The Hourglass Sanitorium (Has, 1973)

For some reason Wojciech Has makes me think of Raoul Ruiz makes me think of Andrzej Zulawski. What that’s founded on, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, at the least, an emphasis on the fantastical, with great blocking, and mysterious locations, but maybe there’s something more to that which I’ll investigate in the future.

I haven’t seen much by Wojciech Has. Just this film and The Saragossa Manuscript. Both of those seem oddly effortless. ‘Oddly’ because the films clearly aren’t. The camera moves a lot, through a whole mess of extras and important characters, with highly stylized lighting, and amidst a narrative that eschews rules of time and space.

It’s a triumph just to attempt to bring Bruno Schulz to the big screen. Street of Crocodiles is the other I know. I find Schulz dense and maybe his imagery jumps out as cinematic, but I don’t think his stories do.

Anyway, Has’ film is a breakneck tour through a man’s life as he navigates past, present, future (and maybe fantasy) in a sanitorium. It’d be a nice thematic companion piece with Shock Corridor (although I suppose that really goes with Shutter Island…).

But what The Hourglass Sanitorium is really about is, in order, location, camera mobility, foreground, and color. And it is amazing at all of those things. Good god. Cinematographer Witold Sobocinski and production designers Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski also deserve a lot of credit.

I talk to a lot of my film production classes about this, and I was noticing the same thing while watching Mother of George the other night: put something in the foreground and your shot changes drastically. Even if that’s just an out of focus blob. Has does that in every single shot in the film.

Here’s a good example – one of a whole lot – of a shot that does all four of those things really well:

This is a pretty standard long dolly for The Hourglass Sanitorium. The crumbling location with splashes of color (usually red, blue, and green) are fully realized on the wide lens. Clearly the camera is moving quite a bit, and everything from couch, to carriage, to staircase, to main character pass by in the foreground.

What you can’t see from these stills is the speed and fluidity. There’s nothing rigid about this shot. It’s so practiced and with nuanced blocking where the small turns, starts and stops by Jozef (Jan Nowicki) feel real. The camera creeps, flies, and glides.

Those bits of red and blue really pop out, break up the monochomaticity of the location and in some ways add more depth (via color contrast).

The fluid long take also adds to the dreamlike nature of the film. Not only is it the pace and float of the camera, but the emphasis on the interconnectedness of the various spaces, which will eventually turn into the interconnectedness of memories (as Jozef moves from room to room later, he also moves from time to time).

There are a lot of other films that I thought of while watching The Hourglass Sanitorium, but an odd one was Nostalghia. Mostly because of said play with time (which maybe should make me think more of The Mirror), but also because of this last shot:

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 7.46.10 PM

It’s not just the candles that reminded me of Tarkovsky, but also the tension and strain of the main character walking across frame.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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2 Responses to The Hourglass Sanitorium (Has, 1973)

  1. Pingback: Possession (Zulawski, 1981) | dcpfilm

  2. Pingback: The Best Films of 2016 | dcpfilm

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