Two mysterious, magnificent, surreal and entrancing films by the Polish director.
Made in 1965, Wojciech Has’ Polish cult favourite The Saragossa Manuscript is a film of two halves – literally, as it is split into Part One and Part Two, but also in terms of the content. Other than the ending of the film, this could be two unrelated films… and that is just a part of the fascination that this remarkable, fascinating puzzle of a film holds over the viewer. This is a film open to many interpretations and probably needs a few viewings before you really can get to grips with it.
In the Napoleonic Wars, two officers from opposing sides find themselves drawn to a large illustrated book in an abandoned inn on the battlefield. It’s this contents of this book that make up the main story, at least for Part One, as it tells the story of Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who is travelling through the Sierra Morena Mountains en route to Madrid. It’s a desolate place, like Hell itself, scattered with corpses and bones – a haunted land that becomes stranger when van Worden stays the night in a deserted inn and encounters two beautiful women who inform him that they are his cousins and that, as the last of his line, he must marry both of them – and convert to Islam. But the next morning, he awakens to find himself back amongst the skulls and the dead. Meeting a hermit priest, he then hears the story of another, allegedly possessed man who had a similar encounter with two other ghostly women.
Later that day, van Worden is captured by the Inquisition and tortured before being rescued by the Zoto Brothers – previously seen as corpses – and the two women, who take him back to their home, only for a Sheikh to appear and force him to drink from a poisoned skull chalice; awakening back amongst the dead, our hero meets with a Cabalist and a mathematician, who accompany him back to the Cabalist’s castle, where the first half ends.
Part Two mostly consists of a series of interwoven stories told to the gathered crowd by a gipsy leader whose band is visiting the castle. Tales of romance and double-dealing, these have a lighter feel than the first half of the film, often feeling like a less raunchy Pasolini film – but with the characters and the stories interwoven, you need to stay alert, and almost certainly won’t notice every connection on first viewing, if only because characters will appear as background figures in some stories before taking the lead in others, that in turn connect to other parts of the film. It’s a remarkable, if sometimes frustrating experience, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Eventually, both parts are brought together for an ending that leaves as many questions open as answered.
Often shown in edited versions – which must’ve played hell with the carefully crafted structure – this edition in the restored full version, and it’s pretty astonishing. The first part has a remarkable sense of dread – the eerie locations, the unsettling music score, the supernatural elements and the sense of displacement make it an effectively weird experience, close to, but not quite becoming, a horror story. The second half has a bawdy humour to it that seems at odds with this opening, but is nevertheless entertaining, even if you become increasingly aware that the stories within stories within stories are the movie equivalent of wandering through a strange city and turning down side street after side street – it’s increasingly hard to remember where you started out, and seems unlikely that the film could successfully return you to a point that might be half an hour and several stories ago. That it does is a tribute to director Has’ handling of the notoriously complex novel by Count Jan Potocki.
In the end, this is a film that rewards effort, and that effort is well worth putting in. In terms of both visuals and narrative, it’s challenging, trippy, funny and very, very odd. And you’ll probably want to sit down and watch it again right away.
Eight years later, Has came up with The Hourglass Sanatorium, another film that blurs reality and time but does so in a much more extravagant way. The result is a film that is less about narrative coherence and more a series of bizarre, quirky events. It’s also a work of extraordinary visual flair.
The story, for what it is worth, sees Josef (Jan Nowicki) visiting his dying father at a crumbling, ridiculously vast sanatorium in the Polish countryside. Leaving the train (manned by a blind conductor and seemingly populated by lost souls), he makes his way through the ravaged countryside and finally arrives at the gothic building, where the doctor tells him that his father is dead – at least in the outside world. Here, time is reclaimed, and his father remains alive – for now. Soon, Josef too is moving through time and seemingly space, as he follows a young boy out of the building and finds himself experiencing a series of surreal encounters and experiences with people he knew, places he had been. Like Alice in Wonderland, he seems trapped in a spiral where every encounter only leads to more confusion.
The viewer too will find this confusing, especially if you try to make sense of it – in fact, doing that would be foolish. This is more an experience than a coherent film, and it’s best to simply join Josef in his increasingly confused, strange world. Because of that, it’s certainly not for everyone – if you’re the sort of person who frets over plot holes in movies, you’ll certainly hate this. But that would be your loss because there is a lot to admire in this film.
This is, without question, one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve ever seen (and is here presented in a gorgeous restored edition). Not only does every shot look like a gorgeous, carefully composed set-piece, but the film manages to move through time and place seamlessly, giving a dream-like fluidity to the events, which could have easily been jarring. Sets, costumes, lighting and camerawork are all remarkable. Nowicki is one-dimensional enough to act as a conduit between events – ironically, a more charismatic actor couldn’t hold a film like this together. And the combination of horror (the opening scenes in the sanatorium are genuinely creepy, with an atmospheric score by Jerzy Maksymiuk that is that match of any horror soundtrack), childlike innocence and Fellini-esque eroticism make for quite a potent visual brew.
Admittedly, the film eventually feels rather slight – the recreation of the pre-war Jewish ghetto might ground the film in a regretful nostalgia for Polish viewers of a certain age, but for others, it might just feel like another part of the cacophony of events driving the film. But there is substance here; it’s just not narrative substance. That’s not a bad thing.
Fans of Terry Gilliam’s more unfettered flights of fancy or the works of Jan Svankmajer will feel at home here, as will admirers of Bunuel and freewheeling European arthouse cinema. Michael Bay fans, less so. Choose your side now!