Rarely do I have the pleasure of truly having to interpret a film. Usually, it’s just straightforward enough that I can get the gist of it, or it’s obvious there is no gist to get, or others have already written so copiously about the film that the job is done for me. But not this time. This time, seeing a fairly obscure film, and having done only a small (though crucial) amount of research, I’m going to attempt to get to the bottom of this.
Whether or not I am satisfied with what I find does not change one thing: in terms of mise en scène, The Hourglass Sanatorium is an absolute masterwork. Wojciech Has’ direction, the cinematography, and the production design are some of the finest I’ve ever seen, and much of the time my jaw dropped at the sheer spectacle (in glorious–and I mean glorious–color) spread across the screen. As a narrative, even as a deliberate mindfuck, it proves more difficult, and I admit I was more often than not baffled by the goings-on, brilliantly staged as they were. But I’m going to see what I can do to understand–as much as one can understand such a film.
The film begins on what seems to be a train, on which Joseph (Jan Nowicki) is traveling, seeking an unidentified location. The conductor (Mieczysław Voit) tells him he will find it without needing to ask directions. Disembarking, Joseph finds his way to a ruined mansion. After finding the door blocked with tombstones, he crawls in through a window and eventually finds a nurse (Janina Sokołowska). Asking for the doctor (since this is apparently the titular sanatorium), she tells him the doctor is asleep. When Joseph points out that it’s the middle of the day, the nurse replies that “there are no nights here”. Wandering around the decrepit building, Joseph locates a rundown cafeteria and is about to help himself to some cake when the nurse arrives and leads him to the doctor (Gustaw Holoubek).
The doctor tells Joseph that his father (Tadeusz Kondrat)–who is resident at the sanatorium, the reason for Joseph’s visit–is asleep, and that the sanatorium exists a step or two backwards in time from the rest of the world, allowing a kind of permanent life. Looking out a shattered window, Joseph sees a boy, Rudolf (Filip Zylber), and then what appears to be himself, roaming through a graveyard on the sanatorium grounds.
From here we and Joseph are drawn into what seem to be his memories. He sees his mother (Irena Orska), who is frustrated by his father’s frequent absences, and who speaks to Joseph as if he were still a child (he’s at least in his 30s). Leaving in search of his father, Joseph seems to confront a younger version of his father, and begins to encounter Jewish men, seemingly the men of his hometown, garbed in the fashion of the early 20th century, praying, singing, and dancing. He encounters Adela (Halina Kowalska), a lustful woman who is herself the object of the townsmen’s lust.
Adela gives Joseph a book made of old ads, leaflets, and the like, but which is treated as a work of great importance. He leaves by crawling under her bed, whereupon he meets a man seemingly dressed as an explorer (not sure exactly what his name was, sorry), and encounters a number of characters from far-off nations, who are now mingling in the town square with the Jews. Joseph finds his father (now in his elderly state), holding forth about the flight of birds and the interpretation of such (he is frequently surrounded by birds or wears feathers). Joseph shows his father the book; he treats it as a trifle.
Joseph finds Rudolf, who shows him a stamp collection which includes stamps from all over the globe. Joseph also re-encounters the conductor from the train, who warns him about trying to interpret God’s will, and speaks of events which have not completely occurred, because there is not room for them in time. Finding his way to a rural estate, through a hole in the wall he sees Bianca (Bożena Adamek), a young woman of, it would appear, the 19th century, if not earlier, whom he appears to be fascinated by. Bianca cryptically speaks about cyclical events.
With Rudolf’s help, Joseph climbs over the wall and finds himself to a ruined ship were Bianca’s father, Mr. de V (Jerzy Przybylski) has assembled a number of historic and legendary personages (Alfred Dreyfus, Emperor Franz Joseph I, Thomas Edison, etc.), in the form of animate mannequins. After showing these of, Mr. de V tries to bribe Joseph for some unclear purpose, but Joseph rejects the bribe, and ultimately flees, hiding from soldiers who have come to kill…someone.
All right, at this point, we’re around halfway through the film. Maybe you’ve pieced it together. Maybe not quite. It took me until near the end of the film to really get it, and even then it wasn’t until one vital revelation later–along with summarizing the film’s opening scenes–that really cemented it for me.
The revelation: the hourglass, in Polish culture, is associated with death; the Wikipedia article regarding the source novel informed me that it is often used in obituaries.
My initial mistake was to take anything that happened in the film literally–even to accept the sanatorium and its ability to step outside of time as some type of fantastical or science-fictional device. No…I was completely off-base. The film, as I see it, is the story of Joseph either in his dying moments or immediately after his death, wandering through a jumble of memories, fantasies, and the ghosts of a bygone era. And if the title is any indication, the film is chock-full of symbolism, some of which no doubt eludes me, not just because I’m not Polish, but because I haven’t read the writings of Bruno Schultz, whose anthology Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass was the primary inspiration for the film–though other works of his are alluded to.
Nonetheless, I can parse out a good many things. The sanatorium’s state outside of time is, of course, a representation of the afterlife. The doctor mentions how the patients may hold on to the possibility of a cure, and sleep to conserve their energy; this is then a holdover of the consciousness before death, an eternal life that does not admit the possibility of an actual death. The paradigm subsequently changes, because this is Joseph’s story, and he is unable to fully comprehend what has happened to him.
Jumping ahead to the film’s final scenes (since it would take another 500 words to fill in the entire second half), Joseph returns to the doctor and nurse, who examine him, and as Joseph protests the conditions in the sanatorium, the doctor and nurse dress him in the conductor’s uniform, marked by a lantern worn around the neck. Joseph, suddenly silenced, wanders through the ruins, then climbs over tombstones to find himself crawling out of a grave, which his mother looks down into, surrounded by thousands of candles. Joseph wanders off, and the camera descends back into the grave, and the image fades to black.
My reading of this sequence is this: the conductor is forever stuck between life and true death, a kind of Charon. The conductor, with his deathly visage, warns about trying to understand God’s will; by trying to make sense of things, by not accepting his death or at least his inability to control what happens to him, he has not passed over into the afterlife, and Joseph too is stuck in this liminal state, wandering a dead world, warning those who pass through not to make the same mistakes as him.
Wikipedia notes that the film ran into trouble with the Polish authorities because of its Jewish content and veiled allusions to the Holocaust (Schultz, himself Jewish, was killed by a Nazi officer during the war over a feud with another officer). While it’s a little hard to see just what the authorities were so upset by, I too felt that the Holocaust was being alluded to, albeit in a very subtle fashion. No Nazis are ever seen, no yellow stars, nothing overt…but the screen is often filled with scenes of Jewish life before the war, and given that the film takes place in a deathly realm (though Joseph’s own costume suggests the setting is the 30s at the latest), a Polish audience would likely realize just what Has (who himself had a Jewish father) was trying to say.
I also think Adela’s book, which Joseph treats as important but which appears to be merely handbills and ads stuffed into a cover, might be a dig at the Bible; the agnostic Has might have been suggesting that the idea that any book could contain truly transcendent knowledge is absurd. And perhaps the parade of historical personages (and the entire subplot with Bianca) is an animation of Joseph’s education and youthful fantasies–especially if you view Rudolf as symbolic of Joseph in his youth.
There are plenty of other moments which likely have some meaning; when Joseph rouses Mr. de V’s mannequins to action, seemingly preparing us for a battle that never happens, or when Joseph’s father, working in what remains of the family shop, shows off a bolt of fabric which has been moth-eaten and crawls with insects. And what to make of the copious female nudity (it’s a 70’s film, after all), or the seeming appearance of the Three Wise Men, or Rudolf’s stamp collection? What is symbolic, and what is just regurgitated consciousness? What is pure surrealism?
And yet, after a certain point, the question becomes irrelevant. Because the narrative here is secondary to the pure cinematic magic Has and his technical team created. God bless Martin Scorsese for spearheading the Masterworks of Polish Cinema series, which allowed me to see this on a big screen–in a spanking new restoration, no less!
Has’ direction is, appropriately for a film that deals so much with death, exuberant. The sheer array of sights and sounds that he parades before the camera is enough to fill five films–and yet The Hourglass Sanatorium isn’t even all that long (it’s just under two hours). It’s a bold, vibrant, excited film–the sort of film that thrills the viewer by being thrilled with itself. If I was restless at first, it was my fault for trying to fit the film into a more digestible context. If there are moments when the film seems confused and aimless (and I will say it is not a perfect film), there are so many more moments of sheer beauty and imagination to wash the bad taste out of your mouth.
Appropriately, for a film that, in my interpretation, takes place inside a man’s imagination (or some manifestation of it), there is a truly free spirit to the proceedings. There’s a childlike simplicity in the device of having Joseph leave a space by ducking under the bed, as if hiding under the bed could hide us from the world we know…or conceal monsters. There’s a crude, fantasized eroticism throughout that seems to spring straight from the imagination of a horny young man (there are many precisely exposed breasts, which when contrasted with the pale makeup gives the feeling of a cross between Chagall and Picasso). There’s a sense of sheer joy in the dancing, or true community in the huge banquet Joseph stumbles across.
Has’ other films most notably include The Saragossa Manuscript, a film which apparently deals heavily with metanarratives and nested stories, and is rather brilliantly complex. I had already wanted to see it, but the sheer mad brilliance of this film has made it a must. Has was a true visionary, and this is a magnificent expression of vision.
And then there’s Witold Sobocinski’s cinematography. To be blunt, there are shots in this film as good as any I have ever seen in any film. Fittingly, much of the film takes place at dusk, dawn, or in a haze, which gives rise to some fine imagery (like the gorgeous shot of Joseph against a peach-colored sky, with elephants behind him). The use of color in particular is almost unbelievably powerful; blue and gray skies, Adela’s vibrant red hair, the grays and browns of the broken-down sanatorium, the pale faces of the characters, the splashes of color in the costumes, the gold of the Wise Mens’ feet, the splashes of green and purple light…there are moments where the aesthete in me was truly in heaven.
And the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski provides the perfect setting for Has’ wizardry. The sanatorium itself is a magnificent ruin, a seedy, shattered remnant of past glory that suggests what might happen to the Grand Budapest Hotel in another 20 years. And the village is, likewise, a spot-on village, painstakingly decayed. Joseph’s father’s attic, with its birds and papers and the detritus of life, is another stunning achievement. Or Mr. de V’s beached riverboat home. It’s all incredible, adding to the atmosphere of death and surreal decay. Likewise, Lidia Skarzynska and Jerzy Skarzynski’s costumes capture the shifting time periods perfectly. And the makeup (Halina Ber and Anna Smiech), the all-important makeup, creates a world of sallow misery. It can hardly be bettered.
Janusz Rosól’s sound design is superb as well, adding little creaks and moans and buzzes to enhance the atmosphere; one particularly good example is the examination lamp in the sanatorium, whose low, white noise-ish buzz gives just the right feeling of sickly dread. And Jerzy Maksymiuk’s score, with its wails and screeches and minor keys sets the tone from the very start–at once dreamlike and tragic, surreal and sad.
The Hourglass Sanatorium is the kind of film which could’ve gotten away with merely adequate acting (it’s really a director’s film), but Has assembled a fine ensemble who further brings his mad vision to light.
Nowicki is in virtually every scene of the film, and much of the film lives and dies with him (pun not initially, but on later reflection profoundly, intended), and he gives one hell of a spirited performance. Just enough of a headstrong jackass to convince us he might end up where he ends up, but affable enough that you don’t mind taking the ride with him, Nowicki wholly commits himself to the material, compromising neither the humor nor the pathos of the material as he careens around this dreamscape. At once a Kafkaesque nebbish and a Groucho Marxish comic maniac, Nowicki gives the film its ideal center.
As his father, Konrat is warmly magical, yet the magic often curdles into something tragic, and Konrat doesn’t miss a step. Orska is the picture of cantankerous maternity. Kowalska and Adamek are properly sensuous and vivacious without becoming cartoons; Voit is eerily effective and Zylber is an amusing little know-it-all (again, if you assume he’s Joseph as a child–or Joseph’s idea of himself as a child–he’s spot-on). It’s mostly Nowicki’s show, but the whole cast is most satisfactory.
Has’ adaptation of Schultz’s works is arguably the film’s weakest aspect; there are numerous good lines and scenes, but there are moments which feel like random weirdness for the sake of random weirdness; the abortive battle near the end, or the resolution for Bianca and Rudolf which follows, feel somewhat less satisfying than the rest. And the film does take a while to get going; we don’t even meet Joseph’s mother for almost 20 minutes. For a while, early on, I thought I was in for a long haul. I was proved wrong, often in glorious fashion, but the script does falter–however mildly–at times.
Not that I’m suggesting it should’ve been made more explicit–if anything, less dialogue might have been better. It’s still a better script than most–and on a second viewing, many of my issues might be waived; this is a film that demands repeat viewings (and I should also note the subtitles on the print I saw weren’t that great).
The Hourglass Sanatorium is the kind of film I long for: a film which shows what cinema can do in the hands of a visionary, of someone who knows what the cinema is capable of and isn’t afraid to leap right in and show us. That it manages to be thought-provoking and entertaining (and stick the ending–an issue I often have with films of this era) only makes the viewing experience all the more heartening.
I’m a hard man to please. I’ve only scored one film higher than a 90 in the last 6 months (The King of Comedy), and only 3 in the last year¹. Even with all its glories, the shortcomings of The Hourglass Sanatorium compel me to keep the score…shall we say, tempered. Based solely on the direction and visuals (and score), it’d be one of the greatest films, if not of all time, at least of the 70s (which was a hell of a decade for film, which should tell you something). That it does not quite reach those heights (at least at first glance) does not mean it should be passed over.
It merely means it should not be approached lightly. It’s a demanding film, a film that was made with intelligence and passion and demands both in return. Give it the proper attention, and it may thrill you like it thrilled me.
¹King, 12 Years a Slave, and Rear Window.