It took a bit of doing to find this one – I kept getting suggestions that I could find it on various Eastern European film streaming archives, but all the versions I found were only in the original Polish without any subtitles. Then Roommate Russ told me about how a cultural outreach program in Poland had just put a whole lot of classic Polish films online for streaming, and they did have English subtitles – and The Saragossa Manuscript was one of them. Yay!
So when I learned that this Polish film from director Wojciech Jerzy Has was based on a French book and that most of the action took place in Spain, that was a bit of a surprise. …But it ended up being pretty fun!
The manuscript in question is a lovely hardbound book a soldier discovers in an abandoned inn, where he’s come to take shelter during a battle in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. He curiously starts flipping through the pages, becoming captivated by the illustrations – to the point that when an enemy officer comes in to capture him, he waves his captor off – “I’ll come quietly, just let me have another look at these pictures first.” His captor has a look himself – and recognizes the author as his own grandfather, and starts reading his captive the story therein.
And that’s when we jump to the story proper – or, rather, the beginning of the first of the stories, because our main tale has a lot of other smaller stories branching off it like filigree. Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a captain in the Walloon Guard of Belgium, is traveling in Spain’s Sierra Morena Mountains, trying to find his way to Madrid. His two hired hands try to dissuade him from taking a certain passage, claiming it’s haunted; but Van Worden scoffs, traveling alone when his assistants flee. Van Worden comes upon an abandoned inn and prepares to strike camp for the night – but is surprised by an exotically dressed woman who leads him through a passage in the wall into a cave, where he is further surprised by a pair of two even more exotically dressed women, the Princesses Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka). The sisters try to seduce him, getting as far as enticing him to drink from a goblet made of a skull….which knocks Van Wolden out until morning, when he wakes up on a hillside underneath a gallows, surrounded by piles of skulls.
Understandably spooked, Van Wolden finds his horse again and flees, taking overnight refuge in the home of a mysterious hermit. Then he’s captured by the Spanish Inquisition, but rescued by a mysterious group of bandits – who turn out to be Emina, Zibelda, and the hermit. The group celebrate their success, and Van Wolden once again is made to drink from the skull goblet, and once again finds himself back under the gallows. This time he’s joined by a man who claims to be a student of the Kabballah, and then by a mathematician, following them back to a castle where he meets an even weirder cast of characters – and discovers a strange book in the library…
As the film goes on, Van Wolden’s own tale actually takes a back seat to all the other characters, as they each add their own backstories and asides; the second half of the movie even sees a series of nested stories, with one man telling Van Wolden a tale about a man who told him a story about a man who told him a story. But not only was I able to follow everything (although I did wonder how far the nesting was going to go after a while), the stories all link up in surprising ways. And they’re all just plan fun – there are con men, travelers, aristocrats, nuns, scientists, priests, shiekhs, witches, hanged men, and ghosts all flitting in and out of each others’ stories as well as the main narrative, serving to confuse Van Wolden even further and distract him further and further away from his ultimate errand in Madrid (which I don’t think he ever completes). It kind of feels like what would happen if you gave a commedia dell’arte troupe hallucinogens and read them some ghost stories.
The convoluted story made it difficult for Has’ film to find a mainstream audience – but it got a fervent following among the “art film” crowd, as well as other members of 60’s counterculture; both parties appreciated Has’ meandering narrative, as well as the eerie music and surrealist imagery he used. One fan was Jerry Garcia – yes, the lead guitarist from The Grateful Dead, that Jerry Garcia. Jerry was actually trying to track down a copy of the film during the last months of his life, in an effort to restore and re-release it, and was even waiting on a print to arrive the day he died. Garcia’s team learned that the print was incomplete; but by this time Martin Scorcese had also joined the hunt, and finally tracked down a copy of Has’ personal print, paying nearly $40,000 out of his own pocket to copy, subtitle, restore, and rerelease it.