Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, 1973: Poland

Continuing with my sort-of-biweekly foreign movie posts for this year...

For more foreign movies, check out Caroline's World Cinema Series 2012 and Richard's monthly Foreign Film Festival round-up.

Wojciech Jerzy Has based this movie on parts of Bruno Schulz’s stories, using “The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass” as the framework on which to rest his story…well, if you can call it that. A review at The Quietus provides a good overview and asks the important questions:

An altogether pacier spectacle, The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is nothing less than an adult Alice in Wonderland. We follow Joseph, a man in his 30s, into the titular sanatorium to visit his father, where the doctor explains their time-cheating methods of treatment: “Here, your father’s death is yet to occur; in your country, that same death has already struck him.” Wandering the grounds, Joseph begins to encounter a bewildering array of characters. Who are these people who seem to know him? The kid with the stamp album must be his childhood friend; the girl in the nightgown — co-conspirator one minute, traitor the next — the object of his adolescent affections. But why is that red-haired woman talking to him as if he were a young lad? Why are historical battles being fought in our midst, elephant convoys and all? And why do most of the women seem incapable of fastening their tops?

I want to expand on the quote from the movie by providing some excerpts from “The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass” since the packaging itself misrepresents the basic story by saying that a young man visiting a sanatorium finds "his father had stopped breathing but hasn’t died yet". The quotes from the movie in the above review captures the story’s premise accurately:

     "Is my father alive?" I asked, looking anxiously into his [Doctor Gotard’s] smiling face.

     "Alive? Why, naturally," he said, steadily holding my eager look. "Within, of course," he added, narrowing his eyes, "the limits determined by the situation. You know as well as I do that from the point of view of your family home, from the perspective of your own country, your father has died. That cannot be completely undone. And that demise casts a certain shadow over his existence here."

     "But Father himself does not know, does not suspect?" I asked in a whisper.

     He shook his head with deep earnestness. "You may rest assured," he said, lowering his voice, "that our patients do not suspect. They cannot suspect…

     "The whole process rests," he continued, demonstrating the mechanism on this fingertips, poised in readiness for this, "on our having set back time. We fall behind time here by a certain interval, the extent of which no one really knows. It all boils down to simple Relativism. Here, your father’s death, the death that has caught up with him in your homeland, has simply not yet run its course."

     "In that case," I said, "Father is dying, or his death is imminent…"

     "You misunderstand me," he replied in a tone of tolerant impatience. "Here, we reactivate past time, with all the possible outcomes; and even, therefore, the possibility of a recovery."

(Translation by John Curran Davis; ellipsis in original)

Upon that framework of past time recreated Józef, the son, wanders through various surreal scenes of his life, most of which come from Schulz’s stories. Has’ movie reaches the level of a hallucination, an intense phantasmagoria for the eyes and brain. Not that Has stays completely faithful to the stories but his additions either fit in perfectly or provide some nice touches, such as the blind train conductor’s recurring appearance or the additional emphasis on Jewish culture. Has also provides much of the symbolism that Schulz included throughout his stories, such as his focus on birds. The stress on the decrepit state of the sanatorium, overrun by nature through plants and insects, and the transitions from one scene to the next by crawling underneath a bed reminded me of Schulz’s emphasis on the origins of stories (as I quoted from Chapter 17 of “Spring” in the previous post). There are several other images in the movie of "crawling up" to the next scene or into additional meaning.

Józef wanders through the scenes of his childhood, or at least how he remembers them, as an adult while everyone treats him as if he was the age when the event occurred. As an adult Józef retains the power and authority he granted to The Book and the stamp collection in his youth, investing in them a deep, hidden power. Another quote from the Quietus review:

To give you an idea of the film’s freefall approach to the source material: one of Schulz’s stories finds Adela the housekeeper — in the book, a lightly sketched if voluble character; in the film, lascivious and downright bonkers — berating the father for inviting the local fire brigade to stay in their house and abuse her hospitality. Has has her deliver complaints about these unwelcome visitors to Joseph while laughing and slapping her naked body, as the latter admires himself modeling the fireman’s helmet he’ll continue to wear throughout much of the (unrelated) madness that follows — which includes the discovery, underneath a bed, of a fireman eating rose preserve with a spoon because he’s finished last of the raspberry cordial. This playfulness also brings us a carnivalesque depiction of pre-war Jewish shtetl life, which lends the film a paradoxical gravitas: the fact that such leaps of time and logic are necessary to recover this world reminds us of the evil that put an end to it.

I wanted to highlight the last part of the quote since this aspect of looking back at what was destroyed is not felt nearly to the same degree in Schulz’s stories.

If the framework of the story rests on “The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass,” much of the storyline, such that there is one, follows that of the story “Spring.” This long story was the longest by Schulz (that survived) and also the one that has the closest to a straightforward narrative structure. Broken down into separate stories I may have enjoyed “Spring” more, but as it is I lost interest in it the further I read. My off-the-cuff reaction is that Schulz excelled at descriptions and short narratives, but this long story isn’t consistently at the same level as his other ones. Don’t get me wrong—the story does have wonderful moments. While Has includes much from this story, his emphasis isn’t on the narrative or even the content except for how it fits into his dream-like world.

While I highly recommend the film, I do have to provide the caveat that (I think) you will enjoy it much more if you have read Schulz’s stories (which, of course, I highly recommend, too). If you still interested at this point and would like to delve some more into the movie, please visit Steve Mobia’s essay. He explores many of the themes and subjects of the movie in much greater detail than I do here.

There are several clips of the movie on YouTube that give you a taste of the movie. The clips can’t compare, though, to being immersed two hours in such a world. Enjoy!

Update: Steve Mobia sent me a link to a trailer on YouTube that is much better quality than what I had watched. Short, but an excellent presentation of the weirdness of the movie as well as great quality... click here.


Caroline said...

This sounds absurd and delightful at the same time. An Alice in Wonderland for grown ups sounds great. Before I even read the end of your comment I thought it might be advisable to read the stories first.

Dwight said...

In answer to the question of "What's it about?" you can say this movie is about Bruno Schulz's stories. As I said, it isn't necessary to read them first but I think you'll get much more from it if you do.

Richard said...

You seem to be unearthing quite a few nuggets from the old East Bloc this year, Dwight! Like Caroline, this sounds pretty great to me-although I do want to read "Street of Crocodiles" first since it's been a perennial near purchase at the bookstore for me for several years running now. These things take time and all that. Anyway, fine review!

Dwight said...

The deeper I get in central- and eastern-European literature the more I find that I enjoy. There will be quite a bit more before the year's out.

Regarding the stories--you might want to dip into them starting with the online versions. And either continue there or do the bookstore thing (just looking for those of us trying to scale back purchases).