Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass
DIRECTOR: Wojciech Has
FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit
PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.
COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.
Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of Terry Gilliam will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.
The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.
Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.
Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.
Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.
www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.