It was then that the revelation took place: the vision of the fiery beauty of the world suddenly appeared, the secret message of good tidings, the special announcement of the limitless possibilities of being.
- Bruno Schulz, “Spring” (1)

One of the most visually and aurally dazzling films of the 1970s, Sanatorium pod klepsydra (The Hourglass Sanatorium, 1973) both is and is not an adaptation of the 1937 story by the Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz. True, most of the dialogue is lifted directly off the page as Schulz wrote it – not so much adapted as rearranged. The images on screen capture the prismatic, almost febrile intensity of Schulz’s prose. (It’s a rare author who can write about “scented stigmata, the faded silvery imprints of the bare feet of angels” (2). It’s a rarer one still who can get away with it.) Yet the characters and incidents in the film are drawn from both volumes of Schulz’s quasi-autobiographical, yet wildly fantastical output. Unusually – perhaps even uniquely – we are watching not an author’s work or an author’s life, but a recreation of his entire imaginative world.

Crucially, it’s a world that no longer existed by the time the film was made. Schulz was born in 1892 in the small Galician town of Drohobycz. There he wrote his two volumes of short stories, Sklepy Cynamonowe (Cinnamon Shops, later renamed The Street of Crocodiles) in 1934 and Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass) in 1937. He died there in 1942 – shot down by a Gestapo officer for the crime of venturing outside the Jewish ghetto and into the “Aryan” quarter. In the Nazi occupation that lasted from 1939 to 1945, “Poland ceased to be one of the great centres of Yiddish life and culture; instead it became its burial ground” (3).

In the willful amnesia that followed World War II, Schulz’s writings fell out of print. By the time they were republished in 1957, his books must have been as exotic and fanciful to Polish readers as they are to a foreign reader today. Reason enough, then, for their appeal to young filmmakers of the Polish School – who, chaffing against the post-war diktat of Socialist Realism, were keen to turn their camera on other and brighter worlds. Most extreme and eccentric of these was Wojciech Jerzy Has. Born in Krakow in 1925 (to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother), Has deliberately held himself aloof from the mainstream. In the words of one critic, “Has ignores history and politics, that fateful fascination of Polish cinema; he does not take political stands, and trusts his own imagination” (4).

Trusting one’s own imagination can, of course, be a profoundly political act. An artist in the Soviet bloc could be sent to a gulag for less. Schulz – who only rarely escaped from his family’s textile shop and his job as a secondary school art teacher in Drohobycz – had little but his imagination in which to trust. Uniquely for a Polish filmmaker of his time, Has made a career out of willfully ignoring anything that smacked of mundane present-day reality. “I reject matters, ideas, themes only significant to the present day”, he said in a 1981 interview. “Art film dies in an atmosphere of fascination with the present.” (5) Even in his early film Złoto (Gold, 1962) – saddled with a Social Realist topic and a contemporary setting – “Has imposes upon this his favourite motifs: old-fashioned interiors, attics full of junk, unusual landscapes” (6). The past, for Has, was more than another country. It was, at once, his act of defiance and his means of escape.

With his first such act of defiance and escape, Has assured himself a worldwide reputation. Adapted from an 1813 novel by Count Jan Potocki, Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript, 1965) is a labyrinthine Gothic fantasy brimful of enchanted caves and demonic visions. (It was much admired by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, who in later years paid for its restoration and release on DVD.) In 1968, Has made Lalka (The Doll) from a 19th century novel by Bolesław Prus. In this lavish costume romance, aristocratic debutantes turn into animated dolls – and back again – with unsettling ease.

It was in 1968, too, that a wave of student protest became a pretext for new anti-Semitic purges by Poland’s communist authorities. “The so-called ‘Zionist elements’ were blamed for the eruption of political protests directed against the party. The ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign resulted not only in purges within the party, but also in attacks on people of Jewish origin in other spheres of life.” (7) Suddenly, a film that evoked the lost world of Polish Jewry became not only an escape into a mythical past, but also a challenge to a vicious and increasingly ugly present. The making of The Hourglass Sanatorium would consume the next five years of Has’ life.

Has was not the first filmmaker to be lured by Schulz’s work. “After the war (his) strange prose was rediscovered, and a number of directors thought about adapting it to the screen. That was a heavy challenge. How was one to make a picture out of fog and shadow? What dramatic shape could be given to imagination flowing freely in words?” (8) The narrative of The Hourglass Sanatorium is rudimentary enough. A young man (played by matinee idol Jan Nowicki) travels to a strange and isolated sanatorium where his father has taken up residence. The father, we soon realise, is in fact dead. The sanatorium is a queer parallel dimension that allows its inmates to prolong their lives artificially. It grants them extra time – only not time as we know it. “It is used-up time, worn out by other people, a shabby time full of holes, like a sieve.” (9) In place of life, an illusion of life: a process akin to cinema itself.

Life, of course, is present in the memories and dreams that assail the hero during his stay in this twilight realm. (These are drawn largely verbatim from other stories by Schulz.) The father’s mania for collecting birds, which turns the family attic into a giant aviary, is visualised on film as a Fellini-esque bal masqué, with human extras garbed in outlandish bird masks. The hero’s obsession with a set of historical waxworks, one of whom – the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico – he imagines to be the long-lost father of his childhood sweetheart, is the cue for a dazzling display of human automata, rivalling the sublime excesses of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

The flamboyance, indeed, the conscious theatricality of the images may sound a tad over-the-top when described on paper. Experienced on film, it’s a visual equivalent to the poetic delirium of Schulz’s prose. It is possible to describe The Hourglass Sanatorium in much the same way as Schulz describes the autumn:

A great touring show poetically deceptive, an enormous purple-skinned onion disclosing ever new panoramas under each of its skins. No centre can ever be reached. Behind each wing that is moved and stored away new and radiant scenes open up, true and alive for a moment, until you realise they too are made of cardboard. All perspectives are painted, all the panoramas made of board, and only the smell is authentic, the smell of wilting scenery, of theatrical dressing rooms, redolent of grease paint and scent. (10)

If the film departs visually from the tone of Schulz’s prose, it does so only by making the characters and setting explicitly Jewish in a way the books do not. In contrast to Shalom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer (and in common, perhaps, with Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust) Schulz expresses his Jewish identity largely through suggestion and subtext. The one religious festival mentioned in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass is, paradoxically, Easter. Admirers of the book who view the film for the first time may well be taken aback by its plethora of skull-caps and klezmer music, its black-robed extras who seem unduly given to crying “oy vey!”

Verging uncomfortably on caricature, moments like these break the tone of the film and sound its one desperately false note. Still, they may have been an “occupational hazard” of making a Jewish-themed film in Poland at that time. After the wartime Holocaust and the anti-Semitic purges of 1968, Jews no longer played a visibly central role in Polish cultural life. Yet to downplay the Jewish identity of Schulz would have been indefensible, both morally and politically. It was a heritage, after all, which Has partly shared. The limbo of the sanatorium (conceived in 1937) can even be read as an oblique prophecy of the ghettos and internment camps to which Poland’s Jewish population would soon be confined. As the doctor in charge explains to the hero:

You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. This cannot be entirely remedied. That death throws a certain shadow on his existence here. (11)

By the time the vast majority of Poland’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis, they had long since vanished from the memory of most of their fellow Poles.

Is there, perhaps, an insuperable barrier of history standing between The Hourglass Sanatorium and its would-be status as a masterpiece? (Smuggled out of Poland despite an official ban, the film won the Jury Prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.) When Schulz wrote his two books, it was possible to tell a story of Jewish life in Poland and to give at least a sense that life would go on. His prose vibrates with miracles about to be revealed – with glimpses of “the fiery beauty of the world”. In the 35 years that led up to Has’ film, the poetic innocence so essential to Schulz had been shattered for good. The film struggles and fails, perhaps, to get it back. Could it ever have succeeded? Was it right ethically to try?

Endnotes

  1. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, trans. Celina Wieniewska, Picador, London, 1988, p. 158.
  2. Schulz, p. 138.
  3. Eric A. Goldman, Visions, Images, and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, 1983, p. 109.
  4. Marek Haltof, Polish National Cinema, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2002, p. 82.
  5. Haltof, p. 82.
  6. Bolesław Michałek and Frank Turaj, The Modern Cinema of Poland, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988, p. 39.
  7. Haltof, p. 236.
  8. Michałek and Turaj, p. 52.
  9. Schulz, p. 255.
  10. Schulz, p. 221.
  11. Schulz, pp. 240-241.

Sanatorium pod klepsydra/The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973 Poland 125 mins)

Prod Co: Zespoł Filmowy “Silesia” Prod: Urszula Orczykowska Dir: Wojciech Jerzy Has Scr: Wojciech Jerzy Has, based on Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą by Bruno Schulz Phot: Witold Sobociński Ed: Janina Niedwiecka Prod Des: Jerzy Skarzyński, Andrzej Płocki Mus: Jerzy Maksymiuk

Cast: Jan Nowicki, Tadeusz Kondrat, Gustav Holoubek, Halina Kowalska, Irena Orska, Mieczysław Voit

About The Author

David Melville teaches both Film and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Open Studies. His one regret is spending too much time at school and not enough time at the movies.