwood viewpoint

My knowledge of Germany developed through my childhood as my aunts prayed in our garden air raid shelter, and then looking at the crater of the demolished house after a rocket bomb fell in a nearby road. A relative who returned from a Prison camp liberated by the Russians said they were worse than the Germans. An uncle and his wife returned from serving five years as part as the allied forces reconstructing West Germany into a prosperous democracy, marvelling at the motorway net work and whispering to adults about the reality of a black market and politically and emotionally divided nation

And then I read the official reports of the war crimes tribunal on Belsen and Auschwitz and thought I understood what the whispers had been about. A couple of years later I saw Laurence Harvey, Julie Harris and Shelley Winters in a recreation of Christopher Isherwood's story "I am a Camera" from Goodbye to Berlin, made into a play and then the film released in 1955 when I was sixteen and four years away from trying to be a writer on one of the two portable Olivetti typewriters I managed to sell during my ignoble half year as the training course star pupil and subsequent failure as a sales person.

Laurence Harvey was not my idea of being a writer, but I was instantly attracted by the nightclub sleaze world in inhabited by Sally Bowles, although at the time having no idea that the central character was a homosexual like his creator. I did understand something of the juxtaposition between the existentialist lives of the central characters and the rise of Hitler and the fascists, but it was more the emotional recreation of a time than the historical factual reality. This came later

It was not until 1964 that I acquired a Pan edition of William L Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for twelve and sixpence, a good buy for a 1400 unabridged academic history. I valued everything Allan Bullock had to say and his recommendation that this was the one book to place in the hands of anyone who wanted to know what happened in Germany 1930-1945 remains even more valid today.

A year before I had travelled by train through Germany to Stockholm but my experience was travelling at night and being a little spooked by my memories of what I had read. In prison in 1961, we had been allowed to have sent in Teach Yourself German, as we had this idea of going Munich and to Berlin and committing some non violent civil disobedience action at the boarder between East and West just to make the point that we opposed the worker's and the capitalist bomb. In 1965 as part of a grand European Tour, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France in three weeks in my mini estate, my male work colleague and I camped by the Rhine and entered a large beer tent where Germans made spaces for us to sit with them a drink enormous pints of beer singing songs we did not understand. We then did not find the municipal camp in Munich and motored on until we found one in the Black Forest and then entered an Inn where we were looked at closely and we felt we were the subject of everyone's conversation as we gambled at menu items but had a good inexpensive hot meal. Later we stayed with a German young woman and her mother at their flat in Geneva, who I knew from college days, and that is the extent of my reality experience about Germany and its people for over a decade.

I went to Munich in my imagination in 1980 through Time Life and where the frontispiece is of beer tankard upon beer tankard followed by an evocative mixture of pictures and words got the measure of the city and its people. There have been few, if any, films about life in Germany before and after the two world wars that I have not seen, and since the birth of Sky TV, on its history and documentary channels.

Another dimension of early Sky was that you were able to pick up German TV channels and these were more interesting to watch late at night and sometimes during the day when they had their Parades and Festivals, but still I hankered to be a carefree artist in Berlin, especially after finding that most people took off all their clothes in the main public park and that something of the twenties night life continued. I had seen the work of Kurt Weil recreated on stage and on TV and then Lisa Minnelli and Noel Gray had brought us Cabaret to the screen, in 1972, a work which remains vivid a portrait, and which I watch on DVD at least once a year.

But only last midweek did I view Bergman's the Serpents Egg made in 1976, the most odd and disappointing of his score of films experienced over the past year. The main language of the film is English with an unconvincing David Carradine as an alcoholic Jewish Trapeze artist who drinks himself into stupor for some inexplicable reason and Liv Ullmann as a failed circus performer trying her hand at being an oversize Sally Bowles. The film follows the same path as I am a Camera, Cabaret and others, people being decadent oblivious at first and then pretending not to notice, until shortages, and mounting street violence forces then to appraise what is happening to their neighbours, I like Carradine from his TV series mystic searches for enlightenment but he and this film is a mess. The last segment attempts to knit everything together with a kind of pre Joseph Mengele experimental doctor who both Ullmann and Carradine encounter. It is perhaps the darkest and bleak portrait of the time but it added nothing to my knowledge and experience.

I have one other brief experience of the German people, a party of local authority bigwigs from a twin town who I took on a coach trip to the largest in door shopping centre in Europe to meet its creator Sir John Hall who tried to convince them about the merits of his development despite my alerting beforehand that right and left had united to ban such a development from their city. I then had a drink with his son and son in law while the party went off to shop. Some came back early with their purchases for a drink and it was only then that I realised that if you excluded the language difference they were just same as any group of politicians representing the extremes of opinion and interests.

I still hope to go to Berlin and sit in the sun among others without any clothes and chat up a bird in a nite club hoping she is not a male transvestite!

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