Film bits and bobs
First published by Film4
Synopsis: In Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s short stories, time plays tricks and dreams come to life as a man visits his not quite dead father in an otherworldly sanatorium.
Review: “Everything is muddled up, Father. One needs such patience to find the right meaning in this tangle.”
So says Jozef (Jan Nowicki) to his father Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat) in the middle of Wojciech Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium (Santorium Pod Klepsydra), no doubt articulating the thoughts of many a viewer by this point. For Jakub is in fact dead, but his life has been supernaturally prolonged in an isolated and dilapidated sanatorium, located alongside a cemetery (or perhaps in the subconscious). The residing doctor (Gustaw Holoubek) has put the clocks back to reactivate the past in all its unfulfilled possibilities and missed opportunities.
After a long, sleepy train journey surrounded by corpse-like Hassids and naked women, Jozef has arrived at these dusty corridors in search of both his lost father and some sort of meaning for his own life, but he is soon, much like the doctor with the pretty nurse (Janina Sokolowska), distracted from his task by considerations of a more erotic nature – and more particularly by his fanciful encounters with two women, voluptuous Adela (Helena Kowalska) and spectral Bianka (Bozena Adamek). For in this tomb-like sanatorium where time has been reversed, memories run parallel to dreams, desires and fantasies, even if ultimately all these branch lines and sidetracks lead to the same inevitable terminus.
If Jakub comes to regard the past as the ‘text’ of God’s will, misinterpreted or emended at the reader’s peril, and if his uncanny adventures are all prompted by books that he has encountered in his youth, whether a scrapbook of catalogue advertisements, a stamp album owned by a childhood friend (Filip Zylber), his father’s collection of bird illustrations, or the Old Testament itself, all this serves in part as a reflex for the literary origins of Has’s film.
The Polish director had already acquired a reputation as a skilled adaptor of ‘unfilmable’ books with his dizzying The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), and in The Hourglass Sanatorium, he turned his attentions to several of the linked short stories collected in Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass, published by celebrated Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz in 1937.
Schulz may have used his bizarre first-person flights of fancy to explore unresolved feelings about his Jewish roots and his own deceased (if larger-than-life) father (also called Jakub), but Has extends and diverts these oneiric excursions to take on board the passing of Schulz himself (shot dead in the street by a Nazi in 1942) and more broadly of Poland’s rich shtetl culture, which was wiped out in the Holocaust and is here vividly reimagined as a bustling marketplace of desire.
As Jozef begins to recognise Jakub’s (and his own) frail mortality, through a window he glimpses villagers fleeing through the streets with suitcases in an image clearly evoking the pogroms. Even the train full of sepulchral Hassids, though already to be found in Schulz’s writings, here becomes inextricably associated with the mass transport of Jews to the camps. So, in Has’s elegiac film, as in Schulz’s stories, the past is a zone whose route map is endlessly rewritten to accommodate all manner of subsequent developments, with regret, sorrow and death itself the only fixed points.
There are many films that have been described as dreamlike but few remain worthy of the description for their full feature length. The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, is the (sur)real deal – so strange, so impenetrable and so unconcerned with logic or even internal consistency that its effect on the viewer is not unlike a restless slumber, where themes and ideas, though certainly present, remain difficult to grasp let alone to piece together.
Very little that happens in Has’s film makes literal sense and there is no temporal or even spatial coherence to its free-associative succession of moving tableaux – but Has, aided by a very talented crew, skilfully maintains the illusion of continuity by having one scene merge seamlessly into the next via fluid camerawork, imaginative links and match cuts, clever use of the beautifully designed sets and the constant presence of Jakub as a unifying element.
When the only ‘plot’ to be found is the kind where graves are dug, images are everything and in this regard the film comes into its own, full of faded, unnatural colours, and exotic, ever incongruous details. Here the space beneath a bed acts as a portal, a town square is full of men dressed as birds, a stone fence in a garden can lead to colonial-era New Mexico, clockwork figures from history are brought to life in a wax museum, while a train conductor (Mieczyslaw Voit), blind and lugubrious, occasionally appears to set Jakub back on the right track.
In its linking of the sacred and the profane, the philosophical and the sensual, the childish and the adult, The Hourglass Sanatorium recalls the carnivalesque pageantry of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films while its bleak, morbid tone and claustrophobic atmosphere have had a clear influence on the work of the Brothers Quay, who openly acknowledge their admiration for Has, and who, in their 1986 animated short The Street Of Crocodiles, have also adapted Schulz.
Jakob’s crepuscular quest to reconcile himself to his past will haunt for days those it does not send straight to sleep, and as a film more evocative than transparent, it amply repays several viewings – although, like Jakub, you might need patience to untangle its muddled-up ideas on memory, mourning and mortality.
In a nutshell: An oneiric elegy for times past in which the viewer becomes as sleepy and lost as the protagonist.