Two of the most stunning and surreal adaptations of two of the strangest books to come out of Poland have just been restored and released in high definition on DVD. Wojciech Jerzy Has directed the adaptations of Jan Potocki’s novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1965 and of Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass in 1973 (In between he made two films, one of which was an adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s The Doll).
In talking of adapting Schulz’s work Has said that he wasn’t aiming to recreate the story of the book so much as its poetics. Besides the surreal extravagance of the work he had emphasized the Jewish element in the book, something he knew from the Krakow of his youth as well as his own family (his father was Jewish). Following the 1968 anti-Semitic campaigns in Poland that had led to a practically final exodus of Polish Jews this was not a vision of Poland the authorities wanted projected on movie screens around the world.
The communist pwoers that be refused to let Has submit the film to the Cannes Film Festival, but he had it smuggled out of the country and it ended up winning the Jury Prize. The result for Has was a decade without being allowed to make a new film. In 1983 he came out with An Uneventful Story, based on a Chekhov short story.
The irony of these political consequences is the fact that in the West he would never have been able to make such a bizzare and artistic film in the first place (though it is a further irony that the original restoration of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa came about through the support of three Americans – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jerry Garcia).