Hourglass Sanatorium is the second film by the Polish director Wojciech Has to be put out on DVD this year, following the release of his 1968 The Saragossa Manuscript in February. Also based on a literary work, this time Bruno Schulz’s remarkable collection of stories Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, Has’s 1973 film shares some of the same fantastical elements with its predecessor.
The film opens as our protagonist Josef (Jan Nowicki) travels on a dilapidated and mysterious train to visit his father at a sanatorium in the middle of the Polish countryside. On board, he’s assured by the blind, yet all-seeing conductor that he’ll know how to find his way. He stumbles across the Gothic hospital, and finds it abandoned, cobwebs strewn across the detritus of daily life, cakes and glasses still half-full. The doctor appears out of nowhere, explaining to Josef that his father Jacob, dead in the outside world, is still alive within the confines of the sanatorium. Precious time has been clawed back, and his father may even recover.
Like his father, Josef is essentially given the chance to live his life a second time. When he sees a young boy playing outside on the grounds, Josef pursues him only to find that he has wandered into a tangled world of real and imagined experiences. Credit must go to the cinematographer, Witold Sobocinski, for creating seamless transitions from one hallucinatory state to the next as Josef crawls through his past, from his cramped childhood home to a majestic synagogue. This remarkably ambitious film (at the time Poland’s most expensive) is considered to be one on Sobocinski’s triumphs, and its elaborate set-pieces are a testament to the ‘exaggeration of invention’ (as one character puts it) inherent in the film.
But this is a love-it or hate-it film, and the impressive cinematography cannot, at least in this critic’s opinion, make up for the nonsensical, pseudo-philosophical dialogue delivered in a maddeningly childish way by Josef throughout the allegorical film. The aimless, circular structure gives the unpleasant sense of being trapped in Alice’s rabbit hole, with no hope of getting out; a character voices, ‘One needs such patience to find the right meaning in this tangle’, but unbelievably lengthy digressions about historical figures like Emperor Maximilian seem utterly pointless.
Literary adaptations all too often strip away the magic that words convey, and Hourglass Sanatorium is unfortunately not any different in that regard, though fans of the surreal and psychedelic may approve of the approach (think The Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam). Has does deserve praise for evoking the vibrancy of Poland’s pre-Holocaust Jewish community, as well as reflecting on the tragedy that befell it (Schulz was murdered by a Gestapo officer in 1942). But far too many gratuitous shots of half-naked women conjure up an image of a director more lecherous than respectful and prevent the film from being much more than a dated relic from the 70s.