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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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’?