You know a weird old Polish movie is worth hunting down when Jerry Garcia loves it to the point he helped fund its restoration. Even though its black-and-white, made behind the iron curtain, three hours long, even bedecked with the 18th-century powdered wigs and tricornered hats most of us associate more with being bored to a caged frenzy in history class, and even convoluted to the point of bedevilment, The Saragossa Manuscript rocks with elaborately trippy self-reflexive moxy, as if discovering the then-emerging counterculture via a book written on bar napkins by an old Polish general who ended up shooting himself with a silver bullet to avoid becoming a werewolf. The movie centers around the titular book, discovered in a bombed out chateau during the outer framing device; it contains many stories about storytellers whose own stories include flashbacks to other stories being told, until eventually a character may well hear about the events that involved them only a few nights ago, enabling them to finally understand what the other person was shouting at them from behind a rock or something. Confusion will be thy epitaph!
But if you watch a few times, under the right frame of mind, the frames become clearer; your brain starts to expand as it grasps a new form counter-linear narrative; all roads eventually lead back to the same starting point - under the gallows.
From the first we're put in an unsteady place, following a slightly aimless senior officer during a heated street-to-street battle circa mid-1800s. He distractedly looks through the debris of a ruined house while his army races on without him, only to surge back into control moments later. Within the wreckage doth the officer find a a strange, large book. He is almost taken prisoner by the opposition when the front line retreats back past him in the other direction, but he doesn't even look up from the book; the opposing side officer tries to take him prisoner then becomes obsessed with a big strange book as well; their armies skirmish around them but the transfixed pair wave them away, without looking up, puzzling instead over the strange illustrations and narratives - and one part of the book written by the grandfather (?) of the officer! This pair of opposing officers--their battle forgotten in favor of mutual awe and confusion-- themselves soon may well become images pored over in later eras as well, for the book abides, with no clear single author.
The outer story main story centers around the one officer's grandfather, a captain of the Spanish Royal Guard, Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who takes an ill-advised shortcut through the haunted Sierra Romena mountains on his way to a post in Madrid, much against the advice of his two servants, who bail the moment he falls asleep. At the first woebegone inn he comes to, a pair of sexy Muslim ghost-sorceress sisters invite him to dine in a surreally vast basement. Alight with booze and lusty cheer, his eyes twinkling with the mix of 'can't believe my luck' and 'try not to blow this windfall by saying something stupid' that evokes both Bob Hope in the harem in The Road to Morocco, the girls seduce him with tales of their willingness to share a man in their bed; but his wine must be drugged for no sooner as he taken a draught then Worden wakes up in the blazing light of midday, on a bed of skulls, under a sun-bleached gallows. He can't even remember if he scores with them in the oh-so-important-for-young-male-stud-vanity menage a triois sense. Were they spirits? Where can he find them again and does he want to?
Well, the Inquisition somehow gets word he's cavorting with Muslim princess and he's soon captured and nailed into a steel devil helmet, only to be rescued by a the Zolta brothers, the hung gypsy bandits he woke up beneath only that afternoon, and their sisters, the two girls from his basement dreams (and after another dinner and slug of--presumably--drugged wine, he wakes up under the same gallows). Is there a direction through the Romenas he can take that doesn't involve being seduced and drugged and waking up under the gallows? Maybe a traveling cabalist can help. From there it gets even weirder; Worden first finds the book at the cabalists' lovely mansion; it's about his own father! A troupe of gypsy troubadours stop by to regale the gathered throng with their interlocking tales of courtship and woe, some of which involves Worden's father, a duel-happy aristocrat who spends most of his life either dying of sword wounds or being healed by water from a lovely wandering Muslim maid who would become Worden's mother (one assumes).
Things go deep into the strange and yet mundane once we get to the cabalist's castle, which is visited by a flock of gypsy storytellers that night, leading to a melange of tales that Von Worden realizes all tie into him or his father, who marries a possibly Muslim sorceress (Worden's future mother?) who rescues him with a timely drink of water while he's suffering from a duel wound. Her sudden appearance out of the distance with a jug atop her head carries an even more mystically 'other' vibe than Alfonse's two Muslim princesses. It all makes sense only after a few viewings when it kicks in - Worden is cryptically half-Muslim on his mother's side. That makes him a kind of in-between figure - both sides try and claim him, or kill him, or initiate him.
Another aspect the interlocked stories share is setting, with time and again the same inns, mountain passes, and city streets coming into play at different eras (with the sets aging, crumbling, and becoming young again, as the stories are told). Narrative tentacles touch on everything from the Spanish Inquisition to the tales recollected by gadabout balladeers, loafers, romantic idiots, and drinkers. We hear willingly of Alfonse's father's many duels. We hear of bed-hopping lovers and their drunken go-betweens. We meet inn keepers, pashas, monks, maniacs, merchants, brigands, and occult cabalists. Stories are told by characters inside stories being told to the later teller of a different story explaining the first, to the point Von Worden declares “I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends, and fantasy takes over.” Totally, bro. Sooner or later we find the answer to questions posed by other characters well before the newer tale was begun. In this maze might one character hear, as illustrated dinner table gossip, of exploits they themselves experienced from a different angle only the night before, the mystery of events that went on that night only now finally making sense from hearing the other side of the encounter ("that could drive an experienced person insane!"). In one instance Alfonse is stopped from reading the titular book he finds in the cabalists' library (still unaware he wrote it in the future). "If he read to the end," notes the scorpion-haired cabalist to his buxom servant girl, "the events which are to follow will make no sense." You know it's all tripped out When the titular book one is discussing has already been partially written and sitting in the background of a scene it has not quite begun to depict.
As a result of this and its non-linearity, the film takes several viewings to fully unravel. God knows how incoherent it must have been when Jerry saw it, though there certainly are stretches that, in my opinion, don't do much to help the overall narrative. Actually, depending on what was cut out, the version Jerry saw may have made more sense than this whole three hour affair. Honestly, it can be trying for first time viewers, especially after the more-or-less recognizable amorous maybe-ghost story, in the vein of A Chinese Ghost Story and Ugetsu of the first part gives way to a tangled amor-fou roundelay amidst the mercantile class, bringing to life images from saucy 17th-century European woodcuts and classical Spanish art while looping back around on its own intermediary-dependent 'storyteller telling stories about storytellers telling stories' loopy chain. The crazed synth score underwriting the ghostly seduction scene gives way to fruitful classical and the money begins to flow, to the point a banker ruins his fortune by suing an investor for not taking back his doubled investment. The son the banker sends into the world to return the money will have no interest in any of it, preferring to read romance novels and become a love-afflicted dilettante. Meanwhile ghosts and duelists, and survivors of duels relate the stories of the parents of the man they killed in a duel, or fatally wounded in a duel, and all in the same town or road. The work of Bunuel, Cervantes, Swift, Pierre Louÿs, Huysmans, and one's owns story's meaning goes into another's so that a man's penance is cut short when his go-between realizes one of his busqueros got the wrong window. Then there's the odious Count Pena Flor, a made-up character invented by the wandering-eyed gorgeous young wife to make her aging nobleman husband jealous, to the point he pays a handsome layabout to find and kill him; only for his young wife to later pretend to be "Pena Flor's" vengeful ghost to scare him into taking a long pilgrimage so she can get it on unimpeded... with the same handsome layabout! Genius, thy name is Potocki! Elsewhere, a wise old hermit monk tricks a giant into herding and milking his goats in exchange for exorcising him of evil spirits.
Some parts occasionally get bogged down in the crowd shots, with characters wandering from one set to another. But stick with it and what seems to be a voice from God, booming out in answer to questions about life after death asked during a crackling thunderstorm in one person's woeful tale turns out to be the voice of someone who misunderstood the question in another. Eventually things become an ever shifting dream; so that a traveler might find objects he left behind from the night before at places he just arrived at.
Thanks to a uniquely Eastern European sense or deadpan absurdity, these sunny Spanish tales-within-tales avoid the stuffy bourgeois airlessness that often accompanies 'respectable' film adaptations of revered satiric classics (i.e. the urge to cake the actors in so many wigs and costumes they can barely move or speak, or worse, move too close to the other end of the class spectrum, and cake them in grubby peasant realness). On The Saragossa Manuscript, we may notice the similarity between a shot in a tavern and a painting we recently saw at the Met, but what of it?- there's no big art highlight marker traces; no one is aiming for accolades - this is art skittering under the radar. Every scene is wild with rocky patterns into which one might hallucinate things into existence without the party censors even knowing they were there. Stories all take place at the same locations over time; the action regularly doubles back around to the same sets and rocky exteriors, passageways between rocky formations, such as the one below - framed by a Satanic-looking standing cattle skeleton, horns intact, the yoke still around its bony shoulders; in the middle ground, a cow or maybe mammoth rack of rib fossil indenting the rock at left; at right foreground , the splintered remains of a boat hull, or fallen roof? is it a giant loom, or a piano interior harp? Note the nearly transparent ghostly pitcher in the left foreground. Is it there or not there? In one shot, we see a discarded sketchbook in the lower foreground, their lines seeming to etch their way off the page and into the nearby half-ruined gallows (that's a different morning than the below, which has no sketchbook, but keep your eyes open to every corner). This use of cinematic space that is neither interior nor exterior but a place that refuses to be either in-or-outdoors, with walls dripping with trippy mold patterns, evokes Tarkovsky.
In the version Jerry Garcia had only seen in some Haight-Ashbury theater, the film ran only two hours; nearly an hour had been chopped out by American distributors trying to get i more focused on the supernatural menage-a-trois; a full three-hour version was hard to locate. Did it even exist? Garcia hooked up with fellow fans Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola to find (behind the iron curtain), restore and subtitle all the missing elements. Then, as if to punish him for his band's devil-may-care name, Jerry died before he could see the finished final three-hour cut.
It's an irony that befits the irony-crammed film and writer Count Jan Potocki's original manuscript. The more widely read version, published in 1805, was shorter and more focused on a linear, lighthearted supernatural lighthearted version; the longer complete one, with more digressions and dead ends, which--tell me this doesn't sound ironically familiar--was published in its entirety only after Potocki's death (by silver bullet suicide to avoid the lycanthropic curse - for serious!). In other words, neither Jerry nor Potocki ever got to see the full three-hour version. These coincidences are important to ponder in the meta framework which this frame story inevitably encourages us to incorporate. And if, at end of this massive tome, we're left with only the vaguest sense of narrative completion, with no real climax of denouement (unless you count a vague nod to the final shot of Von Sternberg's Morocco), and with certain last minute confessions seeming almost like a 'last call' hack-twist rather than a legitimate and satisfying wrap-up, well.... you can always try watching it again, real soon. Chances are, it won't even be the same movie. I've seen it three times now and the interwoven strands still lead me into knots, just trying to explain or write them down makes me dizzy in the best possible way.