The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Wojciech Has, 1973)

by Smart

Our protagonist is on a train to go visit his sick father. Apart from that very little of the plot can be known for certain. Time is treated in a wild manner, where the past is visited and jumped through with little more than a masked scene transition. We are inside our protagonist’s memories, as people, moments, and historical events from his life return to entice and haunt him. The subtext points towards the Holocaust, but there seems to be more than that going on in this often traumatic, personal, surreal adventure. Sexualised, voluptuous females bare their flesh with abundant and bountiful cleavage. Nature intrudes into the buildings as vines wrap around the walls and water drips continuously in the background. The cinematography is atmospheric with its soft, dreamlike tracking shots and layered framing. The soundtrack beats and shrieks, adding to the disorientation and uneasiness of the fragmented narrative. It is almost Felliniesque in the way that characters come and go and dreams and reality mix together whimsically.

The greatest glory of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is the set design and use of locations. The sets are complex, beautifully constructed and endlessly detailed. They create an expansive, distinctive world that is rich with both the beautiful and the decrepit. Subtle use of unnatural colour lavishes each wonderful location. Characters have self-reflexive discussions about the nature of time and memory, and the film has a strange obsession with birds. We are asked to ponder just what is real and what is fake, and if it really matters in the context of past events. There are mystical, playful scenes, such as a mannequin tea-party, although that quickly turns eerie and frightening. There is a strange sense of humour throughout the film, even as the tone shifts more towards horror as danger sets in around our protagonist and his paranoia grows. Everything is highly poetic, metaphoric and decorative. It is easy to get lost in such an imaginative, surreal, deeply textured film, with an exceptionally powerful, visually epic ending.