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Hourglass Sanatorium, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1973
Studio: 
Mr. Bongo
Genre: 
Art House
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.85:1
Directed by: 
Wojciech Has
Cast: 
Jan Nowicki
Tadeusz Kondrat
Mieczysław Voit
Halina Kowalska
Gustaw Holoubek
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
0
Bottom Line: 
3

Wojciech Has is Polish cinema’s national surrealist plus ultra. Mostly known outside his country of birth for the elegantly mounted historical comic-surrealist romp “The Saragossa Manuscript”, his other films have rarely been seen or are much known about outside his native Poland beyond that single moment of sixties counter-cultural arthouse cool, notwithstanding a prolific career that lasted well into the 1980s. The one slight exception to this rule is “The Hourglass Sanatorium” (“Sanatorium pod klepsydrą”), a visually exceptional but challengingly recondite 1973 work of Gothic crepuscularity that won the Prix du Jury at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, famously awarded by a jury led that year by Ingrid Bergman after the film had been pointedly banned by the Polish Communist authorities and consequently had to be smuggled out of the country secretly in falsely labelled film canisters in order to be entered as an official selection: and act that subsequently led to Has being excluded from making films in Poland for the next eight years.

Why would the Communist regime of that period get the jitters over such an extravagantly indulgent dreamlike tale of baroque fantasy? The answer most likely resides in the film’s heavy preoccupation with issues of Jewish identity, and its background emphasis on the history and culture of Polish Jewry (admittedly sketched out in a heavily diffuse and dream-like form), at a time when the Polish government was leading an anti-Semitic campaign against the remaining Jewish population, which had led to large numbers of Jews deciding to leave the country. Born in Kraków, Wojciech had both Jewish and Roman Catholic ancestry on his father and his mother’s side respectively, although he himself remained an agnostic. However, growing up he enjoyed the fantastical literary short stories of the Polish author and fine artist Bruno Schulz, who was considered in his time to be one of the great prose stylists of the language. “The Hourglass Sanatorium” is not so much an adaptation of Schulz’s 1937 short story collection-cum-novel Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, as it is an extended meditation on the themes, motifs, imagery and characters that go to make up the small but rich body of Schulz’s work in its entirety, including stories and incidents from the author’s only other substantial publication, the 1934 illustrated volume of short stories The Street of Crocodiles (also adapted by Brothers Quay as a much-praised 1968 animation). Has’s by turns outlandish, nightmarish and playful film is best viewed, then, as an attempt to pay homage to the poetics of Schultz’s distinctive artistic imagination; but it also performs the function of providing Has’s own subjective commentary on the subconscious influences and historical context likely to have informed the author’s life and art in the years leading up to WWII … which also makes it a personal biographical sketch of Has’s own relationship with the work in question, and a meditation on Schulz’s ultimate fate as a victim of the Gestapo, forced to live in the Drohobycz Ghetto and randomly shot dead whilst returning home one day with a loaf of bread.

How this insular work of interiority may have fed into the controversy which led to the film’s ban in Poland we’ll consider shortly, but the main thing to be emphasised with regard to this film, before getting bogged down with history and politics, is its utterly fantastical nature, grounded in its sinister visual evocation of a gloomy pre-war Middle Europe that looks like Kafka come to life as imagined by a combination of Federico Fellini and Roman Polanski. The film becomes a stream-of-conscious manifestation of a purgatory-haunted dreamscape built on the nostalgia and childhood memories of its protagonist, which are tinged by dreadful presentiments of what the future had in store for Europe’s Jewish population in real life. Now available in the UK on Blu-ray from Mr Bongo, “The Hourglass Sanatorium” is a revelatory visual experience for anyone previously unfamiliar with Wojciech Has’s work outside of “The Saragossa Manuscript”; from the opening animated shot in which a silhouetted bird in flight rises against an eerie woodland backdrop which subsequently pans back to reveal the fantastical, almost Disney-esque scene to be a view from the carriage window of a dingy train transportation carriage full of poverty-stricken men, women and children, many of whom appear to be Jewish (thus imbuing the tableaux with a forbidding historical resonance), one is struck by the overwhelming visual design in each and every shot of the movie. Cinematographer Witold Sobocinski (who later shot “Frantic” for Polanski) presents the strikingly adorned sets in Wellesian wide-angles throughout, reminding one of the off-kilter sense of strangeness Welles created in his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, a similar ambience to which permeates this film also for most of its run-time.

A Gothic Poe-like sense of decay emerges as the film’s principle lead Joseph (Jan Nowicki) first leaves the train guided by a mysterious sightless conductor (who will reappear at various points during the ensuing odyssey), and stumbles into the grounds of a vast and ancient-looking sanatorium built in the vicinity of a dilapidated and overgrown cemetery. Joseph, it emerges, is here to visit his sick father, Jacob (Tadeusz Kondrat) … But this is no ordinary institution: the rooms and halls of the building seem alternately ancient and cobweb festooned, then brand new and contemporary when visited again a few minutes later; the art deco furnished corridors are empty and dim apart from a single nurse and the director of the sanatorium, who informs Joseph that the building exists in a sort of time warp that enables Joseph’s father to be dead in the world outside, but at the same time still alive while staying in his rooms here. Evidence of the sanatorium’s strange relationship with time is provided when Joseph sees himself arrive again from an upstairs window inside the building!

From this moment on, the film forgoes all sense of linear narrative development as identities, time-lines and alternate historical settings and the fantasies associated with them merge, fracture and recombine in bewildering new patterns: this is in fact a two hour surrealist odyssey, most reminiscent in structure and tone to Fellini’s film “Roma” (released the year previously) but which takes episodes from Shultz’s stories and weaves them into an impenetrably dense web that both reflects and further relates the original tales to the circumstances of the author’s own upbringing in the town of Drohobych in Austrian Galicia. Today part of the Ukraine, historically the region had once been a lynchpin of the Kingdom of Poland, before The Three Partitions in the eighteenth century divided it up between Russia, the Kingdom of Prussia and Hapsburg Austria.  At the end of World War I Drohobych became a part of the Second Polish Republic, then suffered under both Nazi and Soviet occupation during World War II. This turbulent history of changing identities and its effect on the region’s Jewish population, alternately welcomed then spurned, is at the heart of this apparently rambling selection of fantastical episodes which appear as opulently mounted daydreams and hazy memories arranged geographically, one inside another, as Joseph wanders through corridors and rooms, crawls beneath beds, or burrows through tunnels to find himself emerging in a series of colourful locations and time periods, each suggested by the one that came before yet arranged to form a concrete landscape of memory, childhood reminiscence and wonder: here clockwork automatons created from living flesh and colonial soldering adventures on-board and around a stranded-on-land steam boat coalesce, between bouts of extended recollection and reflection upon life in the Jewish quarter in the days of Austrian rule, to create a convincing screen representation of Schultz’s private fictional universe and the real-life context that must have helped forge it. The combination of relevance to ongoing political situations involving Jewish identity and scenes of completely outlandish and hard-to-interpret fantastical imagery must have contributed to a sense by the Polish communist authorities that there was some kind of subversive intent behind the picture. Yet, without some sort of pre-knowledge of the author’s texts and about his life the movie can indeed be very tough going for the novice viewer for it proceeds by a system of poetic allusion and suggestion rather than narrative exposition.

Nevertheless viewers will find it impossible not to appreciate the stunning recreation of period and the often quite sinister sense of dread and mystification Has and his collaborators are able to conjure here with awe-inspiring attention to visual detail, beautiful composition and lighting that leads to this becoming one of the most atmospheric fantasy surrealist pictures ever created: the sense of scale here often recalls the work of Terry Gilliam as well as Fellini and Polanski. It’s a difficult film to fully enjoy without doing a bunch of research and reading beforehand, but the effort will not be wasted for those who make the effort. “The Hourglass Sanatorium is a wonderful cinematic achievement, and Mr Bongo are to be commended for bringing it to UK Blu-ray and giving us a first class new digital HD transfer.

 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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