Is it rare? I’m not sure… Is it weird? Most certainly! In fact, I would say that Wojchiek Jerzy Has’s THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is one of the weirdest films of the 70s and inarguably one of the most stunningly beautiful. Less confusing and more seductive, in my opinion, than Wojchiek’s more famous film, THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965), watching it is truly like having a window carved into the wall between wakefulness and sleep and looking straight into a dream or a nightmare. Rarely have I seen a more accurate depiction of the collaged, recursive world that William S. Burroughs refers to, in his novels, as the “Land Of The Dead:” a place where borders dissolve and the past, present, and future all become possibilities limited only by an unknown factor that rules, though subtly and from the shadows, like a comprehensive conspiracy. That unknown factor, that conspiracy, is the unbreakable “control” that is central to Burrough’s work and also the unifying, underlying theme of Has’s movie. This control, this conspiracy, is that aspect of our experience which we refer to as our selves. True freedom always requires self-sacrifice…not sacrifice of beloved objects or roles, but sacrifice of actual “Self.” This is what THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is about, and it is one of the most detailed, explicit representations of that self-sacrifice.
But is it a horror movie? Plenty have watched THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM, I’m sure, without in the least considering it horrifying.I would suggest that they have not had enough life experience to know any better. When one is young, one tends to believe in oneself. Psychologists call this “egoism,” but that has an unfortunately pejorative connotation. A more accurate description of this stage in life would refer to it as having, like traditional film or literature, a “linear narrative.” Whether aware of the end goal or not, young adults tend to believe that they are (or have the potential for) acting toward achieving a particular goal that will comfortably realize their place in the world. Their understanding of the goal and its complexity or simplicity is unique to their personal conditions and temperament, but it is there.
With experience comes both the achievement of many individual goals as well as a full recognition of the arbitrariness of “fulfillment” itself. One begins to develop a more realistic understanding of the experience of conscious reality as a whole. It is not a traditional narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It is an expansive, apparently never-ending, overlapping series of vignettes that change in form and content but, nonetheless, eventually begin repeating themselves in patterns that seem entirely out of one’s control and aren’t always immediately pleasing.
Life is not an epic biographical drama pic, it is more like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE or THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM. The divide between making things happen and things just happening is uncomfortably thin…perhaps non-existent. For the most part we are swept through our lives, and ourselves, like a passenger on a ghost train…or a spectator viewing a movie. Everything is inevitably as it is. It just is.
We have a choice, of course. We can choose to consider our state a blessing or a curse. Life is still beautiful, after all. It is filled with stunning images, emotions, and experiences. One may choose to let them wash over you and take pleasure from them. Of course, these positive aspects of living tend to repeat themselves eventually. There seems to be an end point to the glamour of novelty in any individual’s life experience after which it must be pretentiously forced. Another option for staying “positive” is self-consciously creating narratives and goals for oneself, like a child might, but with the wisdom of knowing it is a kind of falsehood…that these “goals” are, in fact, constructed narratives with no intrinsic meanings other than what we bring to them. This is embracing life as a kind of play: joyful, though meaningless, participation. This is the Existentialist approach to confronting the horrors of existence without self-deception.
There are other approaches as well, but all such “solutions” for the ultimate meaninglessness of existence are, of course, built upon the shifting sands of a reality that becomes, absurdly, both more fluid and malleable as well as more prison-like, repetitive and fixed as one ages.
Imagine knowingly living in a virtual reality machine for one’s entire life. You have almost complete control over creating the reality that you will live at any given moment (though you are stuck with your memories of the past). Under such conditions, one must come to terms with the fact that, though one’s options are seemingly unlimited, the only source of inspiration for the creation of new “realities” are the same, limited, combinations of experience that one has already created and lived through. The only way to experience the truly alien, something which comes from outside of oneself, is to become an amnesiac or to exit the machine. But how can one even conceive of exiting the machine? A world, on the other side, in which the concept of choice as you know it does not exist at all…? It would be a kind of hell: a spiritual paralysis!
And that is what “freedom” is…
Does that sound horrifying? Well, then, so is THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM. Does it sound like a challenge which you might enjoy? Perhaps, then, THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is also for you!
This copy of THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM is presented by The Church of the SubGenius so it is bookended by some propaganda for Bob, the Savior. I consider that an added bonus. The subtitles get a little messed up about ten minutes into the movie, but it is only for one, brief interaction between the protagonist and a nurse and it can be easily deciphered.