Allegory, symbolism, fantasy, and surrealism are often the refuge of artists working under the oppressive thumb of authoritarian regimes. Usually, it works, thanks to the average censor being unable to process art on any but the most literal of levels. To them, a cigar is always just a cigar. This shortcoming of the censorial mind is a blessing, allowing artists to slip all sorts of subversive work under the nose of watchdogs. Sometimes, however, an artist has the bad luck of running afoul of a censor who is a little more savvy to the trick, either being more creative of mind than fellow censors or having perhaps been burned enough times after a work of art was heralded for its subversive nature by critics in other countries. That can breed over-sensitivity. In the case of Polish director Wojciech Has’ confounding, bewildering, and wonderful Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (The Hourglass Sanatorium, 1973), everything was reversed. Censors perceived a political film in what was meant to be a personal film. Censors saw criticism of life under Soviet rule and were upset by it, decided it should not be seen. Has had intended to screen the film at Cannes but was forbidden from doing so. He did it anyway.
A glorious, perverse carnival air permeates The Hourglass Sanatorium, the sort of atmosphere that would be at home in an Alejandro Jodorowsky or Fellini film. Bent figures in the threadbare finery of yesteryear—tattered cloaks, rumpled suits, crooked top hats—rub elbows with topless strippers amid the ruined relics of bygone splendor and in an atmosphere not of the timid and tempted soul seeking sin, being beckoned into the shadows by the luring finger or the sideshow barker’s promise of forbidden fruit; but instead of the brothel, the sideshow, the theater after hours, when those who labor to create our fantasies and illusions gather together to relax, to blow off steam, to end a long night’s work by unwinding in the company of one’s peers who, while not always pleasant, at least exist in the same frame of reference. Within the context of the film, this is one of several places. A Gothic sanatorium that exists unhinged from the normal flow of time. Or perhaps the inside of the protagonist’s own head. Wojciech Has has no interest in making anything overt in The Hourglass Sanatorium, in explaining anything. He simply lets this surreal phantasmagoria parade across the screen as it might parade through a dream, unhinged from logic or reality, inviting us to interpret its weirdness without offering any one answer that is correct.
Censors saw an indictment of Poland under Soviet influence. The crumbling walls of the sanatorium, its weed-choked courtyards, its endless drooping cobwebs, was not for them symbolic of one man’s decaying mental state or of the permeability between the waking and dreaming world. They interpreted it as Has casting Poland as decaying and crumbling. Where so often censors would miss such allusions when they were intended, here they saw them where they were not meant. Just as bad, they saw Has’ “failure” to obscure the Jewish origins of the story at the center of the movie as a direct attack on the policies of the current regime, which had a virulent strain of antisemitism.
Despite whatever authoritarian rule was claimed within the Soviet sphere of influence, the social upheaval of the 1960s was as much a reality behind the Iron Curtain as it was in the United States or France or Swingin’ London. Perhaps more so, as so much more was at stake and so much more was risked. Communist superiority was challenged dramatically in then-Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. Poland itself was the site of numerous protests, most of them growing out of restless youth movements heavily inspired by the Prague Spring and aimed at an older regime that was busily reneging on promises of expanded personal liberties that had been promised during elections. Student protests erupted throughout the capital city of Warsaw and were put down with increasing brutality, culminating in what became known as the “March 1968 events.”
Using the Israeli victory in the Arab-Israeli War to stoke the embers of European anti-Semitism, Polish security chief Mieczysław Moczar launched a campaign against intellectuals and against Jews. Thousands of Polish Jews were fired from their jobs. Rightfully suspicious of such paranoia’s ability to turn into another Holocaust, some 15,000 Jews left Poland, seeking new lives elsewhere. Students, teachers, and anyone else in academia who showed liberal tendencies were similarly hounded out of employment or out of their studies. So too were perceived intellectuals ejected from government positions.
But where the government pushed down intellectuals on one side, it was faced with a rising tide of unrest among blue-collar workers who, despite Party propaganda about the glory of the proletariat, was crushing the working class with rising costs of living. In December of 1970, workers launched massive protests against a brutal spike in the cost of food and other basic goods. Throughout 1970 and into 1971, general strikes and protests sprouted across Poland. Fearing outright rebellion, Polish and Soviet officials orchestrated a series of reforms meant to stave off further uprisings. Unfortunately, around that same time, there was a worldwide economic recession that resulted in Poland’s economy collapsing and many of the promises of reform remaining undelivered. Into this broken down and chaotic atmosphere came Wojciech Has and The Hourglass Sanatorium.
Wojciech Has was born in Krakow in 1925, the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother. He studied at the Krakow Business and Commerce College and, during the German occupation during World War II, took clandestine courses at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. It was there that he first began to study film. He went on to a job with the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio and, later, the prestigious National Film Studio in Lodz. In 1958, after working on documentaries, shorts, and educational films, he made his feature film debut, Petla (Noose), about an alcoholic struggling to regain some semblance of control over his life. So began Has’ long career of having what he thought of as very personal films interpreted in very political fashion. Where Has saw a movie about a man struggling with alcoholism, censors saw a film about the cynical and hopeless lives of Poles under Soviet style communism. His second film, Pożegnania (Farewells), did little to warm the government to Has. Once again, what Has regarded as personal and reflective was seen as overtly political. The film’s central characters struggle to find happiness and are constantly foiled in the attempt, most dramatically by the outbreak of the Second World War, during which one of the main characters, Pawel, is sent to Auschwitz.
Politics often makes for nonsensical bedfellows, and that was certainly the case in Poland. One would think that the Soviets would want to identify themselves in stark contrast to the Nazis. Some of the bitterest fighting (and bitterest revenge) took place on the Eastern Front. Nazis hated Communists, and Communists hated Nazis. And yet, as was made abundantly clear in Poland in 1968, the two opposing forces found themselves in disturbing harmony when it came to antisemitism. It was Has’ willingness to make heroes out of Jews that got him in trouble. Although he considered himself agnostic in terms of faith, the Jewish experience would still play a major role in his life’s experiences. As a result, the inevitable politics associated with being Jewish would intrude on Has’ personal movies regardless of his intentions.
In Poland in the 1960s, it was impossible to make a film about Jews that wasn’t political, regardless of how much the filmmaker may want to stick to the realm of the personal. In 1963, Has again examined life and love during the war with Jak być kochaną (How to Be Loved), a movie about an actress who harbors her lover when he accused of being a Nazi collaborator, only to be abandoned by the man and later accused herself of collaboration. Once again Has tells a personal story against a political backdrop, and although this time he did not tackle overtly Jewish topics, the question of false accusations of collaboration (or false political accusations in general) still lend the film an air of hot button topicality amid its tale of tragic romance.
In 1964, he directed perhaps his best-known film internationally, and his first foray into surreal fantasy and horror. Based on the 1815 novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki, Wojciech Has’ Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) is a bizarre and at times difficult to decipher film full of strange images, strange structure, and strange characters, including a Qabalist, a sultan, and a gypsy. With this film, Has not only had a hit throughout much of communist eastern Europe; he also had a hit internationally, though the version of The Saragossa Manuscript distributed throughout the rest of the world was truncated—not by Communist by censors but by international importers. Some 35 minutes were trimmed from the original 182 when it was released in the United States. It was even more severely edited in the UK, where the film was cut down to 125 minutes. It wasn’t until an effort in the 1990s on the part of three long-time fans of the film—directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia—that the film was released in its full, uncut format outside of Poland.
It’s from the dense and at times confusing blend of surrealism, fantasy, and horror present in The Saragossa Manuscript that the even more surreal and confusing The Hourglass Sanatorium traces its roots. Like many films with obscure meaning and non-traditional narrative approaches, the story at its center is deceptively simple: a man named Jozef (Jan Nowicki) visits his father Jakub (Tadeusz Kondrat) at a sanatorium. He is shocked to find the hospital a decrepit, collapsing ruin overgrown with vines. Furthermore, he discovers thanks to some not-entirely-clear explanations from the resident doctor Gotard (Gustaw Holoubek) that sanatorium exists in its own pocket dimension, one in which the passage of time outside of the sanatorium has no effect on those inside. This, Gotard, explains, is how they prolong the lives of the sick. Josef soon discovers, however, that the supernatural qualities of the sanatorium affect more than just the patients. As it is explained to the nonplussed Jozef when he is confronted with the non-linear flow of time and space, “It is used-up time, worn out by other people, a shabby time full of holes, like a sieve.” Jozef soon finds himself slipping in and out of his own timeline, reliving increasingly bizarre and fantastical episodes from his own childhood which he always witnesses and partakes in as a grown man, though at times he behaves as if the child he once was. Needless to say, once we’re in this strange zone, reality—like the film’s narrative structure—becomes extremely malleable and subjective.
If the perceived depiction of Poland under Soviet influence as a crumbling ruin was the overt reason censors objected to The Hourglass Sanatorium, its unabashedly “Jewish” content was probably the more serious factor motivating official disapproval of the movie. Has’ screenplay is based on a 1937 story by Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz. Schulz was born in the town of Drohobycz in 1892. He wrote two volumes of short stories—Sklepy Cynamonowe (Cinnamon Shops, aka The Street of Crocodiles) in 1934 and Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass) in 1937. He also dabbled in, among other things, erotic (and fetishistic) painting. And that was the end of his writing career. In 1942, he was murdered, gunned down by Gestapo thugs after wandering out of Jewish ghetto and into an area of the town reserved for pure “Aryans.”
He was the victim of a personal vendetta between two Nazi officers, Felix Landau and Karl Günther. Landau had granted Schulz special permission to travel out of the Jewish ghetto in order to paint a mural in the playroom of Landau’s child. Landau had apparently previously been responsible for executing another Jew, Günther’s dentist. In retaliation, Günther murdered Schulz, the man he considered to be Landau’s “personal Jew.” The mural, long presumed lost, was rediscovered in 2001 and spirited out of Drohobycz (now part of The Ukraine) then restored by and displayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, a permanent exhibition titled “Wall Painting Under Coercion.” As an act of defiance against Landau, Schulz painted the scene—of Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Hansel and Gretel—using the faces of real people, including Schulz himself, his father, and other members of the local Jewish population, ensuring that the Nazi’s children would be watched by the Jews his father was helping exterminate.
Before the Nazi occupation, Poland had been one of the great centers of Jewish culture in Europe. Occupation, predictably, put an end to that. Schulz’s books were forbidden, of course, under Nazi occupation. In fact, they remained out of print until 1957, as Nazi occupation gave way to Soviet occupation and the Soviet dictate that films conform to the Social Realism school. Schulz’s stuff was just too weird. But “too weird” is exactly what Wojciech Jerzy Has was looking for when he came across Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą. Has had developed a deep disdain for social realism and courted persecution for his belief that art should come from imagination and that a film that reflects the present and the realistic is robbed of beauty and meaning. He set his film in periods other than the present, and regardless of the topic’s adherence to the tenets of social realism, his presentation of the subject always defied the demands of the approach. Which is why Has’ “personal, not political” films become political despite themselves. When the very act of exploring the personal is frowned upon, there’s no way to prevent it being interpreted as an act of political expression.
When Has discovered Schulz, the personal became doubly political. Poland was in the midst of another great wave of antisemitism when Has—half Jewish himself—decided not only to adapt Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą but also to depict Jewish life and heritage into what would become the film’s disjointed narrative, relying as much on Bruno Schulz’s actual life as the man’s writing. Jozef’s strange odyssey through the unhinged state of time and place inside the ruined sanatorium—a place draped in the accoutrements of the past that characterized Has’ rejection of Social Realism—frequently drops the young man into incidents from his own past—incidents that are often culled from the real life of Bruno Schulz and other Polish Jews as chronicled in some of the writer’s more autobiographical stories. In fact, Has not only embraces the Jewish heritage of the source material but plays it up considerably in the movie, sending Jozef through a series of surreal memories that include life among Poland’s Jews, full of celebratory festivals, singing, and men in kippahs, tallits, and tefillins singing and dancing through a procession of factories and warehouses. It’s a poignant expression of Has’ love of the ephemera of bygone eras, since by the time he was making the film, Jewish culture in Poland had been all but crushed and forgotten.
Other aspects of Jozef’s ramble through this fragmented phantom world are more universally recognizable: early crushes, the first stirring of sexual desire, and eccentric parents. Sexuality was a topic obviously important to Bruno Schulz. Not only does it pop up in his stories, he expressed his interest in erotica explicitly (so to speak) in a series of illustrations, most of which depict men in prone positions before ladies in various stages of undress. The men are frequently in some state of worship—most often of the woman’s bare foot—or subservience/domination. Schulz even illustrated The Hourglass Sanatorium, and often the pictures contained nudity and other erotic elements (as well as lots of top hats). That sensuality is present in Has’ adaptation as well, contained by the film’s three main female characters: the sanatorium nurse (Janina Sokolowska), who exists in the “real” time outside of Jozef’s reverie state; Adela (Halina Kowalska, the “Bardot of Poland”), a temptress from his youth; and Bianka (Bozena Adamek), a coy young woman who appears to him outside of a crumbling (every structure in this film is, like time around it, crumbling) and represents first love (rather than first lust).
Each of these relationships comes with what could be interpreted as a splash of cruelty, just as was the case in Bruno Schulz’ erotic drawings—but the claim of cruelty assumes the man is not complicit in the act, that he is somehow being denied what he wants rather than being given what he wants. As a man with more than his fair share of fetishes, some of which might turn heads in polite company, I assure you that is not the case. The tease, in particular, is seen as toying with a man’s desire—but the man may very well enjoy the tease. Jozef certainly does, as he peeps on Adela in various states of undress—usually with her full knowledge and willing complicity in his moral transgression. In Schulz art, for example, one does not get the impression that the men worshipping at the feet of women or being stepped on by them are anything other than quite enjoying themselves. When Adela invites Jozef into her bedroom, however, he demurs. For Jozef, these remnants of dalliances long gone are doubly within the realm of fancy; as a man in the real world, in the real flow of time, he usually put off such frivolous coupling in favor of pursuing “higher affairs of state.” But this resisting of “temptations of the flesh” is not presented as something to be celebrated. Rather, it is something Jozef missed out on.
Similarly there is the first love, the one that got away, whatever you might call her (or him—these experiences are hardly exclusive to one gender). The pain of such disappointment is placated by the satisfaction one extracts from the experience, the satisfaction that comes from that very pain, from constructing an alternative future where “it all went well” while reconstructing the past, usually through the hazy fog of dim recollection, nostalgia, and self-delusion. Almost everyone is guilty at one point of another of constructing such a false narrative for themselves, one that while essentially harmless (provided one does not wander into the realm of creepy Facebook stalker) nevertheless denies the reality of the person around whom the fantasy is constructed. They are worlds of “if only I did this or said that,” that deny the object of one’s nostalgia any say in the matter or any essence of free will. In this sense, we find Jozef’s Bianca to be a cipher, one about whom he knows very little in reality; one into whom he pours his own fantasy about her, creating his own version of her biography without any idea whether it’s even remotely accurate. Like the men in Schulz’ saucy illustrations, we all raise altars to the loves of our past.
As the adult Jozef wanders through this surreal recreation of past sexual experiences and roads not taken, so too does his father—resurrected from death by the peculiar space-time within the sanatorium—get to revel in the concentrated amalgam of his own erotic past. He passes his time among the psychedelically lit remnants of a burlesque past that is equal parts Weimar German decadence and seedy carnival sin—but none of it presented in a way that implies condemnation of these simple camaraderies of the flesh. Just as often, Jozef discovers the specter of his father sequestered in the disorganized menagerie of his attic, where like a mad shop keeper he has amassed a jumble of his own obsessions, mostly in the form of books and birds. Within the walls of the sanatorium, time does not behave. But time marches on regardless. Jozef can only relive his past, not change it. He can only stall his father’s death; not prevent it. And yet still, this surrender to the inevitability of decay—of the human body, the human mind, human culture, human construction—is not a source of depression. It is simply the cycle of life. Even amid it, new life and new love grows.
In this chaotic room we find the very structure (such as it is) of the film. The Hourglass Sanatorium‘s narrative is like rummaging through a cluttered, fantastic old curio shop. It is full of the detritus that tends to collect in such cultural eddies, to find itself piled up with only the most basic or esoteric systems of organization inflicted upon it. It is a bit like a dream. If you dig through one of these old shops, you never know what you will find. An old camera is shelved next to cloudy glass salt and pepper shakers which sit next to a stack of old porno mags. You wander from one reality to the next with no logical transition (at least not one you can comprehend; the mad shopkeep might think it all makes perfect sense) in much the same way the narrative of a dream can skip from one location to the next without giving you any idea how you got from one place to the next. All you know is that your location has changed.
Wojciech Has constructs the world of The Hourglass Sanatorium in the same way. Disconnected sets are interconnected, and Jozef wanders from one to the next without the film feeling the need to explain how or why. In the same way, Has’ screenplay wanders through the writing of Bruno Schulz, which was already contemptuous of the linear flow of time. The film relies primarily on two stories: “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” and “Spring,” the latter of which supplies much of the “biographical” past for Jozef. But Has lets his script wander through many more of Schulz’ stories, plucking lines of dialogue from the text but having it delivered by a different character or under a different context.
Such blatant disregard for the rules of cinematic narrative, such as they are, can admittedly make the film a confusing and at times even trying experience. The blow to what we are conditioned to think of as how a story works is softened considerably by Has’ direction and the overall tone of the film. The anti-establishment artistic ambitions of the film, despite the omnipresent disintegrating facades and derelict fields and the shadow of death and decay that looms over all, is delivered in a surprisingly playful tone. Jozef’s odyssey through his own past provides him with moments of illumination, but it also provides him with multiple moments of humorously self-deprecating revelation. At times, it even borders on the slapstick. At no point, no matter how weird the proceedings, does Has let the film get away from him. This isn’t a story that veers off the rails. It is meticulously structured and executed. Even if Jozef seems to be unmoored from reality, Wojciech Has never relinquishes a tight control over his film.
Whenever Has is in danger of losing the audience, he rewards them with something utterly strange, something delightfully fantastic. Just as Has liked to cram his film full of iconography of the past, so too does he fill The Hourglass Sanatorium with all the images and loony characters one expects from fantasy: witches and wenches, clowns and strippers and soldiers in strange uniforms, old tramps in top hats, creepy train conductors, skulls and vines and manors and castles. The army of wax automatons Jozef amasses are not only unnerving and beautiful; they are also a representation of how he seeks to rewrite his life, turn people into actors on his stage and have them play the roles he wishes he could have commanded them to play. We always tend, in recollection, to make ourselves cooler, braver, and more assured than we really were.
Witold Sobocinski’s cinematography, making excellent use of odd angles and strange perspectives, renders even the most mundane of places as off-kilter alternative realities, does its best to capture what were, in the words of Bruno Schulz, “things which cannot fully happen. They are too big to be accommodated in an event, and too wonderful. They only try to happen.” Amid all this madness, Jan Nowicki is an anchor of a lead actor, a man who remains relatable even as the events around him grow increasingly strange. He is made all the more fun by his willingness to be swept along on the currents, to don a festive helmet and lead this parade to whatever lack of destination it has in mind. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the narrative is impenetrable. You can always sit back and enjoy the carnival fun house atmosphere. Even in its darkest moments—and dark moments do come—he never lets the film become dour.
Not only did Has flaunt the demand that films conform to the ideals of social realism; he also flaunted the order that his film be suppressed, arranging to have it smuggled out of Poland to Cannes Film Festival in 1973, where the Cannes jury led by actress Ingrid Bergman granted it the coveted Jury Prize. It is the jubilant expression of personal freedom, even self-indulgence, in the face of a monolithic oppressor. Such glum seriousness, such insistence on straight-faced reality, engenders a desire to escape into the imagination. In a grey world we find wonder in our own minds. The little girl in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, who escapes the brutality of Franco’s regime in Spain by creating a lavish fairy kingdom; the mad writer in Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams, who trades in the grim reality of poverty in the Welsh countryside in favor of a Pagan land of enchantment. Schulz suffered the Nazis; Has, the Soviets. Theirs was the voice of social realism, a rejection of the frivolous and the surreal. Under such po-faced regimes, what better form of revolution is there than celebration?