The Hourglass Sanitorium
Directed by Wojciech Has
Mr. Bongo Region 0
Slight Warning: There are, kind of, spoilers in here but, frankly, with a movie like this... events that appear to be happening on screen are all open to interpretation anyway.
The Hourglass Sanitorium is a film by Wojciech Has, the director of The Saragossa Manuscript, which so captivated me a week or so ago (see here). Based, if not completely adapted on a collection of stories by Bruno Schulz's called Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (plus a few others of his works, it seems - yes, I actually looked something up!) this film, like the former film, presents a series of surreal and sometimes challenging vignettes which seem to easily interlink but which defy, perhaps, anything other than a subjective conclusion from its audience.
I actually found this one quite mind-numbing and challenging in a few places, although much of it is also quite inspiring in equal measure.
Starting off with a shot of some sky swirling around as the credits start to play out, the shot pulls back to reveal that this is a view through the window of a train in back projection which, as this kind of view and movement is completely unnatural and, frankly, uneasy... immediately sets up the audience for a ride into a dreamlike state. It’s a very strange set of passengers in this train, full of wretches and drop outs and... well you know the opening of Stardust Memories where Woody Allen gets on the train filled with strange people instead of taking the train with Sharon Stone and various other beautiful people on it? Well I’d rather be on that train than this one!
The conductor turns up to let the person who turns out to be our main protagonist off the train and, although I hadn’t twigged it yet on his first appearance, it’s pretty clear to me now - at least as I interpret the film - that this is the locomotive equivalent of the ferry across the River Styx and the conductor is definitely the Charon figure in this movie.
Our “hero” gets off the train and finds a ruined but still used sanitorium which at first seems to be completely deserted and when he finally finds a nurse she is straightening her clothes out like she’s just been caught having sex. She pretty much acts like this whenever she turns up in the film. Our main protagonist, whose name is Józef, is here to visit his father and so he goes first to see the doctor who is in charge of his parent. It’s made clear that his father has already died somewhere else, but here at the sanitorium the clocks are put back so that, at the sanitorium, he hasn’t died as yet. He is, however, sleeping. Okay... things are starting to get a little surreal and it’s probably easy to see how someone like me can get hooked on this movie so quickly.
Our protagonist starts to wander from room to room in the sanitorium but each time he goes through a door it seems to be to a new scenario or location (some of them big, external locations) and each one seems set in a different part of Józef’s childhood. He soon discovers that he can shift from one “scenario” or room to the next by crawling under the bed and coming out the other end in a different world... or sometimes by crawling under the table.
This is a strange but mostly rewarding film. However, the nonsensical philosophy spouted by Józef throughout the film did start to wear through my patience after a while and there were definitely some sequences that were a quite gruelling watch for me. But I really didn’t mind that much because there was so much great imagery on offer to distract me when the going got tough... or at least mildly intolerable. Things like...
A beautiful and often naked or topless woman with a very enthusiastic Barbara Windsor giggle (who I recognised, by her giggle, from a part she plays in The Saragossa Manuscript). A series of “live” mannequins/automatons, one of which is knocked over so part of the front of its head is knocked open over one eyeball (revealing a load of wiring and automatic workings which then begin to bleed red and bloody. Józef’s father self-administering an enema in his bed while in rapt conversation with his son... and so on. This film has little treasures in it if you are willing to put up with the monotony of nonsense spilling from Józef’s mouth. Unfortunately, I found it hard to sympathise with a character who seems increasingly näive and idiotic as the movie progresses.
By around the half way mark I began to realise that Józef was actually, probably dead... at least thats my interpretation which was reenforced by an ending that sees Józef take on the mantle of conductor of the train... presumably he is the new Charon figure for this particular corner of heaven or hell.
This film is a bit of a mixed bag but I’m really glad I’ve seen it. The sometimes over-talky dialogue is tempered by the variety of lovely bosoms on offer... hey, look, I’m a guy okay. This movie was an even more blatantly sexualised film than The Saragossa Manuscript and I liked this aspect of the movie.
I’d certainly recommend this movie to all lovers of the bizarre and surreal (of which I include myself) but with a word of caution... the rich visuals are tempered with unwelcome bouts of aggravated verbal assault which occasionally lapse the film back into a miasma of tedium. Enter this sanitorium freely but at your peril.