The Saragossa Manuscript (Web Exclusive) 
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

Directed by Wojciech Has; written by Tadeusz Kwiatowski from the novel by Jan Potocki; cinematography by Mieczyslaw Jahoda; production design by Tadeusz Mysorek and Jerzy Skarzynski; music by Krzysztof Penderecki; starring Zbignew Cybulski, Kazimierz Opalinski, Iga Cembrzynska-Kondratiuk, Joanna Jedryka. DVD, B&W, 182 min., Polish dialog with Engish subtitles, 1965. A Mr Bongo release, distributed in the U.S. by Facets Video.

The unexpected touch of another’s hand upon one’s shoulder: in certain circumstances, an experience mundane and physical may assume psychological, even magical, qualities and consequence. Does an unlooked-for encounter with the as-yet-unseen presage surprise, shock, or seduction? Interruption or invitation? Irritation or initiation? It’s apt, and probably not accidental, that the gesture in question recurs time and again within Polish director Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), a dizzying, disorientating adaptation of fellow Pole Jan Potocki’s similarly bamboozling novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Potocki’s book is a labyrinthine compendium of fantastic tales-within-tales begun by the author at some point in the 1790s and not published in its complete form until the mid-nineteenth century, some three decades after Potocki’s death. Novel and film both delight in teasing and tantalizing their respective audiences. They actively, expertly solicit our interest, but with no easily discernible or stable authorial purpose in sight. On screen as in print, the audience’s attention is relentlessly attained but then accelerated through a proliferation of vignettes variously romantic, erotic, heroic, horrific, satirical, and/or supernatural in content. Constantly distracted from considered contemplation of one episode through the abrupt, unexplained touch upon our shoulder of another, structure and sense run always just in advance of us. Like the two spectral sirens who haunt the imagination of the film’s central protagonist, accessible to his gaze yet always ahead of his grasp, Has’s film is a work which undoubtedly makes a profound impression, but does so to enigmatic, elusive ends.

Though excising due to constraints of time a significant proportion of Potocki’s original tales, Has’s film remains broadly—though, as we shall see, not completely—faithful to the novelist’s narrative. An unnamed soldier fighting in the Spanish city of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars discovers a mysterious book in a ruined inn and begins to read. He and we are thus transported into what purports to be an account written by another military man, Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), of his strange adventures in the same part of Spain several decades before. Travelling through remote, wild countryside to Madrid in order to take up a military commission, van Worden is physically and psychologically waylaid. Against all advice, he spends a night in a reputedly haunted hostelry, the Venta Quemada, and though apparently the only guest, is accosted there by a semi-naked Nubian slave who informs him that her mistresses, two Tunisian princesses, have invited him to dinner. Escorted into a fantastic subterranean apartment, van Worden there meets sisters Emina and Zibelda (Zubeida in the novel). The women inform him that he is their relation and propose polygamous marriage and conversion to Islam in order that the line of their family, the Gomalez, may be preserved.

After acceding to their sexual offer if not their spiritual one, van Worden inexplicably awakes back at the macabre location where his journey began. This is an isolated, skull-strewn gallows where the corpses of two local brigands hang, a location back to which he will be mysteriously returned at various later points in the film. Seeking to rediscover the princesses and to divine the nature of his encounter with them, van Worden encounters a menagerie of human types – hermits, madmen, Inquisitors, geometers, cabalists, and gypsies – most of whom recount parts of their own life stories, and within them, those of others they have met. The Saragossa Manuscript’s plot appears to be explained and ended when it is belatedly revealed to van Worden that everyone he has met has in fact been in the pay of the Gomalez: his adventures were an ordeal engineered to test his courage. Yet the prior implication that the sisters are spectral rather than physical entities is reconfirmed immediately after being ostensibly dispelled. Awaking once more without warning at the gallows in order to start his entire journey all over again, van Worden arrives at the Saragossa inn where the whole film began, with his book found there years later. A stranger informs him that two foreign princesses wish to invite him to dinner. Seeing a vision of Emina and Zubeida through his room window, an image which looks like nothing so much as a Surrealist canvas come to life, a mirror and numerous animal carcasses suspended in midair around the women, van Worden’s reason is finally overthrown. He casts his book aside to the spot where it will be discovered several decades later and rides out alone into a deserted, inhospitable landscape.

The Saragossa Manuscript’s links to Surrealism are substantive as well as surface in nature; focusing attention upon them provides one possible way of making (some) sense of an intriguing cinematic puzzle. Tellingly, the film begins with what looks like a series of previously unknown Surrealist paintings as well as ending with an image of one. Here, preparatory production design sketches by Has and set and costume designer Jerzy Skarzynski are used as a backdrop for the movie’s opening titles, and the director’s early training as a painter comes to the fore. Introducing visually a number of The Saragossa Manuscript’s key characters and motifs within a Dalí-esque desertscape, like van Worden’s final vision the sketches also work to locate the film as a whole within the visual, and by extension, the thematic terrain of twentieth-century Surrealist painting. The skull-strewn, barren landscape around Venta Quemada recalls Dalí and Max Ernst: the strikingly nonnaturalistic set design for the Venta Quemada’s exterior, for instance, presents it as a cancerous outgrowth from a bare crop of rock. Later, the eerily atmospheric urban centers through which a succession of minor characters flit and plot during the film’s second half look like nothing so much as di Chirico animated in three dimensions.

This (self-)conscious close engagement with canonical Surrealist iconography extends to the distinctive, flamboyant nature and use of props and set dressing within those scenes—the majority of the film—which don’t recall or quote Surrealist art and artists directly. As one might expect in a cinematic work so influenced by painting, the director’s attention to the framing of his images is absolutely meticulous. In many if not most of The Saragossa Manuscript’s scenes, Has employs ostentatious slow tracks, tracing a confident, considered path through his mise-en-scène to the exact point at which he seems to deem its sensual and symbolic potential optimized. In most instances, such vantage points juxtapose the audience’s view of people with one of props. Physical objects often obscure part of the frame, through their eventual placing in the near foreground once Has’s camera eventually alights upon its preferred perspective (see, for instance, the shrubbery which comes to cover part of the screen at the end of the ostentatious, apparently unnecessary track which follows van Worden’s second departure from the Venta Quemada). In other cases, sets are designed and dressed, and the tracking camera positions itself precisely within them, in order that physical objects either intervene between the physical position of the viewer’s viewpoint of and that of the character(s) she or he views, or block the path between one character and another (take, for example, the flamboyant tracking shots following the gypsy Avadoro’s encounters with roués and ruffians in the centre of Madrid: a profusion of marketplace goods, passersby, and even buildings temporarily obscure our view of the protagonists and intervene physically between their transactions).

The alienating and disorientating effect of such devices is multilayered. On a direct level, repeated obscuration of the camera’s view replicates and literally reinforces for the viewer a sense of van Worden’s comparably compromised perspective, increasingly unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, acting from actuality, dream from waking. Additionally, the exaggerated emphasis of The Saragossa Manuscript upon its elaborate set dressing fulfils a function diametrically opposed to what is usually encountered within the period film. Artificiality rather than authenticity is what is foregrounded: the consequent theatricality of the film’s esthetic again relates to what is perhaps the work’s key theme, the uncertain, perhaps nonexistent boundaries between illusion and imagination, perception and reality. Finally, the uninterrupted yet unexplained prominence of inanimate objects troubles the viewer’s faith in the reliability of their own physical perceptions in a way that, to return to the links between Has’s film and Surrealist art, finds a close parallel with the visual form and ideas expressed within Magritte’s seminal The Treachery of Images (1928): contrary to reassuring common sense, the last thing a pipe (or a skull, or a candelabra, or an amphora) signifies is the inarguable fact of its own physical nature and presence. Our perception of and reaction to what we apprehend physically in our surroundings does not guarantee the fact of an objectively existing wider reality, but instead creates for and traps us within a subjective, imagined, and imaginary world entirely of our own fashioning. The viewer is thus led to consider the possibility that she or he may be in caught within their own version of the dilemma facing both the unnamed soldier who finds van Worden’s manuscript at the film’s outset, and van Worden within it, attempting to decipher a text which, contrary to initial appearances, is in fact written “in a [visual] language I can’t read.”

Making sure to hammer home the point, Has provides the most bravura imagistic realization of the Surrealist article of faith regarding the treacherous nature of images very early in his film. At the end of the scene where the viewer sees van Worden and his servants at the gallows for the first time, a close-up of the discarded map they have been using to navigate their way to Madrid tilts, in order to frame the paper lying on the ground against the landscape it refers to in the distance. The contours of physical reality (the topography) and the visual representation of it (the map) bleed into and become indistinguishable from each other. Yet rather than inspiring confidence in the power of human observation and Reason—the idea that the map is an accurate guide through the terrain its users traverse—the opposite implication emerges: the landscape and local populace van Worden will experience are products of imagination only, subjectively created signifiers which displace entirely the possibility of truly knowing the phenomena they signify. Or, as the geometer Velásquez observes of mathematical symbols later in the film, “All these signs given me no idea about what I want to express… defining… but without comprehending… I am getting near poetry, which seems to be nearer to life than we suspect. Only an uneducated man who sees a thing every day thinks he understands it. A true researcher proceeds among riddles.” That this utterance could easily have come from the notebooks of André Breton is no coincidence.

Velásquez is indeed a crucial protagonist in The Saragossa Manuscript, not least because the marked differences between Has and Potocki’s respective treatments of this character underline the extent to which the filmmaker on occasion quite freely adapts and diverges from the writer’s source text in order to underscore his own work’s status as something approaching a Surrealist Manifesto inscribed in moving pictures. While the dialog quoted in the previous paragraph is a paraphrase of Velásquez’s introductory preamble to his ideas on religion (provided on the thirty-seventh day of Potocki’s literary narrative), overall Has’s Velásquez is a far more confident, charismatic figure than Potocki’s. In the film, Velásquez rescues van Worden from the Inquisition; in the novel, it is Alphonse who saves the hapless Velásquez from drowning in a river. In the novel, Velásquez is often a figure of fun, not least because of his impotent, rationalist complaints against the fantastic, obscurantist nature of the text he is created by and incarcerated within; in the film, he is presented as a far more sanguine observer of, and even possible convert to, such qualities. Indeed, Has adapts, expands, and moves a brief metaphor coined in passing by Velásquez in the middle of Potocki’s narrative (day thirty-eight)—“We are blind men who… know the ends of several roads… we mustn’t be expected to know the whole city”—in order to create a climactic statement of Surrealist philosophy in the latter stages of his film: “We are like blind men lost in the streets of a big city. The streets lead to a goal, but we often return to the same places to get to where we want to be. I can see a few little streets here which, as it is now, are going nowhere.” Though Velásquez immediately goes on to reassert, in a manner much more faithful to Potocki’s text, his rationalist credentials (“One man cannot invent something that another cannot solve”), it is his earlier statement which sticks most in the mind, partly because much of it is delivered direct to camera, but also because Has’s extension of Potocki’s words recalls closely, and perhaps intentionally, the metaphor Freud coins in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” when he relates an anecdote about his wanderings in an unfamiliar town, always returning unintentionally to the same spot rather than his desired destination, in order to communicate his ideas about the fundamental strangeness of phenomena either previously familiar or successively reencountered.

Echoing and extending early-twentieth-century Surrealism’s enthusiasm for Freudian thought, Has not only quotes through Velásquez Freud’s informal ideation of The Uncanny, he also renders that concept the guiding structural principle of The Saragossa Manuscript as a whole. In so doing, Has makes his film diverge definitively, and to disturbing effect, from Potocki’s source text in the movie’s final frames. In the book, van Worden’s travels are revealed to have been orchestrated by the Gomalez; the ordeal over and its apparently supernatural character explained away, he becomes a rich, happy man. Yet in the movie the convenient, comforting revelation of a carefully, benignly orchestrated conspiracy is swiftly undercut. Van Worden is instead magically transported back to the unheimlich gallows where his story began, and the audience then returned to the location of the film’s very first scene, the inn where the unnamed soldier will stumble upon his unfortunate predecessor’s text decades later. Both fictional character and real-life viewer are thus forced to follow in Freud’s circuitous, confused footsteps, traversing the film’s landscape in circles, increasingly confused and bemused by what we see the more times we see it, faced with a puzzle that becomes harder to decipher the longer it is deliberated. Are the events all a dream unfolding inside van Worden’s head before his actual journey begins? Is he trapped within a loop in time, condemned to repeat the same sequence of events and experiences for no apparent reason? Are the supernatural happenings the viewer sees meant to be understood as real, a collectively prosecuted deception, or the deranged misperceptions of a sick mind? The Saragossa Manuscript is careful to leave us with far more questions than it ever answers.

It’s fitting that a work so slippery in character possesses a comparably elusive history. Has’s film has been more talked about than seen since its 1965 theatrical release. The 2008 DVD package allows Anglophone audiences to savor the full three-hour-long cut of the film: a 125-minute edited version of Has’s work is what was originally released theatrically in America and elsewhere. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, a longtime aficionado of The Saragossa Manuscript, financed efforts by the Pacific Film Archive to track down and preserve a full print of the film during the 1990s. After Garcia’s death, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola financed the digital restoration of the uncut version of the film, a task achieved by gaining access to the last known original print of the movie in its full form, a copy owned by Has himself. This digitally restored version played at the New York Film Festival of 1997 and was afforded a limited DVD release in 2002. The new DVD edition may please fans of The Saragossa Manuscript in some ways but not others. On the plus side, further digital restoration of sound and image tracks render this edition of the work a richly rewarding viewing experience. On the other, previously available extras on the 2002 edition, such as a stand-alone version of composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s striking electronic score, have disappeared. A small gallery of promotional stills is the only extra adorning this latest DVD release. These, however, are minor quibbles. The chance for a general audience to encounter, not unlike Potocki’s original anonymous narrator, an astonishing, one-of-a-kind palimpsest should see The Saragossa Manuscript more widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished, entertaining, and intriguing works of twentieth-century Surrealist cinema.

To buy The Saragossa Manuscript click here.

Jonathan Murray teaches in the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at Edinburgh College of Art. He is currently completing a monograph on the career of Bill Forsyth.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1