265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie

“Simultaneously erotic, horrific and funny… This is one mother of a film.”– on The Saragossa Manuscript

Must See

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zbigniew Cybulski

PLOT: During a battle in Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a soldier wanders into a house and discovers a large book which enthralls him (and his captor). In it, he reads the story of the Walloon captain Alfons Van Worden, who meets, and is seduced by, two princesses while sleeping at a haunted inn, only to wake up under a gallows between two hanged men. Van Worden’s further adventures include meeting a hermit, a cabalist, a gypsy leader, and other colorful characters, each of whom have tales to tell—often leading to stories inside of stories.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saragossa Manuscript is a mostly faithful, if necessarily abridged, adaptation of Jan Potocki’s massive 19th-century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” (occasionally translated as “The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales”). Potcoki was a fascinating character, worthy of his own novel. A Count, adventurer (he was the first Pole to fly in a hot air balloon) and polymath, he published The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in fragments during his life. Legends revolve around his spectacular 1815 suicide: he shot himself with a silver bullet he made himself, and which he had blessed by his castle chaplain beforehand.
  • Noted fans of the film include and David Lynch.
  • The restoration, which included the addition of about an hour’s worth of material cut from previous prints, was initially financed by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died before it was completed in 2001. Filmmakers  and (who included it in his series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”) took up the cause after Garcia’s demise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Near the film’s climax, Van Worden stares out through an gap in a castle wall and sees a vision of himself receding into the distance with the two princesses, headed towards a poster bed standing alone in the middle of a desert. The only other features in the landscape are a cow’s skull and a dead crow half buried in the sand. There’s a wonderful trick to the shot, indicative of the film’s obsession with misdirection and game playing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Between hanged men; incestuous Islamic princesses; five levels of flashbacks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Saragossa Manuscript winds through a Gothic journey replete with gallows, ghostly seductresses, duels, occult symbols, Inquisitors in bondage gear, and more, an epic tale told in the ever-receding stories-inside-of-stories style that Guy Maddin would later adopt (in a more fetishistic fashion) for The Forbidden Room. Wojciech Has’ 3-hour adaptation of Jan Potocki’s grandiose novel is storytelling in its purest form; it’s a world cinema classic that has been unfairly neglected, out-of-print in the USA for far too long. The film’s design unfolds slowly, wandering through a disorienting labyrinth of stories that eventually resolve, only to dissolve again in a mystical finale in the Spanish desert.


Re-release trailer for The Saragossa Manuscript

COMMENTS: “All that has made me confused,” complains Captain Van Worden after the gypsy is interrupted and excuses himself while telling a story about meeting the Knight of Toledo, who has told the gypsy a story about a friend speaking to him from beyond the grave after losing a duel with the Knight’s brother. “I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends, and fantasy takes over.” Though complicated and structurally unfamiliar, I think The Saragossa Manuscript‘s plot more gives the deliberate impression of confusion than it actually bewilders. At several points, Van Worden (portrayed with beautiful befuddlement by Zbigniew Cybulski, who plays the buffoon here but was actually a sex symbol in Poland at the time) and the other characters comment on the intricacy of the Russian nesting doll plot, but they protest too much, so that the effect is comic—they are more distressed about being lost in the narrative than the viewer is. Confusion is Wojciech Has‘ strategy and theme, used for its paradoxically pleasant effect on the audience. Has wants us to surrender to the lull of the storytelling, to defer our need for immediate closure and indulge ourselves in side excursions, as when we stop in the middle of one subplot so that a buxom woman can explain her elaborate, Decameron-esque plan to deceive her cuckold husband. There will be plenty of time to get back to the two Islamic dream princesses and their conspiracy to seduce their Christian cousin to bear an heir to the Gomelez line… it is a three-hour movie.

Admittedly, I may be at a disadvantage from having read the novel previous to seeing the film, but I don’t find the story that difficult to follow. Up until the very final moments, every sub-story finds resolution. The gypsy’s long tale, which involves him meeting both the knight and a merchant’s son (who tells him about the scoundrel Busqueros and the lovely Inez) turns into an involved romantic farce of Shakespearean proportions, with the characters’ various subplots circling back around at the end to connect and bring closure—we learn the truth behind the mysterious voice that speaks to the knight, and Busqueros’ mischief proves redemptive. Compared to the novel, however, the movie does allow increased opportunity for disorientation. On the page, bold-faced headings announce that we are now entering, for example, “THE GYSPSY CHIEF’S STORY CONTINUED,” and we get used to a rhythm of part of a story per chapter, usually ending on a cliffhanger. In the movie, flashbacks spring up all of the sudden, without warning, and it is easier to get lost because the whole plan isn’t laid out before us. Furthermore, although Has fully explores the “interior” stories he chooses to dramatize, the nature of compressing a 600+ page novel into a three-hour movie necessarily means some elements are less than fully fleshed out. The Cabalist, his sister Rebecca, and the interloping mathematician Velasquez all get detailed backstories in the novel; in the film they appear as mysterious characters hanging around on the fringes of the main story, shooting each other knowing looks behind Van Worden’s back. The lack of context for these characters increases the air of mystery and paranoia.

Critics often describe The Saragossa Manuscript as either “psychedelic” or “surrealist.” Neither term is technically accurate, although both suggest the movie’s flavor. The “psychedelic” appellation is, of course, totally whimsical; 1965 is a little early for that late 1960s aesthetic to have penetrated the Iron Curtain. The suggestion is retrofitted to explain the devotion of super-fan and acid icon Jerry Garcia to the film, while also referencing a certain affinity between the film’s (somewhat exaggerated) “mindbending” qualities and the oneiric states brought about by hashish and its harder cousins. And although Luis Buñuel was an avowed fan, the film is hardly Surrealist, either, in the authentic sense (although see below). Writing in the 19th century, Jan Potocki was too young to be a Surrealist. His prose is in the rational style typical of Romantic literature of the time. His love of the exotic, the supernatural, the experimental, the occult, of gallows and mysterious princesses and fairies and ghosts and sheiks and the generally strange and uncommon mark him as a proto-Surrealist (as does the light satire aimed at the ecclesiastical class). Up until the last ten minutes—which constitute only about five percent of the film—Has follows Potocki’s stories faithfully. Putting “psychedelic” and “surreal” to one side, a better umbrella term to describe The Saragossa Manuscript‘s aesthetic is: weird.

The bulk of The Saragossa Manuscript is a virtuoso display of baroque storytelling and playful plotting, but it’s in those last ten minutes that Has puts his own stamp on the story. He turns Alfonse Van Worden into an unreliable narrator. Whereas in the book it is clear that the soldier’s adventures are all carefully orchestrated by a puppet master, Has undermines that certainty, making the conspiracy only one possible interpretation. He has the Sheik give Van Worden a book containing illustrations of the events he experienced (including the hanged men, the reclining nude sisters, and, for some reason, a lobster) and tell the Walloon to write the rest himself. Because of impossible occurrences in the new ending—which give Has a chance to demonstrate his gift for creating compositions reminiscent of Magritte paintings—it now happens that at least some of Van Worden’s experiences are either dreams (the soldier is seen dropping off at several points), hallucinations (he drinks from a possibly drugged skull goblet), or authorial inventions (because we know that we are seeing a reading of Van Worden’s confessions written down later). Or, Van Worden may have been driven mad by paranoia; or, the events might have really been supernatural, and the rational explanation a cover story made up by the Sheik. In this brief epilogue, Has caps the story with a dollop of light, refreshing surrealism that alters the character of what came before.

That change is significant; as Pau Boch Santos argues, it turns “a book about the disenchantment of the world” into “a film about the enchantment of man.” In Santos’ view the novel is a story in which the protagonist—and the readers—begin by believing in ghosts and magic, which are gradually revealed to be shams and tricks, just as the magical world of antiquity yielded to the Enlightenment world of science. But interpreting this Polish literary classic at the dawn of the Postmodern age, when the ultra-rational philosophy of Communism had brought secret misery to his people, Has is disenchanted with the enlightened world—and thus, seeks to re-enchant the work through dreamlike disorientation, imagination, and surrealism. Has operates out of the same nostalgia for the marvelous, mysterious and irrational as fellow Communist sufferer , who complained in Stalker that “…our world is hopelessly boring. Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring… To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.” Imagination is our only chance to reinvent that lost world, and reinvest it with meaning. Has’ Van Worden may be a fool, but he’s not a mere pawn; he participates in creating his own fate, and ends up stumbling towards ecstasy, mad, but alive and free.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…reportedly regarded as something of an underground classic on the order of ‘El Topo.’ This, however, is to slight the grave good humor of the Polish film, its spirited and often completely incomprehensible melange of tall story, miller’s tale, surreal dream and philosophical double-talk… I could recommend it only to those who have seen absolutely every other film in town. It’s that sort of ordeal.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1972, first U.S. release)

“…this rambling, flamboyant and incoherent ‘head movie’ should be approached with caution by anyone who hasn’t got any drugs in their system.”–David Jenkins, Time Out London

“…part Alice in Wonderland, part Arabian Nights… by any standard, a long strange trip.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (2008 screening)

IMDB LINK: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Saragossa Manuscript restored edition DVD/Blu-ray – Some basic information about the film from British distributor Mr. Bongo

The Saragossa Manuscript – A fan site collecting several well-written, semi-academic essays

Website About The Saragossa Manuscript – A Manuscript fan’s elaborate plot outline

From Enlightenment to Surrealism: Did Wojciech Has Betray the Spirit of Jan Potocki? – Pau Bosch Santos’ essay for the East European Film Bulletin has an interesting thesis: that Has reworked the novel’s rationalist narrative into a surreal one

Frame Stories in The Saragossa Manuscript – Video essay exploring the film’s nested narrative structure, from an unknown commentator

Has He Lost His Mind?: The Saragossa Manuscript – Informative essay on the film by Robert Bright for “The Quietus”

The Saragossa Manuscript – Writing for “Senses of Cinema,” Darragh O’Donohue offers a contrarian take, finding the film “disappointing” and “uncinematic”

`Saragossa Manuscript’ Makes Long, Strange Trip Back to Screen – Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle describes the film’s road to restoration

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965): EXISTENTIAL POTPOURRI – Alfred Eaker’s essay on the film for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa – Jan Potocki’s source novel

DVD INFO: Since Image Entertainment’s DVD went out of print (buy used), The Saragossa Manuscript finds itself in the odd position of having no official North American video release, despite the fact that the film’s restoration was financed by Americans. (A 2009 announcement of a new disc from Facets turned out to be a false alarm). Europeans, or those with multi-region, PAL compatible DVD/Blu-ray players, can enjoy the DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) courtesy of Mr. Bongo (a funky distributor who holds the rights to several European arthouse classics, but specializes in obscure Brazilian music). The presentations are free of extras, but the image and sound quality is excellent, which is the main thing for a rare, neglected movie. Wojciek Has’ classics (see also The Hourglass Sanitarium) would be excellent candidates for future Criterion Collection special editions.

2 thoughts on “265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)”

  1. A worthy addition to the list and a good recommendation. Just watched it for the first time and I have to admit it’s pretty good. Definitely held my interest despite the length,and different than anything else I’ve seen.

    But I binge-watched it together with the Hourglass Sanatorium, and it just blew the first movie away. Don’t get me wrong, the Saragossa Manuscript is a great movie – entertaining, funny, weird – but the Hourglass Sanatorium was an experience I’ll never forget. The sequence where he’s squirming around through that weird, dark crawlspace under the bed, and then he emerges into this bright, wide-open, elaborate set of a Polish village with hundreds of extras – my God! It’s every bit as effective as the famous moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorthy emerges into Oz and the film changes from black and white to technicolor. And so ambitious for a genuinely weird movie, the sets, the cinematography, it must have cost quite a bundle.

    All I’m saying is that you have to save a spot on the list for the Hourglass Sanatorium. I’m not at all arguing against the inclusion of the Saragossa Manuscript, but as the reviewer himself points out, even though there are bewildering number of narrative strands that are nested together in a complex and interesting structure, they are all finally resolved in a conventional sense, and only in the last ten minutes does the movie become truly weird. The Hourglass Sanatorium starts at that peak of weirdness and then builds from there – it’s a much weirder movie. The inclusion of the one demands the other. It’d be like having Blue Velvet on the list and not having Eraserhead.

    And while we’re on the subject of weird Polish cinema, while I was happy to see the inclusion of Possession, I’m still waiting for the Devil.

    All of this nagging is merely in jest. Thanks for the Wojciech Has recommendation. Keep up the good work.

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