The Story Behind the Story of The Saragossa Manuscript

Most people have seen them, but few know their name. Originating from Eastern Europe and Western Asia, their general shape resembles a bowling pin. What are they? They're dolls, specifically hand-painted figurines that always come in a set. The figurines are graduated in size so that each fits into the next larger one, with the largest piece containing all the other smaller ones. Since this largest piece figuratively gives birth to the smaller pieces, in Russian they're called matryushka -- mother. In their ingenious designs, matryushka neatly symbolize the multifarious plot line of The Saragossa Manuscript, one of Poland's best-known films and a cult favorite in America since it was released 35 years ago. But in addition to its influence (direct or indirect) on nearly every subsequent multiple-plot film, what makes The Saragossa Manuscript so compelling is the story behind its journey to the Alamo Drafthouse this Saturday and Sunday -- a unique example of art imitating life imitating art.

This story-of-the-story begins at the dawn of the 19th century in France. Polish blue-blood travel writer and occultist Count Jan Potocki pens his magnum opus, an ambitious multi-dimensional novel about, of all things, a book. The tome, written in French and entitled Manuscrit Trouvé à Saragosse, was published between 1797 and the year Potocki died, 1815. In a nutshell, the book deals with the fantastic mental and physical voyage of a soldier traveling through Spain, on the way encountering a mess of spirits, trials, beautiful women, and frights. Surprisingly, the book is still in print, with English translations available. Not bad for a 200-year-old book.

And then, like the matryushka with all her many layers, another story opens up. One of those who read Manuscrit Trouvé ô Saragosse was Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has, graduate of the Cracow Film Institute and director of The Sandglass (1973). The quirky filmmaker had the mettle/audacity to translate the chimerical novel to celluloid, and with the help of an extremely talented crew, did so in 1965. Like the book upon which it is based, Saragossa is long, clocking in at three hours.

Believing this length to be unduly taxing upon the American attention span, stateside distributors cut the film by a whopping one-third, although by the mid-Sixties the film had earned a reputation at campus and art film houses. And one person who eagerly sought out the film when it played in his hometown of San Francisco was Jerry Garcia, who had also read Potocki's book. Although rare is the film which outshines its parental novel, The Saragossa Manuscript did something, meant something significant to the Grateful Dead's late lead guitarist. Enough that 30 years later, Captain Trips would be possessed to obtain a private print of the film for himself.


Art Imitating Life

From the very beginning, it's clear that The Saragossa Manuscript is not a run-of-the-mill movie. Rubenesque female nudes are juxtaposed with skeletons and Dali-like images of disembodied eyes and lips. It's going to be a long, strange trip indeed. Bathed in the orchestrated splendor of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the opening scene focuses on a Napoleonic-era officer in a visibly war-torn Spanish village. Suddenly, almost as if they were beamed down from above, a small fleet of infantry and cavalry soldiers come into view and follow the officer into the battle's heart off in the distance.

Enemy fire draws close, and Beethoven is replaced by bombs as the small band of soldiers makes a sudden retreat. The life-preserving officer finds refuge in an abandoned house, and inside he comes across a large book that makes the Oxford Unabridged seem like light reading. Coyly, as if he's afraid it might be booby trapped, the officer flips one of the manuscript's colorful pages with the curved tip of his sword. Intrigued by the fantastic images within, the officer takes the book to a table for closer inspection.

With bombs going off around him, and with plaster dust gently raining down from the war-stressed residence, the officer pores over the pages -- so much so that when an enemy quartet invades the house with guns to his head, he begs them to wait while he views the engrossing book. The book captures the enemy officer's interest as well, and he sends his three men back into battle while he joins his supposed foe to read the manuscript. To his pleasant surprise, the enemy officer realizes the book recounts the story of his grandfather's exploits decades before. As he reads, the officer is interrupted by one of his soldiers, who, from the door of the still-imperiled house, asks for guidance in the face of encroaching foes. The officer responds, "Shut the door! It's drafty!" The soldier dejectedly shuts the door just as -- like the punchline of a well-timed joke -- a bomb explodes in the doorway. Unaffected, the two officers look at each other and return to the enigmatic book. Open the next matryushka. ?

The scene cuts to the second officer's relative, the hero of the story: Alphonse van Worden (played by the "Polish James Dean," Zbigniew Cybulski). A Belgian captain in the Spanish King's Wallonian Guard, who is seeking shelter in a seemingly deserted country inn when he comes across two attractive Tunisian princesses, Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka) and Emina (Iga Cembrzynskza). The pair woo him with marriage talk and sex, convincing the captain to drink an unknown liquid from a skull chalice. And, like the next matryushka, another story opens up, and another, and another. The plot line gets passed around like the telephone game by newly introduced characters who serve as vehicles between stories. Characters and plots converge like images in an Escher print. For example, at one point in the film, van Worden browses the cabalist's study, whereupon he comes across a strange book which (you guessed it) is the book about his trials and travels that he has yet to write -- the selfsame book that the two opposing officers read to begin the film.

At a certain point it becomes difficult to keep all the plot permutations in the forebrain. Which is fine, because The Saragossa Manuscript doesn't shoot for hyperrealism, but rather is a comedic and existential play on life's complexities. The film wraps up at the end, but true to form not traditionally: A slight surprise recontextualizes the entire film, and as in Pink Floyd's The Wall, the end becomes beginning, and vice versa.

Life Imitating Art

Given Saragossa's irreverent treatment of reality, its meta-story structure, and its subtle humor, it's not surprising it would influence Garcia, a reality-bender in his own right. Still, Saragossa meant something special to the tripmeister, and his attempt to get a complete print of his favorite film went far beyond the simple desire to get a rainy day copy of Reefer Madness. This was a quest. The next matryushka opens.

The Saragossa Manuscript was released in the U.S. in 1965, but only in a truncated form. And for many years since, this shortened version has occasionally popped up on the cult film house classics list. In the early 1990s, Garcia asked fellow musician and friend Henry Kaiser to contact Edith Kramer of Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive about obtaining the film for the archive. Garcia offered to put up the cash, with the provision that he and his friends could come by and watch it whenever they wanted. Kramer agreed, and a copy was ordered for the archive. But the day after the film arrived at the Pacific Film Archive in 1995, Garcia died. To add insult to injury, the print received was not the 180-minute uncut version, or even the 120-minute shorter version that Garcia originally saw, but rather a redacted 152-minute incarnation. After contacting the European distributor, Kramer discovered that the original negative of the film had been destroyed. Only one complete version of the film existed -- in Poland, the personal copy of the director, Wojciech Has. And even Has only had a print copy, not a negative. Kramer suddenly came to the conclusion that obtaining a complete copy of Saragossa was fast becoming as complex as the film's labyrinthine plot. Open yet another matryushka.

Not surprisingly, Garcia wasn't the only fan of The Saragossa Manuscript, and Kramer soon got a call from someone who wanted the film restored to its original glory -- Martin Scorsese. The renowned director put up his own money and enlisted help from other interested parties, including Francis Ford Coppola. And then -- voilô -- the restored original debuted at the 1997 NY Film Festival, subsequently being released last year to tour the country. The version showing at the Alamo Drafthouse, co-presented by the Austin Film Society, is the restored, three-hour, original version, with a dedication to Jerry Garcia for getting the ball rolling.

With its consciousness-melting narrative and myriad symbolic references, it's easy to see why Garcia, Scorsese, Coppola, et al., went to such pains to bring the film to a wider audience. Of special note (perhaps especially to musician Garcia) is Krzystof Penderecki's (The Exorcist, The Shining) classical synth-space score. Not only is each story layer heralded by a recurring sweet, melancholic, gut-string guitar melody, but injections of electronic music also reinforce bouts of weirdness throughout the film.

With artistic camera angles, a relaxed sense of drama, attractive black-and-white Cinemascope vistas, and bold period costumes, Saragossa is also distinguished by its heterogeneity. It's a Spanish story written in French about a Belgian entirely acted in Polish. So it's no surprise that it also captured the interest of surrealist Luis Buñuel and Terry Gilliam (whose Baron Munchausen is clearly influenced by Saragossa). Simultaneously horrific, erotic, and funny, The Saragossa Manuscript plays like a surreal morality play or a tripped-out version of King Arthur's tests of courage, yet one as complex as a quilted tapestry.

Of course, a three-hour film -- even a good one -- can seem patchy, and depending on your temperament, this fact could be either salved or increased by the multi-storied plot. Also, some of the visual props used to convey alternative realities in Saragossa seem dated by today's standards. But if the ultimate goal of any film, or any work of art, is to successfully tell a story, then Has' film succeeds, on many levels. For The Saragossa Manuscript is one mother of a film.



The Saragossa Manuscript  -  The Story Behind the Story
Count Jan Potocki  -  Wojciech Has
The Recording Angel Ensemble