Time and place are slippery concepts in Wojciech J Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium, which blends a Kafka-esque journey with a striking surrealist sensibility, creating an almost picaresque journey through the mind of its central character. It’s a rare film that actually feels like a dream.
Jozef (Jan Nowicki) travels to the titular institution to visit his father Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat). When he arrives, Jozef is told that his father is dead, and yet still alive within the walls of the Sanatorium due to the time-bending method of treatment, where the patients spend nearly all their time asleep. As he moves through the hospital, Jozef slips into memories from his past, suddenly infantilised.
At no point does The Hourglass Sanatorium give the viewer the comfort of a firm footing in reality. The train Jozef takes at the start of the film is a cobwebbed vision of Charon’s ferry of the dead, and the Sanatorium itself is as forboding and strange as Castle Dracula.
Authority figures are few and far between, only really appearing to scold Jozef for taking a slice of ridiculously ornate cake, and to explain the fact that everyone here spends most of their time asleep, leading to its unique reality.
The Sanatorium and the landscapes of Jozef’s past blend together seamlessly, from the ward and the bedroom of the notorious local beauty of his childhood to the Jewish ghetto where he grew up.
There are no nights in the Sanatorium, and moving from one place to another is easier than you’d expect. As one character asks, “Why don’t you try going under the bed again?”
The Hourglass Sanatorium is also steeped in historical and social significance, the Holocaust casting a long shadow. Faith, politics and race are discussed, often obliquely, but clearly enough that the Polish government at the time tried to stop Has sending it to Cannes.
Finally, the film is absolutely stunning to look at, with beautiful production design and incredible cinematography by Witold Sobocinski. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of Jozef’s past, memories, fears and fantasies as time slips by gradually, then abruptly.
It’s a powerful experience that we highly recommend you participate in.