271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Sanatorium pod Klepsydra; AKA The Sandglass

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. “–Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1

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PLOT: As the film opens, Józef is on a train headed to a sanatorium where his dead father is being kept. When he arrives, the grounds are deserted and decrepit, but eventually he finds a doctor who leads him to his now-sleeping father’s room and explains the patient’s comatose-but-alive status: “the trick is that we moved back time… we reactivate past time with all its possibilities.” Józef then wanders through the sanatorium’s grounds, meeting his mother, a collector of automatons, a parade of men dressed in bird costumes, the Three Wise Men, and other strange characters.

Still from The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was primarily based on Polish Surrealist author Bruno Schultz’s short-story collection “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” although it included ideas from some of the author’s other short stories. (A Schulz story was also the inspiration for the ‘ stop-animation nightmare “The Street of Crocodiles“).
  • Wojciech Has worked on this project for five years.
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium did not receive the blessing of the Polish censors and was banned. Has had copies smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied for the jury prize (at that time, essentially third place). In apparent retaliation for his insubordination, the Communist Party did not approve any of Has’ new film projects for the next ten years.
  • In Poland, an hourglass is a symbol of death.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, especially given how visually sumptuous The Hourglass Sanatorium is, the image which best evokes the movie isn’t even in it. I speak of the famous theatrical release poster by Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski, which depicts a giant orange eyeball perched on a jawbone, with a grill of teeth through which a worm crawls (a limbless woman’s torso is also stuck between its molars), while numbers and arrows illustrate features of bone anatomy like occult footnotes. The poster seizes upon the film’s major theme of death; Starowieyski was also picking up on the repeated motif of eyeballs which occurs throughout the Sanatorium, from the train conductor’s blind stare to the cobweb-covered eyeball collection Józef finds under the bed. To illustrate the film, we ultimately chose the image of a toppled wax automaton with his eye-socket popped open to reveal the gears inside—but when I think of The Hourglass Sanatorium, I always think of that poster first.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crow frozen in flight; Józef spying on Józef; eyeballs under the bed

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Hourglass Sanatorium is a rare work of genuine Surrealism. Seldom has any film ever captured the free-falling feeling of being lost in a dream so well: the portentous but inexplicable visions; the tenuous, tantalizing connections between ideas; the smooth and continuous shifting of realities. Let a blind conductor be your guide inside a crumbling hospital whose rooms hold wonder after wonder.


Brief clip from The Hourglass Sanatorium (in Polish)

COMMENTS: Sanatorium pod Klepsydra opens on the silhouette of a bird flying before a background of bare tree limbs covered in snow. The bird sometimes flies forward, sometimes seems to be flapping in place, and occasionally even moves backwards, as if it’s fighting a tide or swift wind. To disorient us further, the camera begins to pan to the left independently, before pulling back to reveal that we are looking out of a train window. We conclude the bird’s progress has been relative to the train’s jerky movement, just as we will later be told that time inside the sanatorium is relative, experienced differently inside its halls than it is in the outside world. Inside the train compartment, a blind conductor (with a lantern hung around his neck) marches past motionless passengers, some sprawled out prone on the sparse straw that lines the floor. Two women’s bare breasts jiggle to the rhythm of the rails; otherwise, they’re completely still. Horror movie music plays, with eerie electronic drones that sound like narcotized versions of whistles and squealing brakes. The conductor wakes Józef, the only passenger showing any signs of life, and tells him they are almost there. He drops him off in the middle of nowhere.

All this is before any of the weird stuff actually starts. It’s just to set the mood.

While its story, if there is one, is so scattered as to be virtually nonexistent, The Hourglass Sanatorium is superlative at creating unsettling environments like that creepy, creaky train of the damned. Its world is one of decay and neglect. Interiors are covered in dust and strewn with bric-a-brac. Even the grapes and sandwiches in the deserted restaurant are covered in cobwebs. The grounds of the sanatorium itself appear to have once been grand, but now the paint peels off the door frames and houseplants outgrow their pots. As Józef journeys through the various rooms and the outside grounds, the atmosphere continually changes to set a new mood, in a triumph of mise en scene and production design. There’s an entire shetl, complete with street vendors and balconies, housed in a cavernous hall inside the sanatorium. At one point a ragtag group of mismatched soldiers (their uniforms range from Renaissance to Napoleonic) trudge past Józef carrying a man on a litter (who turns out to be the blind conductor, in another guise). As they pass, they reveal a herd of elephants behind them, hazily outlined in the oncoming sunset. The most impressive set is the hall of automatons, where what appear to be wax figures (really actors in pallid makeup) stand around in a greenhouse-cum-ballroom littered with rubble, were unruly vines wind around marble columns amid candelabras and tables set for tea. Dozens of colorfully costumed historical figures—anarchist assassins, frontiersmen, emperors and archdukes—stand virtually motionless, while and a half-comatose butler serves aperitifs. All of the sets are chaotically cluttered, filled of background junk and overgrown with intruding vegetation, suggesting a large ruins in which aristocratic refugees have recently set up camp. The color schemes are vivid, and often lit unnaturally with green, purple or orange light, as if filtered through stained-glass windows. Your eye will never grow tired.

The Hourglass Sanatorium is one of those persistently dreamlike movies which you must surrender to, rather than fighting. Each scene is a self-contained piece, although there are a few running themes—Józef’s family, a woman or two he lusts after, a book or two he treasures. There are also recurring symbols, like birds, eggs, and eyes. In general, however, everything shifts with each new location Józef enters, and the means of transition between the sequences holds as much interest than the scenes themselves; the lulling rhythm of the current that bears us along Józef’s stream of dreaming consciousness. Often, he will simply walk into a room and meet a new set of characters in “Alice in Wonderland” fashion. At other times the segues are more elaborate. Inside the shetl he is encouraged to climb onto a balcony wherein the village beauty lies languid and half-dressed. Inside her chambers, they engage in an ambiguous flirtation. Following a trail of scattered book pages, Józef climbs under her bed, where he meets more characters (one of whom feeds him preserves), only to emerge on the other side in a verdant clearing. (It now appears to be spring, although it was winter when he arrived at the Sanatorium just an hour before). One moment, he will be blindfolded and led to a firing squad; when the blindfold is removed he’s in his mother’s arms, the impending execution abandoned. Such non-narrative, purely associative transitions will frustrate the average viewer, who will likely turn this off within a half hour. For the rest of us, the challenge is worth it.

The movie is Józef’s dream, but what do we make of him? What do we know of him? He seems a likeable fellow; he rarely gets angry, and until the very end he shows more wonder at his situation than distress. His father is dead (in the outside world); we know that. As he travels, he searches for the old man in his dream journey; but we saw him leave him behind, sleeping in the room they share. He meets his mother in the room next to his father (is she a patient here, too?) She treats him like a child, and their conversation hints at old family rifts. His sojourn in the Jewish village suggests an attempt to reconnect with a lost religion and culture. Józef is always seeking, though the object of his quest changes on a whim: he is looking for his family, seeking knowledge and understanding, chasing after love and sex, recapturing past memories that immediately slip through his hands. He searches for meaning and finds only riddles. The Hourglass Sanatorium seems to encompass Józef’s entire life—along with, as the doctor and blind seer both advise, events that could have happened but didn’t: “illegal and dubious offshoots of time.” At the end, Józef remains distant and unknown. It helps that our hero is an amiable cipher; he becomes an Everyman, reliving and recombining elements of a life whose lessons and concerns are vague enough to be applicable to anyone. The movie assembles a vision of human existence as a collage, a series of moments each significant in itself, but whose coherence is missing. Coherence is, if we take the story at face value, false, and not the point at all—life is a dream, a collection of events (and possibilities) to be savored and understood each individually. The prospect is both frightening and delightful.

Some critics have tried to paint The Hourglass Sanatorium as a political allegory. There is some mumbling about the decrepitude of the sanatorium grounds as a metaphor for the poor state of Polish infrastructure under the Communist regime. More on point is the film’s focus on the Polish Jews; at the end of the film, the shetl which has played such a large part in the proceedings is evacuated, a reference either to the Holocaust or (more likely) the late-Sixties anti-Zionist campaign of the Communist Party, which pressured thousands of Jews into fleeing the country. Has himself was half Jewish, and he chose to emphasize the Semitic elements in Shultz’s work more than the original author did. (Schultz himself was shot by the Gestapo in occupied Poland in 1942). While there are references to Polish history in Sanatorium—some intentional, some accidental, some unconscious, some imagined, and some simply emanating inescapably from the setting—-dragging the film down to the level of mere politics and historical allegory would be an insult, a betrayal of the film’s stated theme of infinite possibilities. The political realm is only one of the many rooms in the sanatorium. Overall, Has was not much interested in politics. It was, to the authorities, a treasonous disinterest. His choice to focus on the eternal and the existential—time, dreams, death—was itself a revolutionary act. Under Communism, the arts were owned collectively by the people, and they had better celebrate the struggle of the proletariat against world capitalism if they wanted to avoid the censor’s ban. The depiction of a world where not everything makes sense is anathema to an ideology which asserts that the official state philosophy holds the answer to every question. Has presents an individualist view of life not much informed by class struggle: you are born, a lot of confusing things happen to you, some imposed on you by people in fancy uniforms, and then you die. This has never been the favored creed of any Commissar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bewilderment of dreams, a labyrinth of decay… Sexual fantasy, biblical parable and childhood memories tangle in a squirrel’s nest of surrealities.”–Rita Kempley, The Washington Post (1990 screening)

“There are many films that have been described as dreamlike but few remain worthy of the description for their full feature length. 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.”–Anton Bitel, Film 4

“Spatial continuity is banished as Jozef haltingly progresses through weirdness, bound only by the bewildering unpredictability of dreams.”–Mark Kidel, The Arts Desk (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Hourglass Sanatorium Restored Edition DVD Blu-ray – Mr. Bongo’s page for the film has a synopsis and selected critical quotes

The Hourglass Sanatorium – Wojciech Jerzy Has – The film’s entry at the Polish arts site culture.pl has a small but insightful selection of critical quotes

 “The Fiery Beauty of the World”: Wojciech Has and The Hourglass Sanatorium – David Melville August 2012 essay for “Senses of Cinema” focuses on the film’s poetry and its treatment of Jewish themes

Wojciech Has and the Interpretation of Dreams – “Krakow Post” article by Nick Hodge arguing that Sanatorium is Has’ masterpiece and that it’s a political allegory

THE SANDGLASS : A JOURNEY INTO THE UNDERWORLD – Essay from Steve Mobia outlining the film’s major themes

The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass – A (presumably public domain) online translation of Bruno Schultz’s original story collection

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)
‘s original endorsement for the film for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass – Schultz’s story collection

DVD INFO: Just as with Has’ other major film, The Saragossa Manuscript, Mr. Bongo (an eclectic outfit that supplements its normal catalog of Brazilian musical releases with obscure European arthouse films) has published a restored Region 2/B version of The Hourglass Sanatorium on DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy). The film looks and sounds great, but there are no extra features and the subtitles are occasionally questionable (missing spaces between words). No North American Region 1 edition of the film exists, so be sure to have an all-region player if you order this (unless you live in Europe; then you should be all set).

Actually, that last sentence isn’t 100% true: included the film in a region-free limited edition 8-disc “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, Vol. 1” box set (buy used). These  sold out quickly, and the sticker price now puts it out of reach of the average cinephile, however.

(This movie was nominated for review many, many times, but our records indicate it was first brought up by “NGboo,” who simply called it “an unforgettable dreamlike trip.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)”

  1. Well, this goes on the “must see” list. It sounds fascinating and darkly lovely. I only recently discovered 366 Weird–circumstances have kept me out mostly out of the cinema loop (weird or otherwise) for a few years–and I am now making an obsessive backward trek through the site. I’m currently living in the sepia past of August, 2014. You have all done an astonishingly wonderful job creating a vital, entertaining resource for fans of the unusual in cinema. Thank you for all you’ve done and all you continue to do!

  2. I you tubed this to see if I could watch it online and something else came up:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYLV-OEd4No
    Someone put the wrong film up and instead you get Hans Richter´s Dreams that Money can´t Buy. Richter was a Dadaist and this film looks equally as surreal as The Hourglass Sanatorium that was supposed to be there. I did a search on 366 to see if you have it but it seems not. Just thought you’d be interested.

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