The following article was published in N-SPHERE February 2011 issue.


Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra (The Hourglass Sanatorium) is like the man in Naked Lunch not talking about the way(s) in which he gradually murders his wife. On the surface it may only seem a very curious mix of Fellini, Gilliam, Greenaway, and maybe two shakes of Zulawski framed inside a story which seems to take the same route as other countless stories treading oniric grounds have taken before. And yet there is a sense of rigour in all of its frenzy sustained by a very striking imagery.

The story itself is very simple: a man (Joseph) is taking a trip to visit his father (Jacob) in a sanatorium. The father is assumed dead, but he is kept alive through some sort of an artifice, and in order “to save his vital energies” he sleeps for long hours. And there you have it, the mechanism that triggers the whole movie. We have the entrance, the gateway and the worlds created. The fun part about this from the very start is that there are many ways you can look at it.

There is the Kafkian method, the opening window, which would also explain the name (Josef). There is a Greenaway–ian method (Prospero’s Books, if you may), where worlds are presented side by side through their own image, by using the visual and nearly bypassing the verbal language (we see it here very clear: there are few conversations, most of them are splinters, fractions that seem to come from dreams rather than from anything else. Even from the very start, the dialogue between the protagonist and the nurse is very eloquent in this particular sense). And there is even a Biblical way: Joseph the son of Jacob, Jacob who in his last days expressed his wish of not being buried in Egypt, but in Canaan with his forefathers (there is even a moment in the film in which the Three Wise Men appear). But this is only a start and the linkage is more relevant to the father–son relationship, rather than to anything else.

There is an Alice in Wonderland feel through the film as well – the window from the father’s room is cracked, and through that cracked window we see a boy who is the one leading Josef in his journey (rabbit–holes, anyone?). The boy – Rudolf – links to a lot of Greenaway’s later child protagonists (and I have Drowning By Numbers in mind, both Smut and The Skipping Girl) and is in fact an incarnation of the child instilled: all of the curiosity and desire and none of the guilt, repression, fear or other things that prevent grown–ups from doing what they would want to do sometimes. There is a pair to that: Bianka (white, and indeed she is dressed in white and she looks pale), who has a certain type of frenzy you can only find in a woman or girl, someone who Josef has never met, yet longs for, silently.

And this kind of boldness is a main attribute of the film as well: The Hourglass Sanatorium does not try to explain its frantic course, or should I say it does not try to use it as a part of a conventional plot to gain mainstream audience. It just follows what it’s set out to do, for better or worse since some things are too great (not referring to the grandeur but to the size mostly) to fully happen, they just try to happen, partially. This is also what the film tells us at some point through another key character: The Blind Conductor. Yes, blind, just like Josef winds up towards the end of the film and with the lantern that Josef too will wear around his neck.

On a related note, the film can also be seen as the requiem of the Eastern Europe Jewish culture and also as a criticism on how Europe mis–labeled as primitive what – on its own right – stands outside such labeling attempts. A life on its own cannot be gazed at as one would gaze at an object. There are no quantifications here, and what may be relevant in this particular sense is more linked to immediate actions, reactions and interactions to a certain environment (way of thinking, filtering, system of ideas those are the things that can support such labelling), but life itself is not embodied in these aspects. And there are things that come from the heart, things that cannot be explained in a rational manner because there were no rational aspects that triggered them in the first place – things as objects if you may, hanging loose, outside an everyday life context.

One needs to experience such things, rather than try to rationalize them and when truly experienced, the outcome transcends mere words. You cannot fully explain an experience, you can describe what you have felt, but that mere description on its own is artificial, therefore at least partially fake. The film itself has worked the same way. Has did not have to answer to a marketplace, so the film is honest and uncompromising and yes it partially invented the worlds of directors such as Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton or David Lynch.

There is another aspect: that of objects coming to life. Characters themselves are objects, brought to life by their writers, manipulated by them to serve a certain setup, characters create, however, in this process, worlds – languages that are part of the work’s (meta–)language. There is a fascinating thing with stories such as Pinocchio, for example, because we get to see those characters bringing to life other objects. The same thing happens here in the episode in which Jozef enters some sort of a figure store, those figures come to life in the end and they are led by him in what would, in the end, take a Holy Mountain–ish turn. Or El Topo, if you may – the ones repressed, annihilated, forced to stillness, trying to come out in the open. Actually, the whole marketplace episode and some other episodes as well, carry the same idea, but in a lighter and far more pleasant register.

One could notice a strong erotic sense as well, but one driven not by the flesh, one that is eerie, unrestrained and in the same time natural: sex as a form of communication, stripped away of any other convention or social duty.

“They all are sleeping here” and “here it is never nighttime” – sleep as possibility to travel, no longer a simple necessity occurring during the night. By removing the context in which sleep usually occurs, we can see what sleep may actually unravel and this is only set to be an example. Actually it may turn out to be more useful in other aspects.

Having said all this, I leave you alone with this film, to dream, one of another, who knows what experiences may be unraveled.

Deep dreams, children…

Movie still: Hourglass Sanatorium.

by Shade

Full article here.