The Film: 18th Century Restoration “The Saragossa Manuscript”
Dominic Power on a forgotten great of Polish cinema
The Saragossa Manuscript, directed by Wojciech Has, is a rediscovered masterpiece of 60s Polish cinema that chronicles the occult adventures of Alfonse van Worden, an aristocratic army captain, journeying through the badlands of 18th century Spain. At a deserted inn he is entertained by two Moorish sisters, who offer him marriage and erotic fulfilment.
But at the moment of ecstasy he wakes beneath the gallows between two corpses. Bewildering, beautiful and grotesque, the film is a labyrinth of symbols and hidden meanings. Its baffled hero traverses a landscape that resembles a Dalí canvas, encountering ghosts, monks, madmen, outlaws and Cabalists along the way; tales are told and tales are told within tales.
Since its release in 1965, the film existed only in a badly cut version until the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia financed its restoration. In all its uncut glory, The Saragossa Manuscript is a captivating enigma, seducing its audience into repeated viewings before it begins to reveal its secrets.
Dominic is a writer and head of the Screen Arts department at the National Film and Television School