“Frasquita told her story to Busquenos. He told it to Lopez
Soarez, who in turn told it to Senor Avadoro. It’s enough to
drive you crazy.”

This bewildered observation from Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) could serve as the mantra of the colorful, crazy quilt state of European cinema in the two decades immediately following World War II, where formerly occupied territories found new voices after undergoing the harrowing ordeal of global combat. Multinational productions became the norm as countries like Italy, Germany and France forged cinematic alliances which allowed the cross-pollination of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Though more restricted by the Iron Curtain, Poland and other Communist nations also joined in the new film renaissance led by such directors as Andrzej Wajda (who achieved international acclaim with Ashes and Diamonds in 1958).

That film’s celebrated lead actor, Zbigniew Cybulski, returned in Saragossa as Alphonse van Worden, a captain of the Wallonian Guards whose story is immortalized in the tile scripture. The multi-layered, occult narrative follows his descent into the supernatural as he embarks on a trip through the mountains towards Madrid, only to encounter a demonically possessed beggar, two tempting incestuous sisters, a dark magician and even the forces of the inquisition. Stories related by the various characters weave in and other of reality, with parallel histories of Spain directly impacting the present. The soldier realizes by the story’s end that the events have formed an elaborate test of his worthiness to sire the heirs for a royal Moorish family with otherworldly connections.

The sprawling original text of Saragossa was written in segments somewhere between 1805 and 1815, the year in which the mysterious author, Count Jan Potocki, committed suicide. A sort of romantic, gothic alternative to such anthologies as The Decameron and The Arabian Nights, Potocki’s inventive fantasia recounts van Worden’s sixty-six days of interlocking stories in which characters constantly slip in and out from one narrative plane to the next, plot strands are continuously broken and juggled within each other and no one can truly be trusted (even the hero). The novel’s conclusion finds him successfully embraced by his supernatural family, whose riches he spreads to his two children. As for the manuscript itself, he concludes, “I have copied it out in my own hand and put it in an iron casket, in which one day my heirs will find it.”

The late director Wojciech Has opts for an even more difficult and challenging structure in his filmed adaptation. We begin with two soldiers retreating from warfare in the streets to read the Saragossa manuscript, which so entrances them that the violence outside becomes little more than an annoyance. This framing device is then abandoned for the rest of the film, in which a variety of storytellers lead the viewer downward through tale-within-tale until any sense of narrative security has been completely displaced. The ambiguous coda finds van Worden meeting his destiny by riding from the supernatural cabin which serves as the stories’ axis and off into the mountains, where he finally joins the two sisters for an unholy but triumphant final communion.

An ambitious and intellectually lively exploration of the occult, Saragossa is an epic in both length and scope. Its sense of the uncanny is balanced by a buoyant dark wit in keeping with the controversial notion of Satanism as a puckish, jovial practice which speaks to the natural inner beast in mankind. The moments of bona fide horror, as when van Worden and other characters repeatedly awaken to find themselves in a scorched landscape filled with hanging bodies and skeletons, attain a transcendent, nightmarish atmosphere both through the skillful cinemascope photography and the experimental score by composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music later cropped up in The Exorcist and The Shining. Though now commonly available in its complete 175-minute form, the film was often seen only in substandard and terribly abbreviated prints, which only hinted at its intellectual and visceral pleasures. Best experienced on the big screen, fortunately this film can now be appreciated as one of the key foundations works in modern horror and art house cinema, two categories more inextricably linked than many critics cared to admit at the time of its release.

Unquestionably the most commercially successful director to emerge from Poland, Roman Polanski shares with his fellow Polish directors a love for overturning genre conventions and disrupting traditional narrative patterns, though in a style distinctly his own. While directors like Andrzej Zulawski and Walerian Borowczyk are known for keeping a safe aesthetic distance from their subjects, Polanski’s most successful films instead offer easily accessible audience identification figures while allowing the uncanny incidents to escalate almost without notice.

In two of his earliest feature films, Knife in the Water and Cul-de-sac, Polanski expertly depicts the dynamics of a married couple torn apart by infiltrating external male figures, which he achieved more shattering results with Repulsion. His first foray into genuine horror stars Catherine Deneuve as a beauty salon employee whose sanity deteriorates over a period of days when she’s left alone in the apartment she shares with her sister. Critical and commercial indifference greeted Polanski’s widely mistreated The Fearless Vampire Killers, in which the established rules of vampire cinema are hurled aside, producing instead Jewish and homosexual bloodsuckers and a peculiar, chilling finale which finds the vampires victoriously overcoming the heroes while they ride off into the snow. Polanski returned the next year with Rosemary’s Baby, adapted from Ira Levin’s best-selling novel. These explorations of unstable protagonists reached their logical conclusion with Polanski’s most neglected horror film, The Tenant, the end product of a difficult decade for the director (including a handful of commercial failures, the death of his wife and infamous legal troubles well-documented elsewhere).

For his return to horror, Polanski constructed The Ninth Gate as a streamlined adaptation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s gothic literary exercise, El Club Dumas. The original novel follows the arcane misadventures of Lucas Corso, “a mercenary of the book world,” who hunts down rare volumes in the service of rich patrons who prefer to keep their hands clean. A recent suicide exposes a previously unknown, original manuscript of “The Anjou Wine,” a chapter from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. The discover sends the book hunter of a globe-hopping trip during which he encounters a variety of characters either reminiscent of Dumas’ text or affiliated in a more sinister fashion with The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a legendary satanic volume now extant only in three copies. Each copy contains nine similar but slightly variant engravings, the work of the human author (a burned heretic named Aristide Torchia) and Luicifer himself.

During the adaptation process, Polanski and his co-writers eliminated the entire Dumas angle (necessitating the title change as well), condensing and shuffling characters to focus solely on the demonic angle of the story. However, the essential cast of characters is the same: Corso (Johnny Depp), urbane book collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), conniving widow Liana Telfor (Lena Olin) and “the Girl” (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), a mysterious, omnipresent beauty revealed to be Satan in human form. From its opening, a wordless sequence in which a prowling camera records a suicide by hanging, plunges directly into the musty volumes adorning a bookcase and passes through a series of doors hovering in blackness during the opening credits, The Ninth Gate functions on many levels at once, all of them potentially deceptive. Our protagonist is immediately portrayed as a compromised, resourceful rascal as he swindles two naïve heirs out of a valuable four-book edition of Don Quixote. The literary choice here is no accident; Corso’s quest finds him battling many invisible, possibly imaginary forces controlling his fate and his flawed moral interior (but lack of true evil nature) makes him an ideal candidate for seduction. Throughout his journey, Corso is regaled with stories, beginning with Balkan’s speech about the history of The Nine Gates and its author. As Balkan admits, even his own copy may be a forgery and, as Corso soon learns, no one should be trusted. However, unlike Polanski’s previous subjects who implode or surrender when confronted by the inexplicable, Corso seems only slightly ruffled by his bizarre circumstances. From a compromised and satanic viewpoint, the willingly seduced Corso could in fact be seen as Polanski’s first genuine heroic figure in a horror film.

The similarities are striking when looking at The Ninth Gate and its closest companion piece, The Saragossa Manuscript, even beyond the superficially identical subject matter of satanic literary gamesmanship and diabolical secrets concealed in Spain. The widescreen compositions for both films are unusually flooded with light, but instead of providing illumination, light here obscures and confuses, allowing the devil to perform trickery in plain view without being noticed. Both films conclude “romantically” with the hero, now converted, retreating from the camera in a burst of bright light towards a decaying, rocky structure to fulfill his destiny and join the forces of darkness. These finales feel both triumphant and enigmatic; a shocking reversal for many viewers who complain that such a resolution is unsatisfying or confusing. Our guide through these stories, the rapt audience identification figure who has gone through fire and has been transformed in the process, decided to go down the darker road and ultimately the viewer must decide whether that path is worth following. In fact, there is no other way either film could end. The stories are long, deceptive dances between the devil and the unconverted soul, love stories of the darkest and most dangerous kind.