DirectorWojciech Jerzy Has
Release Date(s)1965 (June 27, 2023)
Studio(s)Kamera Film Unit (Yellow Veil Pictures/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Genuinely odd, The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, “The Manuscript Found in Zaragoza”) is a three-hour, four-minute Polish film structured like a Chinese puzzle, with intertwining stories within stories within stories. If you thought Passage to Marseille was confusing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Stylistically, the film is like a combination of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s surrealism, Italian Mario Bava’s chiaroscuro camerawork, and expat American Terry Gilliam’s picaresque black humor, particularly Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I can’t imagine the latter not being profoundly influenced by this work.
It’s also very long and very cryptic at times. Some of its advocates admit not “getting it” at all the first time they saw it, insisting multiple viewings are essential to comprehending its riches. Maybe so, but while I was enormously impressed by the film’s visuals and its ambitious, audacious structure, by midway through the film’s second half (Part 1 runs 80 minutes, Part 2 runs 102 minutes, after an intermission break) I couldn’t wait for it to end, as if trapped on a malfunctioning carousel going ‘round and ‘round, unable to stop.
Set primarily in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, during a battle in Saragossa, officers from opposing sides become so enchanted by a large, heavily illustrated book they find in an abandoned house they temporarily stop fighting one another to read from it. Coincidentally, the author of the book is the grandfather of one of the men, a captain in the Walloon Guard.
In flashbacks we see that ancestor, Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who, seeking the shortest route through the Sierra Morena Mountains, stumbles upon a haunted inn, where two beautiful, ghostly Moorish princesses, Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka) invite the captain into their secret boudoir, they insisting they are cousins while seducing him with a skull goblet. He awakens to find himself next to several corpses under a gallows, where he next encounters a hermit priest and the possessed man he looks after.
Under the priest’s influence, the possessed man tells his story, which also involves the strange women. The captain again awakens beneath the gallows, where he’s invited to a cabalist’s castle where a band of gypsies become involved in yet more stories-within-stories-within stories.
The Saragossa Manuscript has been described as a celebration of storytelling, an expression of the unavoidably cyclical and paradoxical nature of existence, the ambiguities of perceived reality. Like Hitchcock it is obsessed with “doubles,” like Bava it is rife with seductive, devilish spirits, like Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen it is concerned with artifice and the absurdities of life and (especially) death.
Though a longtime admirer of Jan Švankmajer, whose short films from this same period I find especially hypnotic, personally I found Saragossa visually arresting and its unusual structure intriguing but eventually wearisome. Francis Coppola, an admirer of the film, made something somewhat similar with The Conversation (1974), which I recently rewatched. Though more conventional in one sense, I found that great picture drawing me in as deeply as when I first saw it decades ago. While I admired much of Saragossa, its deliriously prolix and fiendishly complicated, intertwining narrative left me as much exasperated as anything before it was over. That said, I can see where others might find it mesmerizing and want to watch it over-and-over.
For years only heavily cut versions of The Saragossa Manuscript were available in English, a 147-minute cut in the U.S. and an even shorter, 125-minute version in the U.K. Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead first saw the U.S. cut in 1966, fell in love with the trippy film, and in the years prior to his death worked to bring the complete film stateside. Sadly, he died just as his labors were bearing fruit, but Martin Scorsese, another admirer, stepped in and completed the project, the restored film first screened in 1997.
Filmed in crisp black-and-white Dyaliscope (a European variation of CinemaScope), the restored version looks great, with excellent detail and contrast. Something I’ve never encountered before is that when the viewer hits “Play” the disc at first appears to contain only the first, 82-minute part of the film. Initially I thought I was missing a second disc, but once Part 1 ends there’s a layer change and the remainder of the film, Part 2, plays normally. However, nothing on the main menu even hints at this; the chapter selection, for instance, offers chapters from first half only. Odd. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is excellent, as are the optional English subtitles. An alternate Dolby Stereo mix is also offered. The disc is Region “A” encoded.
The release is fairly packed with supplements. Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf provides a video introduction (7:03) and returns for a critical assessment (10:04), both shot using grainy, Zoom meeting-like video. Sebastian Smolinski also appears in what’s billed as an interview (23:38), but that really takes the form of a video essay. A 22-page booklet includes written essays by Insdorf and Anton Bitel but does not include cast and crew credits or notes on the video transfer.
Undeniably some kind of masterpiece, The Saragossa Manuscript will likely continue to alternately dazzle and frustrate viewers, sometimes simultaneously. But Yellow Veil’s new Blu-ray is equally undeniably one of the year’s best releases. Highly Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV