Martin Scorsese Presents… Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium at The Showroom cinema

By October 17, 2015



What I could write about Wojciech Has’s Sanatorium Pod Klepsidra (The Hourglass Sanatorium) could fill a book. However, what I know for sure about Wojciech Has’s Sanatorium pod Klepsidra could barely fill the back of a postage stamp. This 1973 surrealist mind-bender was shown at The Showroom cinema as part of its Martin Scorsese Presents… season, celebrating masterpieces of Polish cinema all selected by the great director himself and screened at independent cinemas worldwide.

The film centres on our protagonist Józef’s journey to, and time within, the sanatorium that houses his ailing father, run by doctors who boldly claim that time does not move in a linear fashion within its walls. Although based on the work of Bruno Schulz, The Hourglass Sanatorium is its own beast and to make sense of this film, if indeed any sense can truly be made, then you’re really going to have to work hard.

The aesthetics of the sanatorium though ever beautiful and changing, as Józef roams their halls and grounds, possess both an impossible physicality and an air of constant symbolism. Are the dilapidated rooms of a once majestic mansion mirroring the mind of Józef’s dying father? Or a representation of the communist, anti-semetic Poland that the film was released into (and subsequently banned by the authorities from being taken to Cannes)?

Do the greatly eroticised women really consistently flirt with Józef as the film portrays, or are we seeing women through Józef’s eyes as overtly sexualised and often overbearing? Each character he meets, from within the sanatorium or from within the depths of Józef’s memories we are never sure, bears heavy the burden of something more than what you will ever see or hear within the film.

The sense that Wojciech Has wants us to work hard to find the meaning when watching this film as opposed to accepting it all as whimsical fancy is cemented in one scene which sees Józef’s father utter to him, “Have you never noticed swallows rising from between the lines of certain books, whole stanzas of quivering swallows? One should read the flight of these birds…”. Birds, feathers and eggs themselves become symbolic throughout the film – of ideas, of dreams, of knowledge, of Józef’s father.

It would not be surprising if David Lynch had sought some inspiration for Mullholland Drive from the film, as it’s easy to wonder whether this is a journey that is even physically taking place or a representation of the emotional and intellectual journey that Józef takes within his own mind towards accepting the impending death of his father. Wojciech Has skilfully creates an exotic and fantastical collage of characters, times and spaces where each scene seems to stem legs for several new readings of the film on political, historical, philosophical, and psychological levels. You won’t regret watching this film for the visuals alone, but you’ll need to bring your analytical A-game if you’re intent on following the plot.