Color, 1973, 124 mins. 24 secs.
Directed by Wojciech Has
Starring Jan Nowicki, Tadeusz Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek
Yellow Veil Pictures (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Mr. Bongo (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Zebra - Kino RP (Blu-ray) (Poland R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Though he's still best known internationally for his phantasmagoric The Saragossa Manuscript, Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has delivered several other notable genre works over the course of his career. Inspired by his own observations during occupied Poland in World War II, he adapted novel and other works by Bruno Schulz into 1973's The Hourglass Sanatorium (also screened as The Sandglass), which nabbed a Jury Prize at Cannes after he managed to slip a print out past authorities. A surrealist masterpiece that borders on horror several times, it's a dizzying and haunting experience with a rich, eerie setting unlike anything else in cinema.
Following an unsettling and very turbulent train ride, Józef (Nowicki) arrives at a crumbling, foreboding sanatorium where the meager staff don't seem to be working and the patients lie around neglected. His attempts to visit his father, Jacob (Kondrat), quickly spiral into a miasma of memories and fantasies as time itself keeps breaking down and folding in on itself. Memories of his childhood, war atrocities, unearthly mannequins, and a sinister train conductor wrap around our hapless visitor as he tries to connect with his father on the brink of death.
Made at the height of art house surrealist cinema for the masses when directors like Luis Buñuel, Raúl Ruiz, and Andrzej Zulawski were all working at the same time, this one still stands as a singular achievement with a visual surprise in every scene and a dreamlike flow that overrides anything resembling a conventional narrative. If anything it may be most akin to another film from the same year, Mario Bava's ill-fated Lisa and the Devil, with its shifting between humans and mannequins existing out of accepted time and space. Chances are no two viewers will interpret this one in quite the same way, but most should agree that it's a wild sensory experience with a truly haunting final scene.
In the wake of The Saragossa Manuscript's theatrical reissue in the early '00s, The Hourglass Sanatorium started turning up for occasional subtitled theatrical screenings and appeared on U.K. DVD from Mr Bongo in 2008. That same label released a Blu-ray in 2015 (bare bones), with a nearly simultaneous one coming from Zebra - Kino RP in Poland featuring a new 1-minute trailer, a 30-second restoration demo, a 44-second image gallery (just frame grabs), a restoration comparison gallery, and a variety of company promos. The same transfer was also included without extras in the 2015 Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, Volume One box (now very rare) packaged with Jump, Man of Iron, Pharaoh, Constant Factor, Camouflage, Promised Land, and Provincial Actors.
In 2023, Yellow Veil Pictures gave The Hourglass Sanatorium its first official U.S. video release of any kind with a Blu-ray special edition available in limited slipcover or standard packaging. The presentation comes from the same restoration and looks like its predecessors, preserving the unusual color scheme of the film with an emphasis on muted grays, blues, and pale greens for the most part but bursting into vivid warm colors during some of the more fantastic moments. The DTS-HD MA Polish 2.0 mono track is in excellent shape and features optional English subtitles. The video extras include introduction notes (6m52s) and post-screening notes (9m47s) by film professor and Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has author Annette Insdorf pointing out the more fascinating symbolic elements and recurring visual techniques that affect how we perceive and process the film. She also studies the use of time in the film, from the title itself through the multiple timelines at play on the screen. Also included is a video discussion with film critic Sebastian Smoliński (20m3s) exploring the film's use of imagination logic and deliberate artifice to construct its own cinematic world, as well as the place of this very tricky literary adaptation within the larger framework of Has' work. The disc also comes with an insert booklet featuring essays by Insdorf and Samm Deighan about the film's surreal imagery, elements of genre cinema, and unusual approach to the Jewish experience.
YELLOW VEIL (Blu-ray)
KINO RP (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on April 25, 2023