It is the fate of some films to be so influential as to make themselves obsolete. Such is almost the case with Wojciech Has' 1965 Polish masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript. While largely unseen in the U.S., Has' wacky epic clearly set off stylistic ripples in Europe, which found their way into the work of American directors who may not have seen the original. So to those now encountering the film for the first time, The Saragossa Manuscript may seem less startling than it did 34 years ago. No matter: It's still plenty startling enough.
Despite the briefness of its 1965 American release -- in a cut version -- The Saragossa Manuscript has, through the occasional campus or rep-house screening, developed a powerful cult reputation. Some of this comes from the advocacy of the late Jerry Garcia, who provided the funds that set the current restoration in motion.
What attracted Garcia to the film? And what is it that has made the movie so fabled among cinema buffs? In its full three-hour length, The Saragossa Manuscript is a farce in the form of an epic, a goofy, loose-limbed film that seems to ramble but always manages eventually to double (and triple) back on itself. It flouts cinema conventions -- or at least the conventions of "serious" cinema. To give a synopsis of the plot is a foolhardy enterprise, but we won't let that stop us from trying.
Adapted from an 1813 novel written in French by the Polish aristocrat Jan Potocki, who apparently spent some time as King of Malta (whatever that means), Saragossa begins in the middle of a battle during the Napoleonic wars. An officer from the losing side stumbles into a ramshackle inn, where he discovers an intriguing manuscript; he can't read the text, but the sensational illustrations -- supernatural and erotic -- are enough to make him forget the time and place.
When the opposing army tries to arrest him, he peevishly asks not to be disturbed. Can't they see he's reading? One of the arresting officers quickly becomes equally intrigued, particularly when he realizes that the manuscript tells the story of his own family. He sends the others away and proceeds to translate the book for his enemy.
The text appears to be the work of one Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a Belgian army officer, writing some 75 years earlier of his exploits on his way to Madrid during a military campaign. Alphonse, who is as close to a protagonist as the film has, decides it is his duty to take the most direct route to Madrid, despite numerous warnings that he is about to cross a haunted no man's land. Being a Christian and above superstitious nonsense, he forges ahead.
All alone, he comes across a field of skeletons, in the center of which hang the corpses of two notorious thieves. Repulsed, he stumbles into Venta Quemada, a run-down inn. At first it appears abandoned, but out of nowhere, a half-naked black woman appears, entreating him to accept a dinner invitation from the two ladies upstairs. The two ladies, who proceed to seduce him, are pretty obviously ghosts, or vampires, or something like that. They drug him; the next morning he wakes up out in the bone yard, and everything around the inn appears different.
For the rest of the film, Alphonse attempts to make his way to Madrid, but no matter what he does, he keeps waking up in the bone yard. He also keeps running into other travelers who tell him long tales about their pasts. Sometimes, within those tales, a character insists on telling his tale to the teller. And, within that tale ....
You get the idea: Saragossa has triple, quadruple, maybe quintuple nested flashbacks. At the end of any given story, you're never sure at first which level you're going to emerge into: the one immediately above? The one in which Alphonse is the listener? The one in which Alphonse's manuscript is being read by the officer from the first scene?
There are also moments when characters from one story pop up in another, even if it makes no chronological sense. (Of course, if we assume that the flashbacks are Alphonse's visualizations of what he's hearing, rather than the various narrators' memories, then it may simply be that he is populating the visuals with familiar faces.) The most startling moment is when, halfway through his adventures, he comes upon an interesting book with erotic and supernatural drawings: It is, of course, his own manuscript ... which he hasn't yet written.
You can see the likely reasons for Garcia's interest: This is really trippy shit. The terra firma of narrative reality keeps shifting below our feet; whenever we think we know where we are, we're probably wrong. It is the low-tech, '60s equivalent of all the virtual reality thrillers -- eXistenZ, The Matrix -- that are currently in the theaters.
If there is a problem with Saragossa, it is that, as mentioned above, some of its tricks no longer seem quite so mind-boggling, thanks to our exposure to the numerous movies that it influenced, either directly or indirectly. If forced to choose between multiple viewings of Saragossa or, say, Jacques Rivette's equally long, equally trippy Celine and Julie Go Boating, I'd opt for the latter. Still, Rivette may have gotten there with the most, but Saragossa Manuscript got there first -- and with almost as much.