Today: May 21, 2024

The Hourglass Sanatorium

Don’t you hate it when you go to visit your aged father in a sanatorium, and in process stop the forward movement of time itself?

Don’t you hate it
when you go to visit your aged father in a sanatorium, and in process stop the
forward movement of time itself?
This may not have occurred on your last
visit to see dad, but it is the fate that befalls Joseph (Jan Nowicki) in Director Wojciech
J. Has
’s The Hourglass Sanatorium.
Adapted from Bruno Schulz’s book
entitled Sanatorium Under the Sign of
The Hourglass
, the film won the Jury Prize at the 1973 Cannes Film
Festival. The film was a major
production in early 1970’s Poland, but authorities were reluctant to allow the
release of the final version. Not only did the abhorrent state of the train
Joseph travels on and the building his father lives in seem a critique of the
crumbling state institutions of Socialist Poland, Has’s decision to emphasize
the Jewish aspects of Schulz’s original clashed badly with an anti-Semitic
campaign the government had launched in 1968. Nevertheless, the director
managed to smuggle a copy of the film abroad, so that it could be shown at
Cannes, and the Polish authorities allowed it to premiere at home in December
1973.

There is little point in trying to accurately account the
plot. Roughly, Joseph travels to the countryside where his aged father is ensconced
in a ramshackle sanatorium, after being told of his father’s death. Death, it
appears, is a relative concept in the sanatorium, as the doctor’s ability to
manipulate time allows his father to live in one existence, while having died
in another. Joseph, too, quickly finds himself navigating a kaleidoscope of
time and space: soon after arriving, he glances out the window only to see
himself arriving again! He tries to chase himself down, but ends up running
into his mother in their family home, where she scolds him as if he was a child
and sends him to wake up the lodgers. As one time and place passes into
another, Joseph relives a series of memories, fantasies and nightmares from his
past. He moves seamlessly from a room in which wax mannequins re-enact the
assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to a Jewish banquet, waited upon by a
friendly prostitute. Confused? Of course. The key is that Joseph is truly re-living these events; in other words, he is an active agent in
them, and he must learn to trace the stages of events and places to find his
way out. Don’t expect a satisfying ending, however, in which Joseph finds the
key to his psychological experiences; rather, you must accept the infinite
circularity of time in which he is now embedded.

If that description puts you off watching the film, don’t
let it. As long as you allow yourself to be carried along by Joseph’s wide-eyed
curiosity, you will be truly drawn in to a carnival of aesthetic delights,
populated by colonial soldiers, blind train conductors and doll-like women.
This hallucinatory vision is offset, however, by the political message which
underlies the film. Set loosely in 1944, the film hints at the violence that
was to follow, both in the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews (and Jewish settings
are emphasised in Has’s reading of Schultz’s story), and the later violence of
Socialist rule.

Nowicki’s performance is outstanding, and he navigates
Joseph’s journey with an equal mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm. The
supporting cast of characters delight in the surrealism of it all, buoyed by
truly outstanding costumes, sets and cinematography. Director Has is best known
for The Saragossa Manuscript, his 1965 film, but the re-release
of The Hourglass Sanatorium is a good opportunity for British audiences to
become acquainted with this equally haunting, but lesser known film.

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