Blu-ray review: The Hourglass Sanatorium

Starring: Jan Nowicki, Irena Orska
Director: Wojciech Has

hourglass-sanatorium 1Wojciech Has’ movie adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s highly stylized, dreamlike short stories is as phantasmagorically imaginative and technically dazzling as one would expect from the director of The Saragossa Manuscript. The first 20 minutes or so blow you away with their menacing power. A train full of sickly passengers arrives at a remote sanatorium which defies the laws of time and physics, and where people who are dead in the outside world are able to linger on. It’s an opening full of chilling glimpses of decay, of cold, grimy Mitteleuropean décor and Escher-like games with perspective – the Magic Mountain rewritten by Kafka and Borges.

After this, however, the film segues into a series of the central character, Jozef’s, reminiscences of his family and the personalities of his early childhood – a Fellini-esque cavalcade of scary prostitutes, riotous town fetes and completely surreal sequences. hourglass-sanatorium 2Vibrant and inventive though this is, it’s a letdown after such a dramatic opening, especially as a great deal of the imagery seems to have cryptic private meanings (for Schulz? For Has?) than one can only guess at. It would have helped had Jozef been given some underlying motivation for this trip down memory lane (the desire to get across a mountain pass was enough to hold The Saragossa Manuscript together), but as the actor playing him struggles to bring him to life. Fascinating but flawed. 6/10

Occasional softness in some of the faces, but on the whole a strong transfer of a film that deals in a cold, earthy palette of greys and browns. The first wide-angled shot outside the sanatorium looks extremely real and present, the scene with the prostitute Adela has warm, glowing flesh tones, and a later sequence involving a procession backlit against the setting sun looks very lifelike. 8/10



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