The Saragossa Manuscript

Wojciech Jerzy Has

Poland, 1964



Destiny and free choice


Book and Labyrinth, storytelling in human life


Topic: The Praise of Fiction and the Sense of Storytelling – The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Jerzy Has
Author:Ewa Wyszyńska
Stage of education: Senior high school
Subject: Polish
Duration: 2 lessons (excluding the film screening)

The key question:
A good story – what does it mean?

Work methods:
Presentation, group work, working with the source text and parts of the film, discussion

Didactic materials:
• The Saragossa Manuscript by Jan Potocki (especially the foreword by the book’s author);
• The Saragossa Manuscript film directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has. Key words: story, the story within the story construction, leitmotiv

Before the lesson:
Before the lesson students watch The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Has. Volunteers prepare a presentation entitled “Jan Potocki and his The Saragossa Manuscript. Presentation of the author and his work”.

The course of the lesson:
1. Start the lesson from a discussion on the history of The Saragossa Manuscript novel, the free adaptation of which is the film by Wojciech Has. Ask volunteers to present the information they prepared, comment on it and complement the information, where necessary.
2. Ask the students what the film by Has is about.
3. Divide the students into pairs. Read aloud or copy and hand to all the students the foreword by the author of The Saragossa Manuscript. Play to the class the first and the last scenes of the film, where the motive of the manuscript is present. The task of the students will be to discuss in pairs the answer to the questions:
• Why is the motive of the manuscript found in Saragossa introduced in the novel by Jan Potocki?
• What is the role of the manuscript in the film? Let the students express their views and then introduce the term of ‘frame narrative’. Turn their attention to the motive of the manuscript that was found, used in the novel and the film – it is supposed to make the reader believe the presented events are real.
4. After the introduction start the next part of the lesson, where students will think about the role of a story and practice their storytelling skills. Ask:
• What are the features of a good story?
• When do we like to listen to the stories of other people?
Suggest a short brainstorming session to get the feedback from the class. Together, make a list of features of a
good story and a good storyteller.
5. Ask the students about the role of a story in a film. Let students reflect freely. Sum up their opinions, turning
their attention to the cultural dimension of the storytelling (life as telling one’s story, life as a journey in search
of the sense and the need to reach the end of the story). Remind the students about what happens to the protagonist when he has listened to another story (he gains knowledge of the world because he learns another story, but he always wakes up in the morning in the same scenery – among ruins and dead bodies – which raises
doubts as to whether the hero progresses or is he stuck in one place).
6. Divide the class into groups. Their task will be to reconstruct and present a chosen story from the film, e.g. the meeting of the princesses, adventures with the robbers, the story of Paszeko, the life of the young Soarez, a story told by Don Avadoro. The teams try to work on their story according to the tips that were earlier prepared together with the class. Remind them that the story that is presented must have a distinct beginning, must tell about the course of events and have a precise ending. When describing the characters the students should mention who they are, what role do they play in the film (protagonists, minor characters or the spiritus movens of the story).
Equally important will be a detailed presentation of the scenery and mood of the events. Volunteers tell the film stories to the whole class.
7. At the end of the lesson ask each student to answer (in a single sentence) to the question: “What new thing did I learn during the class?”.


This oddity is so odd that it’s unique on a world scale (…) from the perspective of a spectacle, The Saragossa Manuscript is the most outstanding achievement in the history of our cinema.
Zygmunt Kałużyński
“Dziwy w filmie polskim!”, Polityka 1965 Issue 6

At the beginning of his way, Van Worden is selfconfident and full of optimism. Honoured by King Philip V with the rank of captain in the Walloon Guards, he considers it an honour to find the shortest route to Madrid. It seems that he’s one of those people who can’t see wrong ways but only simple and beaten paths. Thus, he has a clearly
set goal, a well-prepared itinerary, and even a map that allows the traveller to precisely mark out trails, so undoubtedly – as he expects – he will reach Madrid in three days. However, the captain clearly forgot about Nights. Not Days but mostly Nights will determine the character of the journey, as Nights (also in Potocki’s novel but mostly in the film by Has) are the time of significant experiences.
In consequence, all forces will unite to convince him of this, to make certainty uncertain, and uncertainty possible. If the Book (an old manuscript from the Cabalist’s castle for Van Worden or, for us – readers and viewers – The Manuscript by Potocki and Has) indeed serves the function of a trail, it mostly teaches that there are no simple
ways and there are no maps you can fully trust.

Iwona Kolasińska
“Na początku była Księga…”, Kwartalnik Filmowy
1999, Issue 26-27

Storytelling means life. People have the need to tell stories. (…) They want to tell their stories, to given accounts of the events they took part in or heard about. In the earlier films by Has, this need is never satisfied, and even if it is, then it reveals the alienation of heroes, their solitude. (…)
None of the earlier films presents the act of storytelling as pleasure, a social feast. (…) Has portrays the time when storytelling was the heart of interpersonal relations, while carefully selected words could charm the interlocutor. The master of words, Gypsy Avadoro, skilfully creates the atmosphere, knows how to build up suspense and rivet
the attention of the audience so engrossed in his words that they lose touch with reality.

Małgorzata Jakubowska
Kryształy czasu. Kino Wojciecha Jerzego Hasa,
wyd. UŁ i PWSFTvi T, Łódź 2013

The Saragossa Manuscript can be interpreted as a radical act of negation of the historical reality. Its protagonist, Alfonse van Worden, is entrapped in the eternal and at once endless because recurring “now”. His adventures and mishaps turn out to be a dream of a madman taking place outside the real history.

Marcin Maron
Dramat czasu i wyobraźni. Filmy Wojciecha J.
Hasa, wyd. Universitas, Kraków 2010

Has’ work includes a wealth of symbols and cultural references, metaphors and allegories, which makes it open and prone to all kinds of interpretations. At the same time, it enchants with artistic beauty: “Baroque” setting, precise frame composition, and image sensuality became the trademarks of the director’s style.


When the film The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Has was released in 1964, both literature and film experts were a bit perplexed. All previous methods for examining filmed literature proved completely useless in this case. Studying the faithfulness of the film to the original novel would be ridiculous, as the original – the 18th-century novel by Count Jan Potocki, nearly forgotten and placed on a shelf of bizarre literary cases – thanks to the film sparkles anew with a thousand of stories full of fantasy and poetry, surprising us with the (theoretically) endless number of fictional combinations and a new, crude because film-verifiable function of imagination.

Maria Malatyńska
“Twórca uwiedziony literaturą? O filmach Wojciecha
J. Hasa” Kino 1978, Issue 1
In the Labyrinth of Time – the Cognitive Nature of the „Journey” of Film Characters.

(…) The Saragossa Manuscript by Has mostly seems to be an elaborate experiment with film narrative, where a kind of ironical play with time is presented. In a sense, this also happened in Potocki’s novel. Its multi-layered narrative with stories within stories amazes with the way it juggles with the literary and historical time. It is a fantasy novel, at the same time being a great treatise on the cultural and historical identity of the Mediterranean
civilisation, its roots and wealth, which, although complicated, should be recognised. This is the task of the main hero – Alfonse. Adapting the novel, Has mostly focused on this motiv of initiation and cognition from Potocki’s book. Both in the film and the novel, the protagonist undergoes a series of amazing tests. His way leads through a
world of coded meanings and is subject to processes of mysterious transformations; it is also entwined in the context of subplots.

Marcin Maron
Dramat czasu i wyobraźni. Filmy Wojciecha J.
Hasa, wyd. Universitas, Kraków 2010

The events Alfonse takes part in have already been written for him but at the same time he is their author.
Thus, the Book is a paradox. Initially, it symbolises the fate and destiny and as such teaches humility and resigning oneself to one’s fate (…) However, it is also a textual world that requires interpretation. From a different perspective, the Book is a metaphor of the world and stories the world can write and change. It points to the sense
of one’s power, the element of creation, freedom of choice and, in consequence, the possibility to decide one’s own fate, and responsibility for oneself and for others. Understood in such a way, the Book is (…) an assignment. It is life and art at once.

Małgorzata Jakubowska,
Kryształy czasu. Kino Wojciecha Jerzego Hasa,
wyd. UŁ i PWSFTvi T, Łódź 2013



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