The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

“You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. This cannot be entirely remedied. That death throws a certain shadow on his existence here.”

‘The Hourglass Sanatorium’, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has in 1973, is a Polish fantasy that tells the story of a man called Joseph who visits a sanatorium to see his dying father. He discovers that the sanatorium is in a state of collapse and quickly becomes swept away in a weird, surreal journey through its corridors, crossing times and encountering eccentric people. It’s a difficult film to engage with as the narrative is completely disconnected, in a way it’s a series of vignettes but these have a kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ logic linking them. Joseph is an innocent and his encounters with wax dummies, strange jungle landscapes, his own father, trapped like a character from a Mervyn Peake novel in an attic surrounded by birds, are all like a childish dream. The symbolism is evocative however, and brave too: references to the Holocaust and religion in the film got it into trouble with the then anti-Semitic Polish government whilst the depiction of crumbing public institutions and the general feeling of subversion would have been unpopular with the Soviet censors. Highlights are an eerie scene with clockwork mannequins that strays into fantasy horror when one collapses and the moments of bawdy eroticism that is paradoxically enhanced and undercut by the earthy fantasy around it. The overall feel is that of a nightmare however, and this is supported not only by the ever shifting tone of the vignettes and the weird, twisted and labyrinthine setting of the sanatorium itself, but also by the look of the movie. The colour palette is rich and over-cranked giving the audience the feeling they’ve stepped into another world quite unlike our own one. Visually it’s an amazing movie, full of arresting images and cinematography, but the narrative is just too random and the subtexts to be satisfying.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but with reservations. I’d rather recommend Has’s similarly surreal, but more coherent, ‘The Saragossa Manuscript’ as an alternative.

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