by Anthony Kaufman
Beyond the usual slate of festival circuit films screening this week in New York is a special retrospective of Polish director, Wojciech Has. Opening the series Logic of Dreams, Logic of Labyrinths: The Fantastic Journeys of Wojciech Has is a newly cut and Martin Scorsese-restored print of the 1965 film, “The Saragossa Manuscript,” a three hour vaudevillian fantasy that feels like a surreal marriage between Borges and Bob Hope. The film follows Polish star Zbigniew Cybulski (Andrzej Wadja’s “Ashes And Diamonds“) as a Belgian officer in the Napoleonic wars, who finds himself on a labyrinthine journey guided by two princesses.
When Mr. Has spoke after the screening through an interpreter, the conversation quickly turned into a philosophical discussion about art. As a teacher at Poland’s High Film School in Lodz, he emphasized the importance of “story” in filmmaking. Commenting on the maze-like structure of his narratives, he said he was interested in the “many realities” that film offers. “Film language is taken as a given,” he said about today’s audiences, but his elliptical and fantastical storytelling “30 years ago was a big novelty.” Compared to the likes of Fellini and Tarkovsky, Has says “Art crosses the borders of history and time” and should be concerned with “what’s true and human.”
Today the 72 year old “Polish Genius” doesn’t go out to the movies much, lamenting the lack of quality films that appear in European theaters today. (He does, however, watch HBO.) “Right now the commercial aspects of film are dangerous,” he says. He doesn’t blame the films themselves, but the distributors, for not “giving access to the good films.” His own experience with distribution back in the political turbulence of the 60’s and 70’s was much better than one would have expected. Although his 1973 Jury Award winning film at Cannes, “The Sandglass” was banned for a year from Polish cinemas, he says he never had problems with his films being “restricted from distribution.”
Now nearly a quarter century later, American audiences are getting a chance to see these once-acclaimed, now forgotten films. “The Saragossa Manuscript” might have remained in a vault in some Polish studio, much of the negative irreparably lost or damaged. But thanks to Martin Scorsese’s rescue efforts and the Film Society’s retrospective, audiences might find a new discovery in Has’s work in film societies and museums across the country.