Polish director Wojciech Has’ finest hour is a singular screen dream.
Navigating the maze of one man’s mind, the splendidly titled, irrepressibly imaginative The Hourglass Sanatorium showcases the unique genius of visionary Polish director Wojciech Has. Recently benefitting from an impeccable restoration, his 1973 masterwork is freshly bizarre, with its cobwebs dusted away (apart from those that remain for stylistic reasons of course).
The film begins with Józef (Jan Nowicki) travelling in what is tantamount to a ghost train: its huge carriages are occupied by silent, severe passengers. Advised by the train’s blind conductor to find his undisclosed destination himself, Józef exits the train into a snow-covered graveyard and makes for the looming gothic sanatorium, which is straight out of a Hammer horror. Jozef enters through a window to find the deserted, decaying interior no less ominous.
A dishevelled and detached nurse (Janina Sokolowska) emerges and, when Józef informs her that he’s booked a room, she tells him that everyone is asleep. Responding to his incredulity – it is after all daytime – she comments, "They’re always asleep here. Didn’t you know?" He’s told to wait in the restaurant, thick with cobwebs over still laid tables, and is tempted by a slice of highly suspect cake.
Józef is introduced to the eccentric Dr. Gotard (Gustaw Holoubek) who is treating his father. When he asks if his father is alive, the doctor responds gnomically with, "within the limits imposed by the situation." His father Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat) it seems exists between life and death: Gotard explains that, "The whole trick is that we put back the clock by a certain interval of time... Here, your father’s death is yet to occur, in your country that same death has already struck him." Concluding that this must mean his father is about to die Józef is informed quite the contrary: "Here we reactivate time with all its possibilities, including the possibility of recovery."
Such strangeness is overshadowed when, on peering out of a window, Józef witnesses his own approach to the house, illustrating the sanatorium’s unusual relationship with time. He sees his other self enter the building through a previously blocked door, a doorway which now seems to lead to a garden and perhaps to a competing narrative.
The remainder of the film consists of increasingly bewildering encounters, often at least partly comprised of childhood memories (featuring his parents and characters from his hometown), which suggest that Józef has retreated into his own mind.
Far from mere confusion The Hourglass Sanatorium shows mastery of its mise-en-scène, with impeccable sets and haunting compositions. Furthermore it does the seemingly impossible and thrillingly replicates what it’s like to dream: interiors join seamlessly with exteriors, the familiar becomes strangely unfamiliar, there’s little conventional sense but ample meaning, and, of course, an obsession with sex. Our conscious minds might struggle to accept the connections and begrudge the film’s doing away with plot but it’s a wonderful enchantment.
The Hourglass Sanatorium is an amalgam of a number of stories from Polish writer Bruno Schulz, most significantly 'Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass' and 'Spring'. The film enraged the Communist authorities in Poland on its release in 1973, who forbade Has taking it to Cannes.
It is in many ways a political film, depicting the crumbling grandeur of the country at the time and conveying a sense of imprisonment, displaying an overt Jewishness (during a period of enforced anti-Semitism) and a nostalgia for pre-war Poland. After it was smuggled out of the country The Hourglass Sanatorium picked up the Jury Prize at the aforementioned festival, but such a rebellion would cost Has dear and it would be a decade before he released his next feature.
If there’s a certain familiarity to the film’s look it’s because directors such as Terry Gilliam have drawn so heavily on Has' style. Aesthetically rich, disquieting, funny, philosophical and desperately sad, The Hourglass Sanatorium is a stunning example of perfectly realised, meaningful madness.