The Saragossa Manuscript is sort of a cross between Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy – it’s a Polish shaggy-dog story set during the Napoleonic Wars in the town of Saragossa, Spain. Originally released in 1965 and beloved by such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Jerry Garcia, and Francis Ford Coppola, the film is a long and substantial addition to the surprisingly sizable Polish cinematic canon.
The director, Wojciech Has, is legendarily underrated in English speaking countries due to his insistence on making individualistic and doggedly surreal movies, and The Saragossa Manuscript is probably the crowning achievement of his career. It’s about an officer who, while retreating from the advancing enemy, discovers a book of beautiful drawings in a nearby house. One of the advancing soldiers discovers him hiding but, entranced by the book, he decides to help the officer translate the words therein. Inside this frame, the rest of the film builds towards telling the story of the enemy soldier’s ancestor, Alfonso van Worden, and his adventures travelling through the Sierra Morena mountains. This story leads to other people telling their stories, which are included in the film, leading to a story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure. It’s quite difficult to orientate yourself within the film at times, especially with it being in black and white and in Polish, but the film is absolutely worth the effort.
The beauty of the images on display here, enhanced by the monochrome, is astounding. Scenes of vast mountains contrast with gruesome details in the foreground, and the camera movements sweep and flow through the action in an astonishingly modern way – in fact, the modernity of the film is probably its most striking feature. The humour and sexuality on show, even under the famously culturally moribund landscape of Communist Eastern Europe, is quite edgy and the sensibilities of the film seem to predict, with some accuracy, what modern audiences would respond to. Namely boobs and skulls.
The key to enjoying this film is to rid yourself of all other distractions and to just allow your brain to settle into the rhythm of the film. Its length is quite intimidating but once involved, it’s easy to lose yourself in the world of the film.