The Saragossa Manuscript

English Title: The Saragossa Manuscript

Original Title: Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Kamera Film Unit

Director: Wojciech J. Has

Producer(s): Ryszard Straszewski

Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski

Cinematographer: Mieczysław Jahoda

Editor: Krystyna Komosińska

Runtime: 182 minutes

Genre: Surrealist/Allegorical

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Stanisław Igar, Gustaw Holoubek, Elżbieta Czyżewska, Iga Cembrzyńska, Zbigniew Cybulski

Year: 1965

Volume: East European

An anonymous French officer in Napoleon’s army finds a fascinating book within the ruins of the sacked city of Saragossa. He does not understand Spanish but is intrigued by the book with its strange depictions and Tarot-like illustrations. Moments later he is captured by a Spanish insurgent. His captor sees the book and notices a reference to his ancestor and begins translating the manuscript for the officer. The mysterious manuscript turns out to be the diary of Alphonse Van Worden, Captain of the Walloon Guards, who had written it forty years prior while detained for 66 days in the Sierra Morena. Not only is the manuscript filled with Van Worden’s own strange adventures, but it is teeming with the numerous tales told to him by gypsies, geometers, and cabbalists of the pastoral, the peculiar and the picaresque.


Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie/The Saragossa Manuscript is based on the labyrinthine novel by Count Jan Potocki whose mise en abyme structure intricately weaves multiple layers of narrative and sweeping arabesques of quixotic fancy. Director Wojciech J. Has’ film, unlike the novel, is separated into two distinct parts, both of which are held within a framing narrative taken directly from the novel’s preface. Part one follows the narrative of Alphonse Van Worden, a naive fop and captain of the Walloon Guards, who awakes beneath the gallows of two hanged brothers in a desolate landscape filled with piled skulls and writhing serpents. Unperturbed by his servants’ fear of ghosts, Van Worden travels to a deserted and supposedly haunted inn – the Venta Quemada. Here, Van Worden meets two incestuous Islamic sisters in a cavernous boudoir who claim Van Worden is their cousin and can marry them both only if he renounces his Christian faith. He drinks from a chalice fashioned from a human skull and wakes once more beneath the gallows. Later, Van Worden is told the story of the demoniac Pasheko; Pasheko then relates an almost identical story. He too was seduced by two beautiful incestuous sisters in a cavernous boudoir located somewhere within the mysterious interior of the Venta Quemada, and after drinking from a cranial chalice, awoke beneath the gallows of two hanged brothers. Part one follows this cyclical pattern and is replete with inexplicable and occult happenings in an atmosphere that is suffused with dread and desire, eroticism and esotericism, and the sensuousness of the preternatural that follows its own strange logic.


Part two concentrates on the gypsy chief, Avadoro, and the many stories he tells involving the intrigues of Señor Toledo, Gaspar and Lopez Suarez, Busqueros and Frasquita Solero, whose lives intersect in and around Madrid. However, there is distinct antithetical tone in the second section. There is no longer an emphasis on dreamlike scenery or the unconscious drives of the psyche as represented by Has’ supernaturalism. Rather, there is a more rational tone where nearly every semblance of the supernatural is later revealed to be of a very mundane, even quotidian origin. One example concerns Señor Toledo, who relates his story to Avadoro. Toledo fears for the life of his close friend, a Maltese Knight about to duel. Then, as thunder rumbles and lightning strikes, he hears a voice calling out which Toledo believes is from beyond the grave. Only later do we learn by means of another layer of narrative that it is not the tortured voice of the knight’s soul in the cold depths of purgatory, but the reverberating voice of the hapless dandy Lopez Suarez from inside a barrel. Then, suddenly, as in the novel, Avadoro breaks off his narrative and Van Worden exclaims: ‘I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over.’


The Saragossa Manuscript is like a hall of mirrors wherein one sees a reflection of oneself seeing a reflection of oneself, and so on. Wojciech J. Has explores the novel’s dialectic of supernaturalism and rationalism, the mystical and the demystification of the mystical, in which perceptions and beliefs are just as frequently espoused as undermined, resulting in an overall aesthetic of ambiguity. But the film’s greatest departure from Potocki’s text is its most self-reflexive moment. In the end, Van Worden finds that what is written in the manuscript is the story of his own adventures thus far, and in the manuscript’s blank pages finds he is at liberty to write his future, but at the same time is a prisoner of his own narrative. One is reminded of Don Quixote in which its author, Miguel de Cervantes, discover papers in Arabic and enlists the help of a Spanish Moor to translate the manuscript; the translation turns out to be the adventures of a knight-errant called Don Quixote written by Cid Hamet Benengeli. One memorable moment from Chapter 6 sees a curate discover among the hundred volumes in Don Quixote’s library a book named Galatea – its author is Miguel de Cervantes.

Author of this review: Zachariah Rush