Cannes Classics 2020: Martin Scorsese has restored ‘The Hourglass Sanatorium’, by Polish filmmaker Wojciech Jerzy Has, to its hallucinatory glory

Posted on August 1, 2020


All this hallucinatory imagery is rooted in tragedy. The book’s author was shot dead by a Gestapo officer in 1942, for venturing outside the Jewish ghetto and into the Aryan quarter.

A bird flies towards the gnarled branches of a leafless tree. It appears oddly lifeless. It doesn’t seem to be flying so much as suspended in the wintry-grey air. The camera pulls back, and we see the borders of a frame, which turns out to be the window of a train compartment. There are people inside. Their bodies keep shaking from the train’s movement. But like the bird, they seem lifeless — and the camera accentuates all this oddness with odder angles and compositions. (The ghostly music is odd, too: a siren-like sound piercing through other, undefinable nightmare-noises.)

After about four minutes, we finally get a man who isn’t sitting or lying down. And as he strides through compartments, we realise how dilapidated the train is. When he wakes up a passenger — Joseph, our protagonist — to announce that his station has arrived, we see there’s something odd about him, too. His eyes are glassy. He may be the cinema’s only blind ticket checker. Joseph disembarks, and trudges through snow to reach a building that appears to be even more dilapidated than the train. The stairs to the main door are blocked by trees. A portion of the parapet seems to have fallen off. There are cobwebs. There’s clutter. And the story begins.

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