Tag Archives: Jan Nowicki

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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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

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 Continue reading 271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT (1971)

Trzecia Czesc Nocy

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, , Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Jerzy Stuhr

PLOT: Set in occupied Poland during WWII, during a stay in the country, Michal watches helplessly as German soldiers murder his wife, Helena and son, Lukasz. Returning to the city, he involves himself with the Underground; during a meeting that goes wrong, another man is mistaken for him and shot and he ends up taking care of the man’s wife, Marta , who is a perfect double for his dead Helena.vlcsnap-2012-08-12-23h12m48s126

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Its mix of historical recreation and surreal scenes was eye-opening for audiences at the time, and even more so for Western viewers who may not be aware of the background of the film’s setting. Even at this early stage, most of Zulawski’s tropes are present, and will only become more refined and extreme in the films to follow.

COMMENTS: When film enthusiasts are introduced to Andrzej Zulawski, the go-to film is usually (surprise, surprise) Possession. For good reason: it’s in English, so no subtitle-reading is involved; and, for quite a while, it was the only Zulawski film that audiences in the West could obtain relatively easily. But if you mean to seriously study Zulawski’s work , then, in my opinion, The Third Part of the Night is a far better entry point.

Zulawski scholar Daniel Bird points out that the two films share similarities: they’re both dramas that take place against chaotic and apocalyptic backgrounds; both feature actresses who play double roles; and both feature a degree of Surrealism – and stairways. One could argue that the two films can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

On its own terms, The Third Part of the Night is an eye-opening merging of the Polish wartime experience that could be found in the films of Zulawki’s mentor Andrzej Wajda (who is credited as “Film Supervisor”) with the Surrealism that was beginning to be a mainstay of Eastern European films. Co-written with his father, Miroslaw Zulawski (a diplomat and novelist), the core of the film draws on Miroslaw’s wartime experiences as a “louse feeder” at The Weigl Institute, a facility that manufactured typhus vaccine. To a Western audience, the scenes of lice feeding may seem to be part of the surreal landscape, but to audiences in Poland, those scenes are more like historical recreation, along with the scenes of people being herded and taken away or just shot point blank in the streets. The Surrealism is rooted in Michel’s grief and guilt in losing his family, and replacing them.

tumblr_le90nmRZAJ1qzcur6The Third Part of the Night does not have a current Region 1 DVD release; it is listed in the ‘Future Releases’ section of Mondo Vision’s website. As of this writing, the best release is a disc from Second Run DVD in 2007. It’s Region 0, but a PAL disc, so those with all-region players should have no problem – in addition to an excellent transfer, there is a 20 minute interview in English with Zulawski going into some depth on the film, and an informative 16 page booklet written by Daniel Bird.

The story of the Weigl Institute is fascinating in its own right and worth further examination. In 2014, W.W. Norton & Co. published The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, by Arthur Allen, which goes into the whole history and aftermath of the Institute. Both Zulawskis are referenced in the text, as is Third Part

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything stands on a knife-edge between absurdity and the abyss. Rarely has a filmmaker begin his career by so boldly charting out the territory he intends to explore.”–David Cairns, MUBI Notebook (DVD)