A dizzying, multi-layered maze of stories within stories within stories, Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse is a work of such magnitude, richness and encyclopedic reach that only a very brave man or a lunatic could ever have thought of adapting it for the cinema. Whether out of courage or insanity, Polish director Wojciech Has decided in 1965 to grapple with the legendary novel, written in French by his countryman, the aristocrat Jan Potocki, between 1797 and 1812. The original 182-minute version of the film was cut by one hour on its release, and this footage was only recently restored thanks to the efforts of two illustrious fans, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Martin Scorsese.
The film opens during the Napoleonic wars in Spain as two soldiers find an ancient manuscript that tells the story of Walloon Guard Captain Alphonse Van Worden. They read how, riding to Madrid through desolate, barren land, Van Worden decides to stay in the demon-ridden Venta Quemada inn for the night, despite the warnings of the inn-keepers. In the night he is led by an exotic young woman into a sumptuous secret room where two beautiful Moorish princesses are waiting for him. The next morning he wakes up under the gallows, next to the hanged corpses of two bandits. From then on Van Worden is led back to Venta Quemada again and again, and every morning he wakes up under the gallows. On this circular journey he meets not only the princesses but also a hermit, inquisitors, cabbalists and gypsies, each encounter providing an occasion for more stories to be told.
Watching Polish-speaking Spanish characters dubbed in English for three hours may sound like a strange cinematic experience, but it is certainly in keeping with the trans-national approach of the novel, set in Spain and written in French by a Polish man. Involving more than just several nationalities, Potocki’s novel is an all-encompassing, polyphonic work, and the many different stories all complement one another to create a picture of life in its totality. Naturally, it would have been impossible for Has to keep all the stories in the script and, as can only be expected, the film is a simplification of the original text. However, Has successfully manages to convey the atmosphere of Potocki’s work, presenting the same colourful mix of horror, comedy and eroticism. While the scenes with the princesses are enticingly suggestive, it is the nightmarish side of Van Worden’s story that Has evokes most adeptly. The land around Venta Quemada is dotted by white, almost skeletal rocks that give the landscape a ghostly feel while Krzysztof Penderecki’s excellent score, peaking in jarring shards of synth sounds every time Van Worden finds himself under the gallows, greatly enhances the sinister mood.
The Saragossa Manuscript is essentially an initiation to life in all its labyrinthine complexity. A baroque masterpiece, Potocki’s novel is about the fleeting line between reality and illusion, and film is of course a particularly appropriate medium to convey this. In Has’ work no one is ever who they seem to be, and it is not simply characters who reappear under different names in the many intertwined stories, but the two actresses who play the Moorish princesses also return in various guises, further blurring the boundaries. Constantly questioning what we take to be reality, The Saragossa Manuscript joyously affirms that there is no hard, solid truth in the universe, at least no truth perceivable by man. It is also for this reason that the three main religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are represented in the story. For Potocki, truth cannot be found in any one belief system: human life is the sum of all beliefs.
Potocki’s enlightened views lead to a certain optimism: in spite of all the trials he has to go through, his Van Worden successfully completes his initiation and is rewarded at the end. By contrast, Has’ Van Worden is eternally stuck in the same spot, going in circles, unable to find a way out. When he does, it is to discover that, in a very modern twist, his whole story is already written in a manuscript, and it is now up to him to write the end. Ultimately, he is unable to escape from the illusion he is engulfed in, and he ends up driven mad by his visions. As the comic side of the novel is much emphasized throughout the film, it is all the more striking that Has should choose to end on such a dark, hopeless note: Van Worden essentially fails his initiation to life. Whatever this says about 1960s Poland or about Has’ personal views, one thing is sure: Has’ modern recreation of Potocki’s all-embracing vision of life leads him to an entirely different, chilling conclusion from that of the nineteenth-century writer.
Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse remains one of the great, and unjustly obscure, monuments of literature and although Has’ film version is nowhere near as close to genius as the original text, it does possess several of its charms, offering a wonderful ride through the beguiling world created by Potocki.