Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript is a film I’d heard of just through word of mouth from some of the writers and podcasters at Row Three (another site I contribute towards). Championed by Matt Gamble of Where the Long Tail Ends and the Row Three Cinecast, it was picked for discussion on the Movie Club Podcast back in 2010. After listening to that episode, the title had stuck in the back of my mind as something to try and watch, but at that time it wasn’t available in the UK. In passing years Mr Bongo have brought it out on DVD, but I never got around to checking it out. I’m glad I waited though, as they’re now releasing the film on Blu-Ray alongside Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium, which holds similar esteem amongst those aware of the director, and I was lucky enough to be offered screeners of both of them to review.
The Saragossa Manuscript
Director: Wojciech Has
Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski
Based on the Novel by: Jan Potocki
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska
Running Time: 182 min
BBFC Certification: 15
After giving my standard introduction to a film, I usually launch into a summary of the plot, but you’ll have to bear with me for both these titles because it’s not so simple. 1965’s The Saragossa Manuscript opens with a military man getting abandoned by his troops. He hides out in a house where he discovers an unusual book. An enemy captain finds him there and is about to take him prisoner, but the book catches his eye too and, noting a reference to his grandfather, he sits down and the two read it together. The film then moves to the story within the book. In this, Alfonse Van Worden (the captain’s grandfather, played by Zbigniew Cybulski) is trying to find the quickest way to Madrid from a remote village in the mountains. When he ventures into an inn to find shelter, he comes across a palatial cave which houses two beautiful women. They claim to be his relative and want him to marry them both after first renouncing his faith to join theirs. He gets put under a sort of spell and finds himself caught in a loop, unable to leave the village.
When he finally does break free and begins his travels, he ends up meeting a cabalist who takes him to his home. It’s from here that the story begins to get really complicated and I’m not even going to try to summarise everything. Basically, in this second half of the film, characters keep telling new stories and the film adds a new story layer to the pile. At one point I think it became a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (i.e. 6 layers deep)!
Due to this, the film becomes one hell of a headf*ck. I’d heard it was unusual and surreal, but it didn’t mess with my brain the same way I expected it to. There isn’t all that much bizarre imagery on display. Instead it drives you insane by constantly driving the story off on total tangents. The film is clearly aware of this and makes reference to it on several occasions. At one point a character says “when these stories begin, the listener thinks they’ll end, but one story creates another story and another”. Has seems to be exploring the idea of subverting storytelling techniques and/or the fact that all of life comes from storytelling and in reality if you really want to tell a ‘full’ story you need to tell more than just one clean narrative as every detail has its own backstory.
Or something like that. I’m no good at analysing the deeper meaning of films, I prefer to look at how it works as an experience. In that sense, the film works remarkably well for the most part. Although it gets very difficult to follow towards the end and it runs to a hefty 3 hours, Has sprinkles in healthy doses of humour, some action and occasional gratuitous nudity to keep you watching. The key characters followed in the more substantial storylines tend to be easy to relate to too, particularly Alfonse as he gets as lost as the audience.
From a technical standpoint, the film is very impressive too. The cinematography or production design isn’t particularly showy, but shots are frequently fluid and particularly well composed so it always looks great. I liked the way the music style would change between story layers too, from period pieces to minimal abstract cues. At that length and with such complexity I did find my interest waning from time to time though. Luckily the end ties a few threads together (not all) and some more visually surreal sequences emerge, making for a satisfying close to the film.
On the whole it’s a fascinatingly unique experience that demands repeat viewings. It can be tough to stick with at times, but continuously intrigues due to its daring structure and is filled with enough humour and masterful artistry to keep you on board.
The Hourglass Sanatorium
Director: Wojciech Has
Screenplay: Wojciech Has
Based on a Story by: Bruno Schulz
Starring: Jan Nowicki, Tadeusz Kondrat, Irena Orska
Running Time: 124 min
BBFC Certification: 15
I was worried about summarising the plot of The Saragossa Manuscript, but that’s a walk in the park compared to this, as the first half of the earlier film made sense at least. 1973’s The Hourglass Sanatorium is a bafflingly surreal adventure from the offset, but I’ll try my best.
Józef (Jan Nowicki) travels by train to visit the sanatorium housing his dying father Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat). Only this is no ordinary hospital. It has some unexplained power to slow down and reverse time (from what I gathered), so although Jakub would be dead in the real world, in the sanatorium he is still alive, but his world is so suspended in warped time that he just sleeps for the most part. As Józef tries to spend time with his father and explores the hospital, he falls through various (metaphorical) rabbit holes and spends most of the time wandering through memories of the past.
I won’t lie. I’m not really sure what was happening during 90% of this film. However, I didn’t really mind. As a hypnotic dream or nightmare, in a similar vein to David Lynch’s more cryptic work, this is fantastic. Like in The Saragossa Manuscript, Has shows that this bewildering effect is intentional through some meta dialogue. Józef describes what he’s experiencing as “vomited second hand time”. The memories are described as being distorted, confusing, damaged and “full of holes”. By the end it seems like he feels it was a mistake to send his father there as this extended life was false.
This confusing dreamy meandering through broken memories can be hard to stick with again and it certainly isn’t an easy watch but there is much to appreciate even if you get lost in the on-screen action. Front and foremost are the visuals. Where The Saragossa Manuscript was classily shot but relatively understated, The Hourglass Sanatorium is eye-poppingly lavish in detail and scope. Without wanting to resort to hyperbole, it is quite simply one of the most visually stunning films I’ver ever seen.
The production design is outstanding. Everything looks antique and is decaying. The film is very colourful, but in a muted, ancient fashion. The camera floats through the awe-inspiring world created by the design team, frequently incorporating very long tracking shots through the grand sets and locations. What populates these vast areas is often eye-catchingly surreal too, from the sudden appearance of elephants to some disturbing mechanical mannequins. Tying these scenes together are some often clever and effective transitional sequences, such as crawling under the bed in a fairly standard room out to a huge town square filled with hundreds of extras.
Every shot in this film is a work of art and I frequently had my jaw drop in amazement at what I saw. I totally lost track of what the hell was happening quite early on in the film and with all the aimless wandering it was tough going at times so I haven’t given it full marks. If you can accept it as a purely hallucinogenic experience it’s incredible though. For mood, production design and cinematography it’s a tour de force which is well worth experiencing.
The Saragossa Manuscript and The Hourglass Sanatorium are out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Mr Bongo Films. The picture and sound quality is fantastic on both titles. I couldn’t spot any damage and there’s no artificial sharpening that I can see. There are no special features unfortunately, but just having films like this available on Blu-Ray is something to applaud.