Today: June 21, 2024

The Saragossa Manuscript

The Saragossa Manuscript is one of those films which gets aficionados all steamed up.

The Saragossa Manuscript is one of those films which gets
aficionados all steamed up.
Since it was
first released, in 1965, it’s rarely been screened outside its native Poland,
uncut or undubbed. Despite this, it boasts the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese
and Francis Ford Coppola amongst its
staunchest supporters. In fact it was only due to the efforts of The Grateful
Dead’s Jerry Garcia that a fully
restored print of the three-hour epic was finally shown at the New York Film
Festival in 1997. Since then, the reputation of this curious, cinematic chimera
has gone from strength to strength.

Based on a Baroque tale by Count Jan Potocki, “The Manuscript
Found In Saragossa” combines the social commentary of Don Quixote with the bawdiness of Tom Jones and the high fantasy of Baron Munchhausen. On the surface,
Potocki’s novel is simply a fantastical romp through Napoleonic Spain. Further
reading, reveals something much deeper. Potock’s tale is an Alice in Wonderland experience and the
further down the rabbit hole you go, the stranger things get. As the
protagonist, Alphonse von Worden, encounters a colourful cast of thieves,
princesses, inquisitors, and cabalists we’re made to question, not just his
perceptions of reality, but our own.

Bringing such a multilayered tale
to the big screen was never going to be easy but director, Wojciech Has, succeeded with aplomb.

Has’ film opens during the Siege
of Saragossa, in which a young officer takes refuge from the advancing enemy in
a dilapidated inn. While waiting to be captured, he discovers an old book.
Surprised to discover that it seems to have been written by his own grandfather,
Alphonso van Worden, he sits down and begins to read.

Wojciech Has is often described as
a Surrealist Director and there is a Dali-esque quality to his vision. He makes
much of the sparse, Spanish scenery, using low, quirky, camera angles to create
his own Surrealist still lifes. Other scenes are as brash and as bold as
theatre sets. The result is as disorientating for the viewer as it is for
Alphonso. An effect that Dali called the “delirium of interpretation”.

Screened in sumptuous black and
white, The Saragossa Manuscript is essentially a portmanteau piece. One story
leads to another, then another, to create a delightfully, daffy dreamscape.
But, although this is a film that is often spoken of in reverential tones, it
really shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s as camp and as lurid as any Hammer and as playful and as saucy as
any Carry On. The fact that the
lead, Zbigniew Cybulski, looks
disturbingly like Bob Hope adds to the effect. Ultimately, what makes The
Saragossa Manuscript so addictive is that you can take as much or as little as
you want from it. It can be a deep dissection of the meaning of reality or a
bit of post pub fluff, to snicker at. And isn’t that true of all the best

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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