The Hourglass Sanatorium April 30, 2022
Wojciech Jerzy Has
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
ime flies when you’re having fun. In The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), the time is having all of it, and it’s not sharing. It moves over there when you want it to go here; relentlessly zigging and zagging, it plays by rules so cryptic that after a while you have to settle into the fact that linearity is only bent and swirled around here.
Maybe everything we see on screen is happening in a dream. Writer-director Wojciech Has never says so. Clear-cut confirmations are antithetical when working exclusively with abstractions anyway. The set-up for The Hourglass Sanatorium is probably the most straightforward thing about it. A young man named Józef (Jan Nowicki), living somewhere in Eastern Europe sometime around World War II, is traveling by train to visit his ailing father, Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat), who has been staying at the sanatorium of the title. The only things feeling “off” about the scenes establishing the early stages of the trek is that everyone in the train car is so pale they seem dead, and the score, by Jerzy Maksymiuk, sounds like a bunch of gossiping ghosts whispering in a bathtub drain.
Once Józef gets to his destination, things incrementally move into the more unmistakably bizarre. The sanatorium itself looks both deserted and occupied — like the only inhabitants there were the spirits of the recently deceased. Then, when Józef gets in contact with the head doctor, he’s informed that while his father is considered dead at the sanatorium, by the temporal standards of the outside world he’s still alive. Later, Józef takes a look out the window and sees another version of himself entering the building. Józef’s objective for visiting grows more distant the longer he stays. The sanatorium and its surrounding grounds seem to shapeshift into venues for Józef to relive his memories — or, more accurately, see his experiences and preoccupations filtered through dream logic.
The Hourglass Sanatorium, a supposedly loose adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (I haven’t read it), is an almost impenetrable movie, and, as it inches closer to the two-hour mark, a frequent pedlar of tedium, given the difficulty of finding a way into its stream-of-consciousness-style surrealism. But that doesn’t diminish how this might be the best example of a movie I’ve seen capturing the feeling of being inside a dream.
Thoughts and “narrative” detours flow into each other in a way that feels totally natural and seamless in the moment even if the subject change is decidedly abrupt. (It’s only later that you’re struck by the suddenness of the shift.) The dream-haver is totally in control despite feeling basically helpless as they’re whipped around nocturnal experiences that could evaporate if they simply focused enough to stop thinking of them. You never feel Has straining to achieve his presumable movie-as-a-dream ambitions: it’s like he somehow managed to take judicious field notes while inside his own dreams to recapture their feeling aesthetically. That the resulting abstruseness makes you a little drowsy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. B+