Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a filmmakers’ film. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, and my associate John Semper, Jr. 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.
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.