WOJCIECH HAS' THE SARAGOSSA MANUscript, released in 1965, doesn't quite live up to its legendary reputation as a mindblower, a movie that is famous almost entirely for being Jerry Garcia's favorite. If you're expecting something all swirly and psychedelic, this flat-footed adaptation of a classic Polish Gothic novel may seem oddly stodgy. There's more overtly trippy stuff in any Poe movie by Roger Corman, and far more sinuous narrative convolution in the average Jacques Rivette picture. But the film is unusual, mostly because it sticks close to the twisty structure of Jan Potocki's multilayered 1813 novel, when the impulse of most filmmakers would be to untangle the threads and lay them out flat.
Director Has manages to flatten them out anyway, with the dead weight of his heavy-handed film style, lumbering dutifully along in black-and-white PolskiScope. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic angry young man, the James Dean of Poland, who starred in early Andrzej Wajda films such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Here, he's the hapless Alphonse van Worden, an upper-crust Napoleonic officer, a dead ringer for Mario Lanza in his too-much-pasta period, stranded in the mountains of southern Spain, encountering Gypsies and hermits and one-eyed madmen — and a pair of Muslim succubi in store-bought harem pants. Alphonse awakens repeatedly, from the same nightmare of drugged seduction, into a rocky landscape strewn with skulls and dangling gibbeted corpses, and then shrugs and grins and ambles off to his next encounter.
The most engaging element comes straight out of the novel, a tunneling structure of stories within stories, like an image in a mirror plummeting toward infinite regression. Potocki wasn't an originator, but he adopted the Chinese-box format of Gothic fiction from pioneers like Anne Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho) and pushed it forward, toward the peak achievement of Charles Maturin's 1820 epic Melmoth the Wanderer. These fellows weren't smart-asses wryly tinkering with intertextuality; they loved the clattering gears and sprockets of pre-Victorian narrative for their own sake. The format was also a perfect match for the Gothic fixation on labyrinthine conspiracies. (Potocki was a Freemason.)
A fair amount of this complexity survives in the movie. At one point, unless I lost count, the narrative levels are piled five deep. But it would be a lot more fun in practice if Has were a little lighter on his feet. He doesn't spring the traps set by the novelist with the commanding flourish of a born prestidigitator, a lordly flick of the wrist that draws gasps and chuckles from the cognoscenti. He may simply be in over his head, concentrating grimly on the path ahead to avoid losing his way in the underbrush. Has actually seems most comfortable in the relatively conventional central sections, in which the tone of the interpolated tales switches from the uncanny to the ribald, with mustachioed adulterers scrambling in and out of windows.
In fairness to Garcia's memory, it should be noted that the version currently in release is a full-length restoration undertaken by the Pacific Film Archive following the purchase of an incomplete print, with funds donated by the late musician. This is not exactly the movie Garcia first saw, in other words, and it may have seemed even more disjunctive and surreal in the 120-minute cut he absorbed (presumably in an altered state) when it played briefly in the Bay Area in 1965. Supposedly the fractal complexities of the storytelling, and the burbling ebb and flow of Krzysztof Penderecki's score, were key formative influences. But as we all know, the seeds of inspiration sometimes grow into mighty oaks that surpass their source. It would have been interesting to hear how Garcia would have reacted to the full-length version of The Saragossa Manuscript. Sadly, he ceased being grateful and became merely dead on the day after the PFA received the new print. A clever Gothic novelist could make something of that conjunction. Wojciech Has, in all likelihood, could not.
THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT | Directed by WOJCIECH HAS | Written by TADEUSZ KWIATKOWSKI | Produced by THE KAMERAFILM UNIT | At American Cinematheque, June 17-20