The Hourglass Sanatorium (based on a collection of short stories by Bruno Schulz) from Polish pioneer Wojciech Has boasts a pretty interesting story behind its initial reception. As it happens, the Soviet Communist Polish government of the time weren’t too keen on the film’s subtle criticism of post-war Poland, not to mention the depiction of Jewish traditions and characters when the country was under an overt period of enforced anti-Semitism. In fact, the authorities were so unhappy that they attempted to prohibit the film’s entry into the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Fortunately, art prevailed and the picture was covertly smuggled into the festival where it went on to rightly receive the Special Jury Prize. That could almost be a film in itself, couldn’t it? Any budding scriptwriters take note (but we want a cut of the profits).
The film itself opens with a young man named Joseph (Jan Nowicki) riding a ramshackle old train en route to visit his father (Tadeusz Kondrat). As the rickety train comes to a halt, Joseph is ushered by an unsettling, glassy-eyed conductor to make his way through a graveyard and up to the titular Sanatorium. Inside the grandiose-yet-dilapidated gothic institution, Joseph encounters the ominous Dr. Gotard (Gustaw Holoubek), who informs him that his father has died in the real world. However, within the Sanatorium, he remains alive. As the plot progresses, it is revealed that the Sanatorium is a peculiar temporal enigma where one can experience distorted memories and dreams, as Dr. Gotard explains, “Here we reactivate time with all its possibilities.”
What follows is a psychotropic, oneiric trip through Joseph’s memories, his dreams and his subconscious in a series of interconnected yet often wholly unrelated passages that reunite Joseph with his mother, explore his Jewish upbringing and revel in his father’s passion for birds and aviary. One particularly eldritch scene sees Joseph run into a bunch of animate, historical mannequins, including Thomas Edison and Alfred Dreyfus, who re-enact the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One acutely disconcerting aspect of this extract is trying to decipher which mannequins are actually portrayed by actors and which are merely props.
Paradoxical and stimulating may the narrative be, perhaps the true triumph of the film lies in the mise-en-scene and the cinematography by Witold Sobocinski. Beautifully restored by Mr Bongo for this Blu-ray release, the visual artistry is striking. Throughout the film the sky changes from peach, to blue, to grey and the lighting shifts from being ominous, shadowy and macabre at one point to hallucinatory and alluring the next, all in a seamless and graceful manner.
The Hourglass Sanatorium is a work with a startling amalgamation of conventions from Gothicism, to horror, to fantasy, but most importantly Has’ film is irrefutably a surrealist masterpiece and has in turn attracted admirers from to Buñuel to Gilliam. Wojciech Has may not be as well renowned as his Polish compatriot Polanski, but his work deserves the upmost recognition, and with The Hourglass Sanatorium he created a poetic, hypnagogic work that elegantly explores themes of time, mortality, family and memory.
THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: JERZY HAS / STARRING: JAN NOWICKI, TADEUSZ KONDRAT, GUSTAW HOLOUBEK, IRENA ORSKA / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 7TH