The Long Strange Trips of Wojciech Jerzy Has

Wojciech Jerzy Has on the set of The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

The title of the retrospective running from Friday through March 31 at Film at Lincoln Center, The Long Strange Trips of Wojciech Jerzy Has, is a tip of the hat to the man most responsible for bringing the work of the Polish director to light in the States: Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead frontman was so wowed by The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) when he caught it at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1966 that he secured a print and donated it to the Pacific Film Archive on the condition that he could see it again any time he pleased.

Over the years that followed, The Saragossa Manuscript became an unlikely hit on the midnight movie circuit—this is, after all, a three-hour, black-and-white convoluted knot of stories-within-stories based on Jan Potocki’s 1813 novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa—but the prints circulating in the U.S. were shorter and choppier than Has’s original. Once again, Jerry Garcia stepped up, and in the early 1990s, he financed PFA head Edith Kramer’s trip to Europe in search of a decent and complete print. The one she found arrived in Berkeley the day before Garcia died in 1995. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola took over the project, overseeing a restoration that toured the country in 1999.

The Napoleonic Wars are raging when an unnamed French officer discovers a mysterious book in the Spanish city his army is ravaging. The story that draws him in seems to have been written by one Alphonse van Worden, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, often referred to as Poland’s James Dean and best known for his work in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Van Worden is a Belgian captain traveling through war-torn Europe, and everyone he meets has a story to tell. And the characters in these stories have stories of their own.

Bright Lights Film Journal editor Gary Morris has noted that “there are as many as five levels of drilldown in some sequences,” and in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix observed in 2008 that “rather than coming off as a remote, overly intellectual exercise in audience bafflement, The Saragossa Manuscript is vitally alive—full of lovers, duelists, topless nuns, cowards, and magicians. Its veins run hot with black-and-white blood, and whenever a scene begins to drag, someone inevitably interrupts with, ‘This reminds me of a story . . .’” At the end of his deep and deeply rewarding dive into the film for Cineaste in 2009, Jonathan Murray called The Saragossa Manuscript “one of the most accomplished, entertaining, and intriguing works of twentieth-century Surrealist cinema.”

Saturday’s screening in New York will be introduced by Annette Insdorf, the author of Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has. “If Andrzej Wajda has excelled in political, historical or theatrical visions—foregrounding the possibility of individual nobility—Has seems leery of these options,” wrote Insdorf in the program notes for a 2015 retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive. “If Krzysztof Kieślowski invoked the possibility of love as a salvation in Three Colors: Blue, White, Red, Has’s characters rarely say, ‘I love you.’ If Krzysztof Zanussi has often dramatized ethical tensions among individuals in contemporary settings, Has was a prose poet of solitude and alienation. A formalist rather than a realist, he crafted stories that explore yearning, weakness, and loss. In the documentary Traces (2012), he says on camera, ‘During Stalinism, we learned that content was important, not form. I think the opposite.’”

Insdorf will also introduce The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), an amalgamation of stories by Bruno Schulz. Józef (Jan Nowicki), a young Jewish man, visits his dying father in a sanatorium where the mysterious director claims to be able to throw time out of whack. “From the opening sequence, in which gaunt, wasted bodies are strewn on hay in a rickety train wagon, memories of the Final Solution permeate the picture,” wrote Ela Bittencourt for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2014. “Even though this motif recedes until a much later scene, in which Józef peers through a basement window at his neighbors fleeing in panic, the entire film, as a meditation on death and extinction, is colored by unspeakable terror. By the time the film was shown in 1970s Poland, the tragedy had gained yet another dimension: the stigma of 1968, when many Polish Jews who had survived the war were forced to leave their homeland as a result of anti-Semitic campaigns. It is this double disappearance, or the double erasure, that haunts The Hourglass Sanatorium.

FLC will screen all of Has’s short films and each of his fourteen features. Surveying the oeuvre for in 2003, Ewa Nawój noted that Has made “a number of intimate psychological dramas,” citing in particular The Noose (1958), Farewells (1958), How to Be Loved (1963), and Codes (1966)—all of them based on short stories or novels. Has himself once said that his “point of departure is always literature. Operating on time. Abbreviations of time. Jumps in time. Sidetracks and various layers. Space is the domain of painting; time is the domain of literature and film. Playing with time activates the imagination of film viewers . . . The fundamental topic of cinema to me is that of the journey.”

In a brief but marvelous piece on Memoirs of a Sinner (1986) for the Notebook, David Cairns wrote in 2013 that, adapting James Hogg’s 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, “a kind of religious satire/polemic crossed with a doppelgänger tale,” Has “uses the tale more as a device to create unease and intrigue and create beautiful images, richly colored, hazily soft-focus, and with a slyly gliding camera which sometimes imparts an almost three-dimensional effect, aided by the different hues of light pooling his sets.”

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