Poland’s greatest cult film opens this Friday at the BAM Cinematheque: The Saragossa Manuscript, directed by Wojciech Has in 1965 from Count Jan Potocki’s wildly episodic early-19th-century novel, is part Alice in Wonderland, part Arabian Nights. This three-hour super-production—set during the Napoleonic Wars and shot in sumptuous wide-screen black-and-white—is a convoluted succession of stories-within-stories and dreams-within-dreams, with the rude awakening serving as its running gag.
Zbigniew Cybulski (Poland’s James Dean) plays a Belgian army officer en route to Madrid who gets sidetracked in the wilds of the Sierra Moreno, where he falls under the spell of two spooky Moorish sisters. Has’s comic, macabre extravaganza, in which everything turns out to be an elaborate stage-managed sham, is more literary than cinematic. Narrative is subsumed in anecdote, as the increasingly confounded Cybulski mixes it up with a mad assortment of Gothic types—any, or all, of whom might be a manifestation of Satan.
The Saragossa Manuscript first blew minds at the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, attracting a New York hippie following six years later with a midnight run at the old Elgin theater. At some point, Jerry Garcia signed on as the movie’s biggest booster, donating a print to the Pacific Film Archives on the condition that he’d always be able to screen it. Although not exactly the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion, The Saragossa Manuscript is, by any standard, a long strange trip. April 4 through 10, BAM.