Some years ago an unusual item was delivered anonymously to the Film Archives. I carefully opened the bedraggled jiffybag and extracted a battered film canister. On closer inspection its contents appeared to be a standard Kodachrome 35mm colour acetate stock from the mid 1950's. The peeling label was hieroglyphed with fading Cyrillic pencilmarks. I loaded the reel gently onto the winder at my workstation and to my astonishment found myself looking at the lost footage from 'The Life of Count Potocki'.
Consulting a turgid academic tome on post-war Polish cinema I soon found a reference to the director Hieronymous Bak. He had graduated from the famous Lødz film school in 1953, a contemporary of Polanski and Wadja. While still in his early twenties he had shown a precocious talent and had completed several prizewinning short films - none of which were now extant. The footage which I now had in front of me was all that remained of his first, and sadly, his only major commission.
'The Life of Count Potocki' was a lavish attempt to film the biography of the renowned Polish author of the labyrinthine novel 'The Manuscript Found At Saragossa': a picaresque romp through the late 18th century following his career as poet, revolutionary, pioneer Egyptologist and Byronesque seducer of women.
In the brief article the downwards trajectory of Bak's directorial career was bleakly related. Several disasters had befallen the prestigious state-sponsored film project, notwithstanding the director's dipsomania, the arrest of several dissident cast members for sedition and finally the death of the leading actor as the result of an extended drinking bout. The production was cancelled after two months of principal photography amidst general recriminations and Hieronymous Bak was never heard from again, leaving as a plangent finale the summation of his entry in the encyclopaedia: 'he never fulfilled his potential'.
According to my source, the rushes were presumed lost, and yet here they were forty years later unspooling before me. I scrolled through the reel on my winder, marvelling at the sumptuous sets, the extravagant costumery and the powerfully evocative and utterly non-Hollywood epic grandeur of the whole mise-en-scène.
The film stock had degenerated, the colours were bleached-out and faded as if each scene were now playing out as a dim memory of itself. Dust motes flashed and scratches flickered across each cell. I knew that I had the technology to repair it, but even in its pristine condition it could never be edited. Films, as everyone knows are never shot in sequence; there is never any narrative in production. What is committed to film on-set is disjointed and fractured; the narrative is only ever restored in the editing suite. What I had were fragments, brief flashes of inspiration, but no work of art.
I was intrigued, and after sequestering the film to the vaults I began to research its origins. A copy of the original script was on file with the Polish authorities and I procured a mimeograph from the Warsaw archives. In the post-war period Count Potocki had been portrayed as a national literary icon by the Communist authorities in Poland, on a par with other ancient romantics such as Mickievitz or Krasinski. His masterpiece, 'The Manuscript Found At Saragossa' was regarded like so many other picaresque classics as being unfilmable, although a famous interpretation by Bak's contemporary Wojciech Has in 1965 could claim to have captured some of the essence of Potocki's playful multilevel narrative.
I read carefully through the faded copy of the screenplay. The shooting-script which had been written by Bak himself was a ghostly key to the whole unfinished project. Bak's vision had an ambitious cinematic scope and a powerful narrative arc. We see Potocki make the first solo balloon flight in Europe, the innumerable love affairs with wanton Italian Duchesses and their maidservants, battle scenes, love scenes, adventures in Egypt, the creative agonies endured in the writing of his masterpiece and for a finale the Count's melodramatic suicide: blowing his brains out with a silver bullet fashioned from the knob of a sugar-bowl purloined from his mother's dining service.
I had resigned myself to the onerous task of transferring the film to digital media and was in the midst of the process of removing the blemishes and recalibrating the colours when a second anonymous package arrived. It was another 35mm film canister. I unwound the film at my desk and a few minutes viewing made it clear that it was a further reel from 'The Life'. It seemed to be a second attempt to finish the film, but now the footage was shot in a much cheaper 35mm black and white Kodak Double-X stock from the early 1960s.
The standard filmographies were silent about this new footage. I consulted contemporary trade papers and delving deeper, I had translations made from the reminiscences of minor actors of the period. A story finally emerged. It seemed that Bak could not accept that his film had been axed by the authorities, and with his own savings he had purchased ten thousand feet of black and white 35mm stock. He had turned up guerilla-style with his crew on the sets of other films set in roughly the same period and filmed his scenes in between breaks in production.
The camerawork was shaky, hand-held and impetuously Nouvelle Vague. I could not conceive how he thought that he could marry this footage with the epic Technicolor scenes which he had shot before, but watching these rushes and plotting each gap in the narrative that they filled, I realised that I could begin to assemble a rough cut. With digital technology, transferring tones and colour to the black and white was effortless.
Bak had found a passable likeness for the original actor who had played the Count and with expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting and extravagant camera angles he distracted the viewer's attention sufficiently so that any subtle differences were smoothed over. I soon had the rough cut assembled on my laptop. I reviewed it with my colleagues and estimated that I had roughly three quarters of the script on film.
I continued with my researches, but after the defiant flourish of the initial black and white rescue effort I could find no further mention of Bak in the archives. The original cast and crew went their separate ways. Some became successful, some sank back into obscurity and day-time soap operas, but of Hieronymous Bak there was no trace. It seemed by all accounts that the failure of his film on Potocki had unhinged him, and left him a casualty of alcoholism and bitter self-recrimination. I summarized my findings in an article for the in-house journal and filed the rough cut away. I never received any requests to view.
The whole incident had almost passed from my memory when yet another anonymous package appeared in the post. It was a small cardboard film container. I identified its contents as a cheap AGFA 16mm colour stock from the mid 1970's. It was the missing second-unit photography from 'The Life'. There was roughly thirty minutes of unedited footage. I scrolled through it with a mixture of subdued admiration and disbelief. It was a third desperate attempt to finish the film for posterity.
In the frantic search for appropriate period sets, Bak had assembled his new team of actors at the Warsaw waxworks in the midst of a wooden diorama of famous Polish kings and queens. The lighting was perfunctory, the camera work was gonzo-like and improvised. Anachronisms abounded: in the outside scenes television aerials sprouted from nearby rooftops, puzzled onlookers were hustled away mid-shot, and throughout it all a blatant Casio digital watch shone crimson on the wrist of the leading lady.
The faces of the actors were completely different from the original production, and so in order to disguise the continuity, each threadbare costume had become more flamboyant, each wig more extrovert and make-up and beauty spots were applied with such gusto that each actor now sported the inhuman blanked-out face of a harlequin or Kabuki. The standard of performance had declined so much that every scene seemed almost a pantomime interpretation of the original script's intentions. Despite the limitations of the material it slotted seamlessly into my rough cut. I estimated that the film was almost 90 percent complete.
A year passed and I realised that this year represented Bak's (for I was sure it was he) wrestling with his own artistic conscience in sending me the record of his obsession as he recorded his fall into the utter extremities of indigence and the sad fact that his means were no longer commensurate with the breadth of his inspiration.
Then finally, another much smaller package arrived, containing three cassettes. I quickly identified them as undeveloped Kodachrome Super 8mm Sound Cartridges. This hand-held amateur format still competed with the hefty shoulder-mounted home video camera in the early 1980's. By consulting the script I could pinpoint exactly which scenes were being filled in.
The Egyptian years were obviously being filmed in a museum. Everything was now shot in extreme close-up to avoid any egregious continuity errors. I recognised the black impenetrable mass of the Rosetta stone in the background of one scene where Count Potocki deciphers the hieroglyphs ahead of Champollion and realised that Bak must be in London or was at least in London Circa 1985 as various Walkman-wearing Londoners wandered into shot mincing in their stone-washed finery in the midst of the British Museum.
The Super 8 footage showed that his relentless ambition still drove him at that time to pursue further Pyrrhic efforts at completion but it was clear that funding was now the overriding issue. I supposed that he would be in his late seventies now, probably scraping-by on the minimum state pension - why care about an unfinished film which was begun when he was barely thirty years old? But I was not paid to engage in such fruitless speculation, I was paid to preserve, so I edited the footage into the patchwork of the rough cut. By referring to the script I estimated that the film was now almost 95 percent complete, there was at most only five to ten minutes of footage remaining to fill in the sequence.