Long, strange trip

The Saragossa Manuscript Starring Zbigniew Cybulski. Directed by Wojciech Has. Not rated, DVD and VHS.
Rated 5.0 This legendary 1965 Polish film, more talked-about and misremembered than actually seen, has gotten a new lease on life, thanks to the devoted interest of several big-name celebrities (Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola among them) who put up their own money to get a restored print of the film back into circulation.

Back in the 1960s, the film emerged briefly as a fascinating but rather perplexing cult item, a semi-surreal period piece full of digressions and stories-within-stories. Its convoluted panorama of arcane adventures concluded with a shrug, which may have given all but its most attentive and obsessed viewers license to dismiss it as a mere trick, however learned and intelligent.

What we were seeing back then turns out to have been a cut version, with as much as 60 minutes of the original missing in some cases. Now, thanks in particular to the ministrations of Scorsese and the late Mr. Garcia, the complete original version, the director’s cut, is in circulation for the first time in the United States.

The longer version runs a taxing 182 minutes but proves rewarding and substantial in ways that the two-hour version couldn’t touch. Based on a unique early 19th-century novel by the Polish aristocrat Jan Potocki, it is set in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and circles around the bizarre experiences of Alphonse van Worden, a captain in the Walloons (played by legendary Polish star Zbigniew Cybulski). But it’s nothing so simple as an adventure story in which van Worden is the hero or protagonist.

Rather, van Worden is a character in a manuscript that two soldiers find and begin to read in the middle of a battle at Saragossa.

The film dramatizes the stories they’re reading, and the stories themselves are full of characters who tell other stories, which are also dramatized.

Van Worden is seduced by two Muslim sisters who eventually rescue him from the Inquisition, but van Worden keeps waking up to find himself abandoned among the corpses strewn beneath the gallows on a stark hillside.

Mysterious recurrences and ominous coincidence are major motifs in the labyrinthine narrative of The Saragossa Manuscript, which presents itself simultaneously as the story of all stories and no story at all. It’s weird in such a distinctly modern way that the Surrealist master Luis Buñuel rated both the book and Has’ film version among his personal favorites.

In any event, The Saragossa Manuscript works wonders on several levels—as an anthology of rambunctious 19th-century tales, as proto-Surrealist labyrinth, as a cockeyed battlefield horror story bubbling over with the harsh, vivacious humor of the Poles.