“There should be a ladder under every window. Just in case.”
– Busquerosin Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript, 1965)

Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805-1814) is a celebration of storytelling. In a war-ravaged tavern around 1780, a French soldier and his gaoler read a volume left behind by one Alphonse de Worden. Alphonse was a military officer in 1739, about to take up his first post in Madrid. The manuscript is his diary of the two months during which he was diverted from this journey – by supernatural occurrences and hallucinations, beautiful Arab princesses and cabbalists, hermits and one-eyed madmen, bandits and the Spanish Inquisition, geometers and gypsies. Most of these characters have stories to tell, the narrating of which takes up the bulk of the novel. These stories are not told straightforwardly or in sequence – events, duties and physical circumstances interrupt the storytellers; stories branch into subsidiary stories. They range in space and time from the Middle East to Mexico, from the era of Christ to the “present” of the main characters. Even with the framework of a two-part, three-hour film, director Wojciech Has and his screenwriter Tadeusz Kwiatkowski needed to compress and corral this narrative exuberance – Potocki’s 36 tales told over 66 days are reduced to a more manageable half dozen in three days.

The Saragossa Manuscript was long forgotten by film history because it apparently didn’t fit into the two dominant historical moments of its national cinema: the Polish Film School of the late 1950s, and the “Cinema of Moral Anxiety” (c. 1977-1981). The dominant figure in both these movements was Andrzej Wajda; in order to define the qualities of Has, his growing band of admirers has needed to denigrate the “earlier” director. Wajda positioned himself as the cultural conscience of the nation, exploring and agonising over Polish identity in his films, its past and present, in a sombre, Romantic-nationalist style, where every bit player and prop was made to speak as part of a vast national allegory. Whereas Has’ films are – it is alleged – playful, erotic, fantastic, baroque, Surrealist, freed from the bore of local bother and rooted in a cosmopolitan, world culture (1).

Michael Goddard suggests Has’ work diverges from that of Wajda (2). But surely The Saragossa Manuscript engages directly with this overwhelming father figure (a deliberate metaphor – the main theme of both Potocki and Has is the influence of oppressive or unreasonable fathers on their sons (3). The Saragossa Manuscript is in many ways a parody of Wajda’s entire oeuvre to that date, and in particular his most celebrated film, Popiol i diament (Ashes and Diamonds,1958). It begins like a mix of Kanal (1956)and Lotna (1959), in the middle of a war, white horses bolting, men dashing around in military uniform. But the two soldiers who read the manuscript prefer the interior of the imagination to the exterior of “reality”, and order a lackey to close the tavern door, shut out the war, and leave them to read undisturbed.

Three of the lead actors in Ashes and Diamonds reappear in The Saragossa Manuscript (Zbigniew Cybulski, Adam Pawlikowski and Bogumil Kobiela) (4). When Alphonse (Cybulski) first wakes up under a gallows in a parched landscape, he passes by the sort of Baroque cross that, hanging upside down, was the key image of Ashes and Diamonds. If Cybulski was the “Polish James Dean” in the earlier film (5), a figure of identification for an entire generation, in The Saragossa Manuscript his myth is gloriously exploded. Here he is an overweight, incompetent buffoon, easily bamboozled by the characters he meets, but equally defeated by his own ineptitude – one of his first actions is to drop a bucket into a well after a long trek in the scorching sun. Alphonse speaks comparatively little, and his Gothic haplessness in the first part of the film is countered by the comic mastery of Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk) in the second; Alphonse’s uncomprehending blundering about in somebody else’s plot is contrasted with the gypsy’s ability to juggle multiple storylines, solve problems and achieve closure. Cybulski’s death-spasms in the trash-heap of history at the close of Ashes and Diamonds become in The Saragossa Manuscript an inglorious loop of madness.

Has’ ending is the major departure from a mostly faithful adaptation of his source text: it brilliantly literalises the “infernal doubling” (6) that animates the novel, and undermines the authority of a book dedicated to undermining authority (and author-ity). Otherwise, far from being the Surrealist masterpiece its admirers claim – even Luis Buñuel praised it, in spite of its cod-Dali visual flourishes – The Saragossa Manuscript retains the “overall design” of Potocki’s novel (7), where themes, motifs and characters recur and resound across tales and framing stories; nothing is left to chance. The book is about stories, and the transmission of information both orally and textually. A French book written by a multi-lingual Pole, set in Spain, Italy, Mexico and the Middle East, it is a “polyphony” (8) of languages, texts, and intertexts.

The act of reading a book about its own creation, and its proliferation through substitute texts, gives the reader an ontological frisson that can’t be replicated in cinematic terms by a straight adaptation. And “straight” The Saragossa Manuscript sadly is: Has makes little attempt to find cinematic correlatives for Potocki’s literary mises-en-abyme (9). To this viewer, The Saragossa Manuscript is actually rather uncinematic, with the parallel planes of prop, character space and backdrop resolved theatrically and through dialogue, rather than plastically. The story-within-story structure is visualised architecturally: rooms-within-rooms. As such, Has’ nearest parallel is not the Surrealist Buñuel but, as David Thomson suggested, the over-determined, script-dependent Poetic Realist Marcel Carné (10).

This failure to use the cinematic apparatus thematically and self-referentially is particularly disappointing in a work concerned with vision, voyeurism and perception, appearance and “reality” (11). 40 years after The Saragossa Manuscript, Michael Winterbottom tackled the equally metafictional The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767). He transposed its bookish games by eliding documentary and adaptation, television and cinema, public perception and private “truth”. Whether or not you found A Cock and Bull Story (2005)ultimately successful, or slight and (ironically) too literal, Winterbottom at least took up the challenge. Has did not. The film’s only real experimentation is on its soundtrack, where Krzysztof Penderecki enfolds exuberant Baroque and Spanish guitar, suspenseful double bass and heightened natural sounds, manipulated vocals and pregnant silences, into the sinister rhythms of electronic modernism, synthesisers making sounds like water dripping in a faraway cave. It is perfectly in tune with the spirit of Potocki.

Endnotes

  1. Jonathan Murray calls the film “something approaching a Surrealist Manifesto inscribed in moving pictures”. Murray, “The Saragossa Manuscript”, Cineaste vol. 35, no. 1, 2009: www.cineaste.com/articles/emthe-saragossa-manuscriptem-web-exclusive. On the other hand, “surrealist” and “baroque” are terms frequently used to describe Wajda’s films. See Janina Falkowska, “Popiól i diament/Ashes and Diamonds”, The Cinema of Central Europe, ed. Peter Hames, Wallflower, London and New York, 2004, pp. 65, 71.
  2. Michael Goddard, “Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie/The Saragossa Manuscript”, The Cinema of Central Europe, p. 88.
  3. This theme is purged of the historicised, religious and colonialist dimensions given it in the novel (written as Napoleon controlled much of Europe), part of Has’ and Kwiatkowski’s tendency to depoliticise Potocki. In their defence, the Inquisition’s attempt to get Alphonse to name names in a torture chamber, and the overall narrative of an individual manipulated by shadowy conspirators might have had resonance in Soviet-controlled Poland.
  4. Production Manager on the film was longtime Wajda collaborator Barbara Pec-Slesika.
  5. Paul Coates quoted in Falkowska, p. 73.
  6. Goddard, 2004, p. 94.
  7. Ian MacLean, “Introduction”, Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, trans. and ed. MacLean, Penguin, London, 1996, p. xiv.
  8. MacLean, p. xvii.
  9. The one possible exception, when the camera tilts over a map to show the landscape it represents, is pinched from Mannerist and Baroquepaintings like View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1610-1614, Museo del Greco, Toledo), by El Greco. Has, like Wajda before him, was an art student. Goddard, p. 88.
  10. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Morrow, New York, 1976, p. 232. Krzysztof-Teodor Toepplitz called Has “a ‘literary’ film director”. Toepplitz, “The Films of Wojciech Has”, Film Quarterly vol. 18, no. 2, Winter 1964, p. 2.
  11. For alternative evaluations, see Murray; andGoddard, who notes, for instance, the difference in lighting and staging between the Alphonse and Avadoro sections (p. 92).

Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie/The Saragossa Manuscript (1965 Poland 182 mins)

Prod Co: Kamera Film Unit Dir: Wojciech Has Scr: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, based on the novel Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie by Jan Potocki Phot: Mieczyslaw Jahoda Ed: Krystyna Komosinska Prod Des: Tadeusz Myszorek, Jerzy Skarzynski Mus: Krzysztof Penderecki

Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Gustaw Holoubek, Stanislaw Igar, Joanna Jedryka, Adam Pawlikowski, Bogumil Kobiela, Leon Niemczyk