The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie) Review


In war-torn Saragossa, two soldiers find a manuscript. As they read it, it turns out to have been written by the grandfather of one of them, Alphonse van Worden. In the late eighteenth century, van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a Captain of the Walloon Guards, is travelling across a mountainous region of Spain. On his first night, he stays at the Venta Quemada Inn where he meets two princesses, Emina (Iga Cembrzynska-Kondratiuk) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka). The two princesses seduce van Worden…and he wakes up the next day under a gallows from which the corpses of two bandits hang. Over the next few days van Worden continues his journey and is told stories by the people he meets, and stories within stories, to the point where he can no longer tell where reality ends and fantasy begins…

The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, literally The Manuscript Found at Saragossa) is based on a novel by Count Jan Potocki, a famous Polish scholar, traveller and adventurer, who died in 1815. Potocki’s novel, which is in print from Penguin (translated by Ian McLean), runs to over 600 pages and covers the events of sixty-six days. This film version, scripted by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski and the director Wojciech J. Has, boils the film down to five days. Otherwise, the film is faithful to the book, and makes use of a large number of fantasy motifs such as seduction by succubi, possession by demons, a voice from beyond the grave (which does turn out to have a naturalistic explanation), ghosts of hanged bandits, a hermit who turns out not to be who he seems, and an ending which cycles back to the beginning.

The film keeps the novel’s Chinese Box structure of stories within stories, by narrators who aren’t necessarily to be trusted, with characters from one story turning up in another. Half of the three-hour running time is devoted to the events of the fourth day, when van Worden and others listen to a story told by the Gypsy Chief Avadoro, a complex tale of love and deception. At one point, the stories become four layers deep (Frasquita tells her story to Don Roque Busqueros who tells his to Don Lopez Suarez who tells his to Avadoro), which becomes six when you add in the fact that this is part of a story told by Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk) to van Worden, and the whole film is told in flashback from those two soldiers reading the manuscript which they find in Saragossa. (And, as the booklet included in this DVD points out, they are characters in a film based on a novel, adding another couple of layers.) Confused? Like van Worden, you might be: there’s simply too much in The Saragossa Manuscript to take in on one viewing. The booklet notes will be very useful, but I’d suggest not consulting them too closely first time round as there are a few surprises on the way. What van Worden’s strange journey adds up to is ambiguous: a giant conspiracy to test his honour and courage, or simply a series of recurring dreams or nightmares?

Wojciech Jerzy Has (who died in October 2000) made his first short in 1948 and his first feature a decade later. Despite a forty-year career, he’s little known in the West. As far as I can ascertain, Farewells (Pozegnania, 1958) and How to Be Loved (Jac byc kochana, 1963) are the only others of his films to be released in the UK, or at least certified by the BBFC. 1973’s The Sandglass (aka The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, Sanatorium pod klepsydrą) was released in the US but seemingly not in the UK. [Update: Since this review was first written, this film was released on DVD in the UK by Mr Bongo and I reviewed it here.] Judging by The Saragossa Manuscript, Has certainly deserves wider recognition. If “one of a kind” wasn’t one of the laziest critical clichés, I’d use it to describe this film. Has’s direction is confident, and the pace rarely lags over a three hours that feels like half its length. He confidently juggles tone and mood: the film is at times eerie, sometimes erotic, sometimes very funny. Shooting in black and white Scope, Has and his cameraman Mieczysław Jahoda fill the wide screen with imagery that’s often striking, sometimes surreal and occasionally gruesome – squeamish persons should beware a scene where an eye is plucked out. The film is graced by a debut film score by the distinguished Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (who also scored Has’s 1966 film The Codes). If you’re familiar with his work from its use in such films as The Exorcist and The Shining, you may be surprised at his score here, particularly the deliberately “antique-style” main theme.

The large cast give uniformly excellent performances. Perhaps the best-known name in the West is that of Zbigniew Cybulski. He was most often associated with contemporary “disaffected youth” roles, particularly his lead in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds. Seeing him in period costume as a Belgian army officer was probably more of a shock then rather than now, but he plays the protagonist/audience surrogate very well. He was often compared to James Dean during his lifetime. Like Dean, he died young, in a train accident in 1967.

The Saragossa Manuscript was released outside Poland in two shortened versions of 152 and 124 minutes. Most of the cuts were to the second half of the film, which needs some close attention even in its complete form. Both were circulated in the US. The DVD booklet claims that the mid-length version was released in the UK, but I’m not sure that’s correct. The only version listed on the BBFC database (if you want to check my facts, Saragossa is misspelled with a double R) runs 124:33, passed uncut for an X certificate in December 1966. (This doesn’t preclude uncertificated showings of the 152-minute version. The version shown at London’s Cine Lumière in January 2001 as part of a Has retrospective was hoped to be the complete version, but turned out to be the mid-length version.) The film picked up a substantial – and often drug-assisted! – cult following in the 1960s and 1970s, less so now as with the decline of the repertory cinema circuit (and no UK TV showings that I can trace) it has become very difficult to see at all. Among its fans was Luis Buñuel, who rarely rewatched films but saw this one three times. It was the favourite film of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who claimed it had a profound influence on his music. Garcia paid for the Pacific Film Archive to acquire a print of the full-length version, on condition that he could view it whenever he wished. After two years of attempts by the Archive, a new print was struck. Sadly, Garcia died of a heart attack on 9 August 1995, the day before the print was due to be inspected, and it turned out to be the 152-minute version. The full-length negative had been destroyed and the only remaining print of the full version turned out to be owned by Wojciech Has. With the help of further funding from Martin Scorsese, another admirer of the film, the complete version of The Saragossa Manuscript was restored and preserved. It premiered at the 1997 New York Film Festival, and is now released on DVD as a “Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola presentation”.


The Disc

Image’s DVD is encoded for Region 1 only. The transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 2:1, which it claims is “the original theatrical aspect ratio”. I’m not sure that’s correct. The Saragossa Manuscript was shot in Dyaliscope, a French Scope process using anamorphic lenses (Truffaut’s first three features used it as did, more pertinently, Andrzej Munk’s unfinished Pasażerka (Passenger), made in Poland in 1962). All Dyaliscope films that I’ve seen are in 2.35:1 and I’m fairly certain (though obviously relying on memory) that The Saragossa Manuscript was in 2.35:1 at my only cinema viewing to date, the 2001 Cine Lumière showing referred to above. If memory serves, that 152-minute print had a Dyaliscope logo in its opening credits which is missing from this 182-minute version. There are occasional shots which seem unduly cropped at the sides: a crow resting on a pile of bones and now and again people disappear off the sides of the screen. However, I should state that nothing spoils comprehension. If I’m correct about the ratio, it’s disappointing that Image couldn’t provide a full 2.35:1 transfer.

That’s the not-so-good news. The better news is that visually this transfer is stunning – and that’s without making too many allowances for this particular film’s circumstances. Blacks are black, whites are white, and there are infinite shades of grey in between. Watching DVDs like this, black and white has character again. Jahoda’s finely detailed camerawork reflects and contributes to the film’s many changes of mood, and shows how versatile monochrome can be. There are minor instances of aliasing, some reel change marks, some small jumps (presumably a missing frame), and instances of white speckling. But there’s nothing too distracting, and when you consider how close this film came to be lost in its full-length version, it’s much more than could have been expected. It’s a shame that Jerry Garcia didn’t live to see this, but this presentation is dedicated to him.

The sound is the original Polish-language mono track. No complaints about this: as it’s confined to a single channel, it’s obviously not one to give your system a workout but dialogue, sound effects and Penderecki’s score are well balanced. The subtitles are in yellow. On one hand they are easy to read, but may be distracting against a black and white picture. If your Polish is fluent enough (mine certainly isn’t) you can switch the subtitles off. There are forty-four chapter stops, which cover most of the key events, all the changes of narrators. The chapter titles are unusually detailed: don’t look at them if you want to avoid spoilers, but you may find the printed list in the booklet helpful to follow the film.

This booklet, eight pages long, also includes an essay by Darren Gross, a list of principal characters and the chapters they appear in, notes on the flashback structure of Avadoro’s tale and possible interpretation of van Worden’s experiences, and a memoir of Jerry Garcia by Alan Trist. On the disc itself is a self-navigating stills gallery. Also on the DVD are biographies of Cybulski (and oddly only two other cast members, Elżbieta Czyzewska, who plays the significant role of Frasquita, and Barbara Krafft, the minor role of Camilla), Has and Penderecki. Finally, there is an isolated score option.

The Saragossa Manuscript is a film that demands repeated viewings to appreciate all its intricacies and riches. It’s steeped in the traditions of European fantasy but comes up fresh and highly entertaining to this day. I’ve seen it three times now, and I’m increasingly convinced it’s a masterpiece. Despite minor niggles, this DVD is recommended.

[Update: This disc is now out of print. However, the full version is available on DVD in the UK (from Mr Bongo) and on DVD and Blu-ray in Poland. The latter has English subtitles available.]

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