Pete’s Peek | Enter the phantasmagorical world of Poland’s master of the surreal

Thieving gypsies, spectral princesses, sinister cabbalists and bloodthirsty inquisitors all feature in The Saragossa Manuscript, a superb 1965 supernatural adventure from Polish director Wojciech Has.

During the Napoleonic wars, an officer fighting in Spain takes refuge in a deserted inn where he finds a book recounting his grandfather’s spooky encounters 60 years ago. When Alfons, a captain in the Walloon guard, wakes up one day beside two corpses at the bottom of some gallows, he finds himself repeating the day over and over again following a series of misadventures involving two Moorish princesses – who may or may not be ghosts.

Based on Count Jan Potocki‘s enigmatic 18th-century Gothic novel – that’s been likened to the Arabian Nights and The Decameron – this black-and-white tale is a real treat for lovers of the supernatural and the bizarre. With its labyrinthine narrative fusing the gothic with the historic, and its masterful score, it’s no wonder this classic of Polish cinema has attracted a legion of famous fans – including the surrealist director Luis Bunuel, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and British fantasy author Neil Gaiman.

Coming across like a supernatural Groundhog Day, it’s certainly an attention grabber. But if you get lost, there’s a fan site (just click here) containing all the explanations you need to help you along.
Has comes the thinking person’s arthouse film, The Hourglass Sanatorium. This colourful and highly atmospheric affair is adapted from the works of Bruno Schulz, Poland’s answer to Kafka.

In rural Eastern Europe, a young man called Joseph visits his dying grandfather at a crumbling sanatorium where time is relative. Here, guests have the opportunity to journey into the unconscious and reanimate the past for a set period. Wanting to make amends with his estranged father, Joseph’s symbolic journey manifests itself in a series of wild visual theatrics – all staged within the confines of the hospital. In this dream state, linear narrative is fractured, which frustrates our hero as he awakens old memories. Even Joseph’s guide (a young boy who is probably his younger self) and his elusive, eccentric father seem incapable of providing him the answers that he seeks. But, as in real dreams, the true heart and soul of this metaphysical tale is the journey, not the getting there.

If you love films of a symbolic nature, especially the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky or the Brothers Quay, then The Hourglass Sanatorium is a deeply rewarding experience. Granted it’s dense, but its evocative sets, inspiring visuals (that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terry Gilliam film) and Kafkaesque themes will leave you spellbound.
The Saragossa Manuscript and The Hourglass Sanatorium are released on DVD through Mr Bongo Films

The Saragossa Manuscript is also showing on the big screen at the BFI in London on Monday 11 June at 6.10pm.

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