The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą) Review
Mr Bongo Films have only been distributing DVDs in th UK for a short period of time, but they have built up an intriguing list, generally well presented and reasonably priced. Extras are lacking, which isn't always to the good, as some of the films they released could have done with some contextual information. That's certainly the case with The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą, also known in English as The Sandglass).
The film, directed in Poland in 1973 by Wojciech J. Has, is based on a novel by Bruno Schulz. I haven't read that, and I wonder if it may have clarified things if I had, though ultimately a film should be able to stand alone from its source material. Józef (Jan Nowicki) takes a train journey to a run-down sanatorium where his dying father Jacob (Tadeusz Kondrat) is a patient. His doctor, Gotard (Gustow Holoubek) has delayed Jacob's demise by slowing time. In fact, time has stopped and is now running in reverse. Memories, dreams and fantasies (including some sexual ones) inextricably entwine, as Józef relives his youth in a Hasidic Jewish village. Schulz was shot by the SS during World War II, and Has darkens the novel to include portents of disaster, not least a sinister ticket inspector, representing destiny.
Has is best known in the West for his 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, a cult film at the time which has more recently become available in its full-length version. The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is only the second Has film available on DVD in the UK, and is the only other one I have seen. (Two earlier films, Pętla (The Noose, 1958) and Wspólny pokój (One Room Tenants, 1960) are available in Poland with English subtitles.) I don't wish to draw conclusions about a director based on just two features – Has made fourteen in thirty years – but the similarities between the two are clear in the rich fantasy content, whether or not it has a “meaning” or otherwise. The Hour-Glass Sanatorium was the most expensive Polish film made to date.
Despite its obscurities, The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is well worth seeing for some very striking, and at times disturbing surreal imagery, captured by Has's direction, Witold Sobocinski's photography and some extraordinary production design, the work of Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. However, after two viewings, I don't think it's the equal of The Saragossa Manuscript. That film wears its three hours without effort, while Hour-Glass Sanatorium becomes oppressive at two. At least with Saragossa there is a thread which can be followed, however convoluted the film becomes (and that's very convoluted). With The Hour-Glass Sanatorium that thread is easily lost, and I'm not certain there is one in any case.
The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is released by Mr Bongo Films on an all-regions, dual-layered PAL format disc.
The film is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1 (with thin black bars on all four sides), and anamorphically enhanced. The original ratio of this film is not easy to assess: 1.75:1 or maybe 1.85:1 were certainly unusual ratios in Eastern Europe at the time but either would seem correct. Has and Sobocinski frequently leave little space at the sides of the frame, which adds to the claustrophobic effect. (I have heard suggestions that the film was shot in Scope, but that seems doubtful.) As for the transfer it's as good as you can expect for a film of this vintage. There are quite a few spots and speckles and reel-change marks, so the source materials are far from perfect – but there is really little to complain about, short of a full-scale restoration.
The soundtrack is mono, as you would expect, and it's clear and well-balanced. If your Polish is good enough, you can dispense with the English subtitles.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are no extras on this DVD.
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