Ingmar Bergman assumes the mantle of Lang by dint of striking and lengthy study, most clearly the Mabuse films (the putrefying setting is Berlin, 1923). The artist is a Yankee trapezist (David Carradine) who in the first scene arrives at the boarding house, takes a tray of food to his room and opens the door to find his brother leaning against a gore-splattered wall: The whole set-up is in long-shot, and broken only by a close-up insert of Carradine enjoying a sing-along in the dining room before rushing upstairs. The brothers had a circus act, the dead man's wife (Liv Ullman) is a cut-rate Marlene amid the dwarves and transvestites of the cabaret, the chaos that would whelp Herr Hitler is in the streets but the masses pretend not to see it. The police inspector (Gert Fröbe) takes Carradine on a tour of hideous corpses, being "frightened to death" is not uncommon when "existence's nothing but dread." Meanwhile, the priest (James Whitmore) can offer Ullman only his own despair: "Forgive me my apathy and my indifference." Away from Swedish bare walls, Bergman embraces Dino de Laurentiis's knack for lurid spectacle and bleeds his protagonist's churning psyche into the world's -- the Weimar Republic of astronomic inflation and painted grotesqueries is his burning Rome, he cuts from a butchered horse's entrails to aristocratic fiddling at a jumpin', scarlet nightclub. Kafka lurks in the St. Anna Clinic's labyrinthine archives, "hell" means not being able to get it up for a pair of razzing hookers. Such vehement gags were misunderstood even by John Simon, who ended up opening his review with a hilarious plea for the artist's "right to fail." Really, it is all very simply connected to the zesty expressionism of Hour of the Wolf, and requires no excuses: Bergman's magic lantern now documents horrific experiments, Doctor Vergerus (Heinz Bennent) sardonically toasts the new order with cyanide, and the hero walks out on the societal reptile, "already formed." Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. With Paula Braend, Toni Berger, and Glynn Turman.
--- Fernando F. Croce