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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Wakefield


Dir. Wojciech Has

Reviewer. Dan Cook

I’ve seen some pretty weird things in my time. However, never in my 31 years of movie watching have I viewed something so utterly bewildering yet indescribably haunting as THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM, Wojciech Has’ Palme D’or winning surrealist classic from 1973 that is as aesthetically beautiful as it is psychologically horrifying. Playing out like the most incoherent of waking dreams, the film, based on the writings of renowned Polish author Bruno Schulz, tells the time-bending saga of Josef (Jan Nowicki) whose journey to a dilapidated facility housing his dying father sends him on a life-spanning odyssey as the past, present and future replay themselves in a disturbingly artificial and increasingly dislocated fashion.

Both an evocative reflection on death and a painful recounting of the Nazi atrocities that befell Poland three decades prior, THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM visually screams with a palpable anguish that is not only reflected in the purposefully detached yet intense performances but also the wailing underscoring and the warped production designs that appear to decay before our eyes. Indeed, time and space seem to play no role here, with scenes miraculously transitioning from one absurdist nightmare to another, characters somehow managing to change their positions within the movements of single shots and even the physical forms of the actors on screen changing from human to manakin with disarming regularity. This complete absence of sense all makes for a very disorienting watch that at times had me inwardly panicking in ways that I had not felt since first viewing Darren Aronofsky’s misunderstood masterpiece MOTHER! back in 2017.

There not a hint of realism whatsoever in THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM and director Wojciech Has (who also made the critically acclaimed THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT in 1965) simply revels in profound, ridiculous, erotic and terrifying imagery that manages to both alarm and befuddle in equal measure. Yet its consistently and, at times, suffocatingly discomforting tone and underlying morbidity somehow make it one of the most realised depictions of the unconscious ever put to celluloid - with its very final shot serving as the most perfectly maudlin yet direct statement.

Proudly steeped in the orthodox Jewish culture and positively flowing with imagination and visual splendour, THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM is a highly challenging yet truly extraordinary watch that manages to be both desperately exasperating and incalculably emotional all at once. Yes, it’s completely nonsensical and for many, it’s total lack of narrative, character or structure will make it absolutely insufferable viewing. But for those brave few willing to tumble down the cobweb-strewn rabbit hole, THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM is an experience unlike any other. Whether it’s an experience I’d like to revisit anytime soon however, well, that remains to be seen.

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