Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review of The Hourglass Sanatorium

An army of clockwork manikins re-enacts the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Villagers dressed as exotic birds twirl through a spontaneous arcane festival. Your childhood best-friend bars your access to his stamp collection of lies. Your father comes back from the dead to ask if there has been any mail. You are in the Hourglass Sanatorium; a place inside you mind and outside of time.

Nearly a decade after the Polish auteur directed his exquisite structural masterpiece, “The Saragossa Manuscript,” Wojciech Has was still uncompromisingly upturning every narrative convention he could find with “The Hourglass Sanatorium” (1973). I sought out the portentous-sounding title, despite the fact that none of his films, save “Saragossa Manuscript,” have grown in reputation enough to get Region 1 DVD releases. I urge everyone to do the same.

The story is as much about the protagonist, Josef, as it is about the time-traveling convalescence home where he is summoned upon news of his father’s death. The hospital is overgrown and decaying, almost as if it has already traveled to the ends of eternity and back. Most of the sets are symbolism-choked still life arrangements featuring cobwebs, skulls, debris, clocks, taxidermy and ancient leaflets. The architecture is vague, misleading and transitory.

When Josef arrives, he discovers that though Jakob (his father) has died relative to the timeline of the outside world, things are not so simple in the Hourglass Sanatorium. Staring out the window, he notices himself arriving earlier that day, but by a different means. He rushes to meet himself, but bumps into his mother, who addresses him at the age of eight. Not so much trapped in, as irresistibly bound to the paradoxical sanatorium, Josef is doomed (treated?) to a series of adventures that borrow unpredictably from his past, his fantasies and his nightmares.

Jan Nowicki, as Josef, gives it his wide-eyed delusional all, selling a character that seems infinitely more comfortable in the shifting landscape than the audience will ever get. It is, after all, an environment that mixes freely with his innermost mind. A lesser director might have made Josef’s psyche-made-flesh journey a mere study of parental relations and childhood trauma, but when Has flays open the human brain, he dissects more than a cheap Freudian thriller. There is no final-act key that unlocks Josef’s secrets for our own satisfaction. Instead, the ending twist creates a disturbing circularity that may lock Josef away forever.

Wojciech Has keeps his scattershot tale from becoming arbitrary chaos by binding it with Heart of Darkness atmosphere and reoccurring references that imply a personal history never truly glimpsed reliably. Most striking of all is Has’s seductive constructive editing, linking impossible locals with seamless, yet startlingly, transitions. The narrative operates as if it were Josef’s dream (as it very well may be), carrying us forward into new situations without leaving any memory of how we got there.

You know it’s a good thing when you can’t make up your mind whether the directing, the art design or the editing is the source of a film’s technical brilliance. I think it’s safe to say that for this one, all three contribute enormously. It is exhausting just to take in the film with the eyes, but where it really provides a workout is in the mind. Has has created a platform for viewers to try out dozens of theories and, no matter how crazy the conjecture, he never leaves us lacking for evidence.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

P.S. If anyone out there knows where I can find any Wojciech Has films other than “The Saragossa Manuscript” and this one, please let me know. He is fast becoming a favorite, but his work seems unjustly unavailable.


The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Nice to see Has getting mentioned for something other than his magnificent SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT. I have HARMONIA, a wonderful MOUCHETTE-esque short of Has' from 1948. HOURGLASS is indeed a typically rich, dense project. Has is someone whose art beckons a thorough analysis. Now, who is brave enough for such a task...?

FilmWalrus said...

For a great in-depth plot summary and breakdown of the themes in Hourglass Sanatorium, you might try this essay:

Glad to see some Has fans out there!

Mad Dog said...

Sounds like an interesting time! :3

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know about a new site set up to accompany the release of Saragossa on DVD.

Best wishes

Timjim (site creator)

FilmWalrus said...


Excellent work! Sounds like your restoration is a must see. Not only do I want a copy, but I'd love "I Am Cuba" from you catalogue and "Memories of Underdevelopment" (I saw a grainy 35mm back in college) and "Black God White Devil" (the VHS I watched was faded and the subtitles unreadable). I'd even brave the poor US-UK exchange rate if you sold Region 1 copies. Let me know if you ever do!

Alex Barrett said...

I couldn't agree more that Has' work has been sorely overlooked; he doesn't seem to appear in any of the classic film histories, despite clearly belonging in 'the canon' of great directors (at least based on the three films I've seen: Saragossa, Hourglass and The Doll). The great thing about his films is that they stay with you; there are images from each of them that I don't think I'll ever forgot.

To answer the question in your p.s., two of his earlier films – One Room Tenants and The Noose – are out on DVD in Poland, apparently with English subs on the films but not on the features. I'm hoping a friend is going to pick them up for me when he goes to Poland next month, but they can also be ordered from various Polish etailers.