The Saragossa Manuscript and The Recording Angel Ensemble

By Owen Armstrong

saragossa-manuscript-wojciech-has.jpgThe Saragossa Manuscript, 1965

Screening at London’s National Film Theatre, Wojciech J. HasThe Saragossa Manuscript makes a rare and welcome appearance in the December schedule following a specially commissioned performance. With a live score from The Recording Angel Ensemble, Has’ 1965 epic fantasy made for a justifiably fascinating and memorable opening night.

Based on the equally ambitious novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1813) by Polish author Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815), Has’ film was finally restored to its entirety for US and UK audiences in 1997 and premiered at the New York Film Festival the same year. Though ultimately due to funding from film restoration advocate Martin Scorsese, the initial process of restoration began at the hands of counter-culture figurehead Jerry Garcia. Likening the experience of watching the film to being under the influence of drugs, Garcia championed Has’ film as an avant-garde masterpiece and soon after sought to obtain a complete print by way of providing funds to the Pacific Film Archive. Since its complete restoration The Saragossa Manuscript has maintained a relatively infrequent presence at various film festivals and art-house cinema venues and has thus sustained its status as a counter-culture classic.

Despite some necessary removal and shortening of the multitude of tales within Potocki’s original text, Has’ multi-layered three hour epic notably retains its striking sense of humour and remarkable dry wit which often spills over into the realm of surreal comedy. The film opens in Saragossa during the Napoleonic wars where a French Officer stumbles across the book from which the film takes its name. He is joined by an enemy Spanish Officer who claims to be the grandson of the character within the book and so begins translating the pages. The book follows Alphonse van Worden, a young Belgian captain of the Walloon guards travelling across the mountains of the Sierra Morena on his way to Madrid.

saragossa-manuscript-wojciech-has-2.jpgThe Saragossa Manuscript, 1965

In search of his missing valet, Zbigniew Cybulski’s charming protagonist Alphonse happens upon an abandoned Inn in which he encounters an underground chamber and the enchanting Gomelez sisters. As Potocki’s original text refers to it, Alphonse grows unsettled by their advances, unsure as to whether they were women or ‘insidious succubae’. Nevertheless, he accepts the abundance of food and drink he is offered and goes to bed inside the lavish chamber where he is joined by the sisters. For Alphonse, this is the first of several dalliances with the supernatural as he awakes the following morning under a set of gallows beside two corpses. He later meets a man possessed by the devil, who claims to have had exactly the same experience, thus becoming the first of many characters throughout Alphonse’s journey with whom he exchanges his tales.

Remaining true to its original form, Has’ film retains its sense of tribute to the history of campfire storytelling – an aspect widely believed to have been a semi-autobiographical re-telling of Potocki’s own life. Believed to have been a Freemason, an army officer, a ‘novice Knight of Malta’ (?), an Egyptologist, a linguist, started an independent press and also to have ascended in one of the world’s first hot-air balloons, Potocki committed suicide at the age of 54 by melting down a silver bullet from one of his possessions, having it blessed by a priest and shooting himself in the head.

In an appropriately absurd fashion, The Saragossa Manuscript contorts its way through a series of tales and adventures, continually unravelling new and seemingly spurious narrative strands. Its interlocking Russian doll structure finds common ground with literary works such as The Decameron and Arabian Nights, exploring themes of philosophy, mythology, religion, folklore and eroticism, among others.

Has’ film also further embellishes the novel’s underlying ambiguities to suggest a deeper relevance to its supernatural overtones. Whereas Potocki opts to bring the history behind each of his characters’ stories to a close, Has leaves both van Worden and his audience trapped in a perpetual fantasy, marching back into the infinite meanderings of the accursed Manuscript.

saragossa-manuscript-wojciech-has-3.jpgThe Saragossa Manuscript, 1965

In his essay ‘Definition of the Fantastic’, Tzvetan Todorov explains it as ‘that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’. Citing Potocki’s novel as a key exponent of literature which addresses this notion, Todorov stresses that the ‘fantastic’ exists in the inseparable association between Alphonse’s inability to comprehend the events taking place and the readers own befuddlement – a phenomenon that, though emphasised by Has, is quite clearly prominent in both film and book. In this sense, Has accentuation of the phantasmagorical fulfils Todorov’s criteria for a text – though in this case, a film – to appropriate the ‘fantastic’. Since neither the character within the film, nor the viewer watching is able to logically interpret the events taking place, both are subject to Has’ open-ended coda.

It seems suitable then that The Saragossa Manuscript should be viewed under at least vaguely abnormal circumstances and with an open mind. In keeping with the aesthetic experience of Has’ circus of narrative psychadelia, the opening evening’s programme provided a range sonic delights and curiosities building to a cacophonous serenade of live electronics, stroh violins and cello’s, wax cylinder phonographs, gramophones and chanting. Composer Aleksander Kolkowski’s diverse tapestry of recorded sound from the early 1900s was a faithful extension of Krzysztof Penderecki’s original unnerving compositions, while vocals from Ute Wasserman and Francine Luce poignantly underscored the distinctive and hypnotic rumblings ever present in Zbigniew Karkowski’s spectrum of electronic compositons. Also making a rare London appearance was Sebastien Buczek with his family of ‘robot musicians’ and automata.

saragossa-manuscript-wojciech-has-4.jpgThe Saragossa Manuscript, 1965

Occasionally overshadowing dialogue from the film, the presence of a live score becomes a catalyst for the heady content of The Saragossa Manuscript – an aspect that, given his mythically purgatorial conclusion, would have pleased Has greatly.

As is largely the intention of expanded cinema, the images begin to morph into something beyond that of any normal cinematic experience creating a heightened sense of new possibility and participation. Kolkowski’s looping gramophone records generated a strong parallel with the films own repetition of events which greatly enhanced the ‘expanded’ nature of the event – as though creating the impression that the film cannot be kept inside the frame. The Recording Angel Ensemble’s challenging concoction of electronic soundscapes and live renditions of Baroque and early Classical music filled an otherwise reserved auditorium of viewers with a uniquely jarring sense of the obscure and the comfortably ambient – a fitting and faithful interpretation of the atmosphere within the film itself.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.