Wojciech Has – Master of Surrealism

Wojciech Has was a Polish filmmaker who is most widely known for two films The Saragossa Manuscript and The Hourglass Sanatorium especially to English-speaking audiences. Sadly all his other films are impossible to find in English-speaking countries. Has like many Polish filmmakers came from a Jewish background but his mother’s side was Catholic and he identified as an agnostic. He was somewhat involved with the famous Polish film school but his films lacked the overt political aspects of many of his contemporaries.

The Saragossa Manuscript is based on the mammoth near 700 page novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Polish writer Jan Potocki. The film version runs slightly over 3 hours in length so you’re in for a long haul. The film tells the story of a 2 officers during the Napoleonic Wars who discover a manuscript in an inn in Saragossa who begins to translates it to the other officer.

The majority of the film is told from stories within the manuscript and then on top of that stories within stories in the manuscript and so on. It’s a fairly bewildering viewing experience so much so somebody has even wrote an outline of the film’s many plots and sub-plots that the watcher may find useful before or after watching the film. The film is full of phantasmagoric imagery, Islamic symbolism, European history and with liberal doses of ’60s psychedelia but with a playful tone and is at times very funny. It’s a film that really needs to experienced and words can’t do it justice. It might not totally work in a narrative sense but it should become even more rewarding on a repeated viewings and will unravel deeper meanings and the black and white photography is a marvel to look at.

The Saragossa Manuscript become a minor cult hit over the years because The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia cited it as his favourite film so by that you know the it’s one extremely “trippy” film. Garcia spearheaded a restoration in the early ’90s partly out of self-fish reasons so he could see a nice print of it in San Francisco, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese became involved in the restoration process as well. The film has also attracted praise from two of cinema’s foremost surrealist filmmakers Luis Buñuel who called the film “exceptional” and David Lynch said “This is one mother of a film” which is very high praise indeed.

The Hourglass Sanatorium of the two films for me is the masterpiece, it’s based on a series of connected short stories Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by the surreal Polish writer Bruno Schulz (no relation sadly) who was killed by the Nazis during WW2. Schulz even translated Franz Kafka’s The Trial into Polish in 1936. Surreal film fans may know Schulz because his other major work Street of Crocodiles was loosely adapted by The Brothers Quay into a beautiful short film in the ’80s and in turn they are great admirers of the work of Wojciech Has.

The dreamlike quality of The Hourglass Sanatorium is very much from Schulz’s writing so it really captures the experience of reading his work then necessarily being a straight adaptation which is pretty much impossible. The plot is relatively simple though Joseph (Jan Nowicki) takes a train to a sanatorium to visit his dying father and discovers nobody is really in charge and very soon he starts a dreamlike journey through his past, dreams, and nightmares and he goes through the film with almost childlike wonder. The film unlike the source work includes elements that comment on the holocaust which obviously Schulz didn’t include his original work but is relevant due to the author’s own demise.

The film has been compared to the work of Terry Gilliam which is a fair comparison, the worlds of Gilliam’s films often are surreal and scary but underlining it has the awe that children have. The Hourglass Sanatorium has a similar approach, Has has fantastic use of short tracking shots through the film that give the film a bigger look even though it’s obviously made on a relatively small budget. The imagery is truly grotesque and endlessly jaw-dropping, the autonomic people who bleed are images that I will never be able to get out of my memory.

Has enlisted the master Polish cinematographer Witold Sobociński who would work with Polish native Roman Polanski in the ’80s but also worked with the well-known Polish Andrzej Wajda around the same time as The Hourglass Sanatorium. The film’s colour palette is full of heightened greens, greys and purples and reds. The set design is almost science fiction esq. with it’s used look that recalls something like Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Gilliam’s films. It’s a tour de force in design, cinematography and all this under the masterful eye of Wojciech Has.

The Hourglass Sanatorium was hated by the communist authorities and they forbade Has from bringing it to the Cannes film festival. The film has obvious political interpretations especially with the crumbling sanatorium which could be seen as a metaphor of  the condition of public housing and institutes in Poland at the time, the Polish government were becoming increasingly antisemitic and they disliked the fact the Jewish aspects of the stories were emphasised. Has smuggled a print to Cannes where it won the much coveted Jury Prize.

Wojciech Has was one of the best directors to come out of the Poland filmmaking of the ’40s and ’50s. He often worked in surrealism and lacked the fame of Polanski (who has dabbled in the surreal) and Wajda but his work is some of the most unusual films ever made by any filmmaker and should be cherished and re-watched. It’s a crying shame that most of his work isn’t available and he only made a few more films after The Hourglass Sanatorium but he would become the dean of the National Polish film school in the early ’90s. Has would pass away at the age of 74 in 2000.

Ian Schultz

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