Tag Archives: polish film

Three Great Asylum Films: 2. The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Today I’m talking about The Hour-Glass Sanatorium from 1973, directed by Wojciech Has…

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

A bird flies with subaquatic langour outside a window. The view is from a railway car, but its passengers make the bird seem frenetic in comparison. Locked in a seemingly endless slumber, one of their number is roused by a milky-eyed conductor. They are nearing their destination, the hour-glass sanatorium. Adapted from Bruno Schulz’s short story collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (and some of his other writings), the title is a reference to the hourglass motif that serves as a memento mori in Polish newspaper obituaries. While death stalks through the film, the main body seems to be a stemming of the tide against it, a parade of chaotic and ecstatic memory.

The Hour Glass Sanatorium

Józef, the film’s protagonist, has booked a recuperating stay at the asylum, but the place is deserted and his father (supposedly dead) is occupying his room. The sanatorium is never explicitly described as an asylum per se, but the scheme of the film is a kind of surrealistic explosion of Freudian regression. ‘Here we reactivate time past with all its possibilities, including the possibility of recovery,’ says the institute’s director. In different rooms, Józef finds objective correlatives to recollections from his life, expressed in heightened, often joyous fashion. Time is not linear here, but vertical, with all his life’s experiences – and those of his father – stacked on top of each other. Moving around the space gives him access to these different periods and the intersections between the different time zones are almost always charmingly unexpected (hiding under what begins as a dining room table, Józef steps out from under it into a medieval bird fair). Like Slaughterhouse-Five‘s Tralfamadorians, it is not consequential if someone is dead: Józef need only go to another room in the building to find his father alive and well. 

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Each room has the quality of a diorama. The set design is exquisite in each, the camera gradually circulating around the spaces and finding unexpected means to frame them. The characters seem to be activated by the presence of Józef, a point that is made literal when he encounters a series of wax automata. Unlike 8 1/2, which puts the whole of life on spin cycle, there is a pleasant lapsing linearity between some scenes in The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. Like that film’s Guido Anselmi, Józef is reduced to an adolescent’s position: tormented and tantalised by a series of women from the past, at once devastatingly sensuous and present,  yet infinitely out of reach.  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

It’s not just the recollection of Józef we are invited into. Has stated that he was keen to highlight the vanished generations of Jews (including Bruno Schulz himself). The strong Jewish element of the film did not sit well in Poland. At the time a strong ‘anti-Zionist’ movement was rising up, ultimately resulting in the deportation of 14,000 Jews between 1968 and 1971. The parallel between Józef and Jakub (his father) and Has and Schulz as representatives of pre- and post-lapsarian Jewish Poland is clear. Having begun with a trainload of diaspora, with an unsettlingly death-like conductor looking on, the finale of the film heavily references the ghettos, flight into exile and living in hiding. Like the ending of both Alice books, the precipitating violence of the conclusion lets us know that the dream will soon be over: we will be booted from the fantasy with a bump. Sadly, Poland itself was still possessed by this recurring nightmare. 

Great Fiddler-esque scene

The film benefits from the warm, slightly degraded quality of the celluloid. There are very few scenes shot with natural light. Bathing in woozy medicine-bottle greens or crepuscular half light, the edges of the frame seem deliciously smudged, as in a dream. It lends proceedings a painterly, delicate quality reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (indeed, a Napoleonic leitmotif is noticeable in many of the film’s costumes).  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Józef in the film’s conclusion having become the death-conductor himself

What could feel like an undisciplined mess is redeemed by its relentless inventiveness. In part it’s strange that the film is based on short fiction, where brevity and the elliptical often reign. There’s a hearty maximalism to the film that makes it a delight across the duration, much like the best work of Terry Gilliam. There’s a lovely little metaphor for the richness of the confection on offer in the film’s early parts: Józef has travelled to the sanatorium without eating and is caught removing a slice of gateaux from a dessert trolley in an otherwise ransacked canteen. Like Alice’s embiggening and shrinking foods, it is the permanently denied child’s treat that leads the characters down the rabbit hole. It’s a rich, potentially overcooked treat, but then, aren’t all films set among the ‘eccentric’?

Tenniel Alice



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Magnificent Obsessions series: No. 2 Camera Buff

Camera Buff (which has the less sensational title Amator (amateur) in the original Polish) was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s first internationally recognised film, prior to the institution of martial law in December 1981, which stymied the release of Polish film beyond the domestic market. Having produced a variety of films (short features and documentaries that reflected both the realities of the Communist regime while offering guarded criticism), this film was his second feature, but marked a digestion of all his work until that point and its effect on his private life.

The plot seems to begin at the exact moment that most films reach their conclusion. Filip (Jerzy Stuhr, who had starred in Kieślowski’s first feature, The Scar (Plizna) the previous year) has a wife, friends, a job and is expecting his first child. From this, an inexplicable drive away from the ‘complete life’ begins. Filip’s wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) becomes increasingly frustrated at his alienation from their lives, while Filip believes he is immortalising it. The body of the film is then a tale of the uses of cinema (preservation, documentation, manipulation, propaganda) and the paradoxical removal from experience that comes with the attempt to capture the ‘realities’ of life.

In the best sense, Kieślowski’s filmmaking is still that of a documentary maker here. His tender application to the daily life of ordinary humans, the anxious approach to the politics of depiction, and the feeling of serendipity rather than artifice in his best shots: all of this extends from a firm grounding in documentary practice. Furthermore, Kieślowski chose to feature many non-professionals to depict themselves.

Kieślowski emerged from the National Film School in Łódź, along with Roman Polanski and Andrej Wadja (though unlike Andrzej Żuławski, whose Possession is the final film in this series). Like many of the centralised film schools in Communist Europe (FAMU in Prague seems to have provided a similar outlet), their influence lay not necessarily in the teaching environment – which could often be stultifying and prescriptive – but in offering a group of similarly impassioned people to interact and collaborate. There was also the opportunity to watch a broader selection of films than those offered to the general public.

Although Kieślowski claimed never to have shared the protagonist’s preoccupations (‘I wasn’t ever fascinated with the camera like that. Later on I made films because that was my profession, and I was too lazy or too stupid or both to change profession at the right moment.’) he does shares Filip’s reticence to share the title of auteur or artist. Instead, he considered himself an artisan. Even if Kieślowski had not been engaged in the difficulties of raising his own young family, his camera eye had turned to a young couple’s delivery of a baby in his 1974 documentary short First Love (Pierwsza Miłość). Kieślowski’s humility places him firmly in the world of the amateur film clubs that have such an ambivalent presence in the film. Although their subsidy was certainly in the service of glorifying the Soviet state, the reality they captured was impossible to convert to pure propaganda. Their legacy was celebrated in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska entitled Enthusiasm, offering samples of the films in a recreated 1970s Communist milieu.

The self-reflexivity of the film is actually a double reflection: not just about a film about filmmaking, it is about Kieślowski’s specific experience of filmmaking. Although he has denied the central dialectic of the film – that ‘normal’ life is incompatible with artistic creation – the parallels with his own creations are clear. Kieślowski’s career leading up to this film had alternated between feature films and documentary pieces, mostly depicting single figures – a night porter, a bricklayer – and their nobility in the face of vast bureaucracy. Camera Buff finds Kieślowski at a crossroads, meditating on the difficulties of the past and setting an agenda for the future.

Please visit www.enthusiastsarchive.net to view an archive of the films from the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition.


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