THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965): EXISTENTIAL POTPOURRI

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) poster

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a filmmakers’ film. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorses, Luis Bunuel, and David Lynch are among its impassioned devotees.  Has’ film is also a cult favorite, no doubt helped by Jerry Garcia’s advocacy.  Superlative artistry and bold originality would be reason enough for its elevated aesthetic standing, but The Saragossa Manuscript also begs description.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) theatrical release poster

The methodical, brooding, short-lived Zbigniew Cybulski (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) heads a prodigious cast that remarkably fleshes out Count Jan Potocki’s 19th century, picaresque, magical realist novel.  After the discovery of the titular manuscript, The Unknown Soldier is transported in time and space joining Alfonso van Worden’s (Cybulski) on a phantasmagorical, anecdotal journey during the Napoleonic Wars.  Van Worden leads his uneasy party down a depraved path through the Spanish Mountains, temporarily settling at the infamous Sierra Morena.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT

Temptation comes in the form of incestuous, Wagnerian sisters who seduce the protagonist in the imaginative terrain.  Heresy is the sacrificial lamb, aflame in adroit eroticism. Van Worden’s journey commands relentless attention as Has masterfully weaves a Byzantine labyrinth of multi-layered tales which range from the epic to the intimate, from Gothic surrealism to frivolous exoticism. These vignettes are simultaneously romantic, satirical, parlous, buoyantly humorous, macabre, exotic, grandiose, enigmatic, heinous and sprinkled with erotic spirituality. Yet, the flow of the film is remarkably contained by Has’ surprisingly consistent, effervescent  handling of Potocki’s dizzying narrative.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) theatrical release poter
Inquisitors, spectral gallows, Tunisian princesses, and Nubian slaves are part of van Worden’s trial as he finds himself, repeatedly, in the paradoxical Magic Flute-like roles of steadfast hero (Tamino) and wayward prodigal (Papageno), which results in a boundlessly expansive pilgrimage.  Clues to van Worden’s riddle lie in recurring, treacherous symbols of hanging carcasses and discarded maps.  Much like Moses in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”, van Worden is impotent in expression, requiring his potential, charismatic savior Aron in the form of a second protagonist: Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek).  Velasquez’s grasp of poetry and mathematics far surpasses that of van Worden, and his rescue of van Worden from the Grand Inquisitor is as much a symbol of sight and salvation from van Worden’s blind impotency in all things physical, psychological and spiritual.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

The texture of The Saragossa Manuscript often resembles a Max Ernst canvas.  The production design by Jerzy Skarzynski fleshes out van Worden’s visionary desert-scape, which becomes increasingly alien in its milieu. Paradoxically, the main characters are impressively three dimensional, which is no easy feat in surrealism.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) screenshot.

The Saragossa Manuscript integrates the eclectic tenets of Phenomenology, Imagism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Absurdism, to name but a few.  Rationalism is, to quote Heidegger, delightfully out the door, making for an incomparable, existential potpourri of idiosyncratic weirdness.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is a fine arts painter, an award-winning independent filmmaker, and has a masters of theological studies in the arts. His Masters thesis was: "Justification By Imagination.The Marian Art Of Thomas Merton." For nine years, he has been a film critic (for 366 Weird Movies). His essays for that site have been published in the yearbooks and quoted in various film biographies. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, "Brother Cobweb." He currently lives in Gresham, Oregon where he performs his character, Brother Cobweb at The House Of Shadows.