Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a filmmakers’ film. , Martin Scorsese, Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, and my associate are among its impassioned devotees.  Has’ film is also a cult favorite, no doubt helped by Jerry Garcia’s advocacy.  Superlative artistry and bold originality would be reason enough for its elevated aesthetic standing, but The Saragossa Manuscript also begs description.

The methodical, brooding, short-lived Zbigniew Cybulski (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) heads a prodigious cast that remarkably fleshes out Count Jan Potocki’s 19th century, picaresque, magical realist novel.  After the discovery of the titular manuscript, The Unknown Soldier is transported in time and space joining Alfonso van Worden’s (Cybulski) on a phantasmagorical, anecdotal journey during the Napoleonic Wars.  Van Worden leads his uneasy party down a depraved path through the Spanish Mountains, temporarily settling at the infamous Sierra Morena.

Temptation comes in the form of incestuous, Wagnerian sisters who seduce the protagonist in the imaginative terrain.  Heresy is the sacrificial lamb, aflame in adroit eroticism. Van Worden’s journey commands relentless attention as Has masterfully weaves a Byzantine labyrinth of multi-layered tales which range from the epic to the intimate, from Gothic surrealism to frivolous exoticism. These vignettes are simultaneously romantic, satirical, parlous, buoyantly humorous, macabre, exotic, grandiose, enigmatic, heinous and sprinkled with erotic spirituality. Yet, the flow of the film is remarkably contained by Has’ surprisingly consistent, effervescent  handling of Potocki’s dizzying narrative.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)Inquisitors, spectral gallows, Tunisian princesses, and Nubian slaves are part of van Worden’s trial as he finds himself, repeatedly, in the paradoxical Magic Flute-like roles of steadfast hero (Tamino) and wayward prodigal (Papageno), which results in a boundlessly expansive pilgrimage.  Clues to van Worden’s riddle lie in recurring, treacherous symbols of hanging carcasses and discarded maps.  Much like Moses in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”, van Worden is impotent in expression, requiring his potential, charismatic savior Aron in the form of a second protagonist: Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek).  Velasquez’s grasp of poetry and mathematics far surpasses that of van Worden, and his rescue of van Worden from the Grand Inquisitor is as much a symbol of sight and salvation from van Worden’s blind impotency in all things physical, psychological and spiritual.

The texture of The Saragossa Manuscript often resembles a Max Ernst canvas.  The production design by Jerzy Skarzynski fleshes out van Worden’s visionary desert-scape, which becomes increasingly alien in its milieu. Paradoxically, the main characters are impressively three dimensional, which is no easy feat in surrealism.

The Saragossa Manuscript integrates the eclectic tenets of Phenomenology, Imagism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Absurdism, to name but a few.  Rationalism is, to quote Heidegger, delightfully out the door, making for an incomparable, existential potpourri of idiosyncratic weirdness.


  1. I’ve wanted to see this film for a long time. It’s one that I just haven’t gotten around to. I’m well aware of its reputation as the filmmakers you mentioned have touted it as such a significant film. I’m also curious to see Cybulski’s (the Polish James Dean) performance as I found him to be fascinating to watch in Ashes and Diamonds. Sometimes I have reservations about finally seeing a film that I have wanted to see for such a long time because I fear it is not going to meet my expectations. It’s usually silly to feel that way. It took me years to finally see Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) because I thought it would let me down. I loved it so much the day I finally watched it that I watched it twice in one day. Something tells me I won’t be disappointed with The Saragossa Manuscript. I’m giving in and putting it at the top of my list now.

  2. If a 5-star rating had been used here, I guess The Saragossa Manuscript would have got 4 stars.

  3. Slight correction: the framing story about the soldier who finds the manuscript takes place during the Napoleonic Wars (the novel was written a few years after the war). The story in the manuscript, about Alfonso van Worden, takes place much earlier, in the early 18th century.

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