Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – Wojciech Has

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month the emphasis is firmly on the ‘cult’ side of cinema, with two unique films from Polish director Wojciech Has. The films, both of which have been released by distributor Mr Bongo, have arrived at an excellent time for Polish cinema in the UK, as they appear alongside the ‘Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’ season currently touring select cinemas across the country.


The Saragossa Manuscript (Blu-Ray, Mr Bongo)
The Hourglass Sanatorium (Blu-Ray, Mr Bongo)

Watching the films of Wojciech Has can feel like walking through a distorted maze of mirrors. Images echo again and again, often recurring in unexpected places. Doorways rarely appear where you’d anticipate, and it’s hard to guess where they might lead when they do. They’re maze-like films that feel more like you ‘explore’ them than simply watch them. They’re fascinating too though because they actively draw attention to all of this, and to the labyrinthine nature of their own construction. This is apparent in perhaps Has’ most well known film, The Saragossa Manuscript, which could be described as a collection of stories that is both about, and in love with, the art of storytelling. The film opens on two soldiers from opposing sides in the Napoleonic Wars, who become so entranced by the stories contained in a dusty old book that they cease their fighting, and instead begin to read together. One of the soldiers discovers that the tales concern his grandfather, Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), then a young captain passing through Spain’s Sierra Morena mountains. We too become absorbed into this story, and are transported into Alfonso’s adventures, which quickly escalates to involve everything from seductive spirits to the Spanish inquisition.

From here on The Saragossa Manuscript’s narrative only grows more ambitious. David Lynch, himself a big fan of the film, described the film’s construction as being like a series of Russian dolls, each opening to reveal yet another doll. A character may begin telling a story, only to have a character within that story also beginning telling a story of their own, which may then subsequently unravel yet another level of the twisting narrative. Very soon it becomes almost impossible to remember how we reached this point in our maze of mirrors, which is precisely one of the things that makes the film so interesting. When the majority of cinema is concerned with guiding you from point A to B, it’s always refreshing to encounter a film that instead seeks to take your hand and lead you deep into the maze.

None of this would really work however, if there weren’t interesting sights to be found within the maze itself. Thankfully there’s plenty here to justify the journey, particularly the film’s often surreal sense of playfulness and unexpected shifts in tone. The Saragossa Manuscript depicts its events with a gaze that’s both irreverent and witty. When two noblemen meet and end up initiating a duel to the death, the civility with which they go about trying to murder each other makes the scene almost feel like a Monty Python sketch. Events and characters can also appear in the film swiftly, only to vanish with just as much speed. Sometimes this can be a source of humour, as when Alfonso is captured by the cruel Spanish Inquisition, only to rescued again mere moments later. The unpredictable dream logic and narrative misdirection of such sequences may remind viewers of films such as Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover Buñuel was an admirer of the film. These surreal touches lead the film’s main character Alfonso to admit at one point: ‘I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over’. The Saragossa Manuscript is a tumble headfirst down a rabbit hole to somewhere where these distinctions no longer seem to matter.

You’d anticipate that The Saragossa Manuscript would surely be the strangest and most dreamlike of Wojciech Has’ work, yet that honour is quickly stolen away by his second most celebrated film, The Hourglass Sanatorium. If The Saragossa Manuscript feels at times like a dream, then The Hourglass Sanatorium is a fever dream, complete with lurid colours and bewildering shifts in subject and location. The film concerns Joseph (Jan Nowicki), who we first encounter travelling across an impossible landscape on a train filled with silent, wraith-like passengers. Joseph is heading towards an unusual sanatorium where he hopes to visit his sickly father. What he actually encounters however is hard to really describe.

Like The Saragossa Manuscript, it’s pretty much impossible to predict where The Hourglass Sanatorium might be leading you next. As Joseph enters more and more rooms of the sanatorium, the places it leads him make less and less sense. Outdoors gives way to indoors unexpectedly, and when Joseph crawls under a bed it has the surprise effect of revealing a fireman eating jam, followed by jungle foliage. Much of this is shot at a creeping low angle, leading the characters to loom strangely over us and magnifying the sense of unreality. This feverish quality of the film recalls the cult, midnight films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and any fans of his, or of trippy cinema in general, should probably seek out The Hourglass Sanatorium immediately. It’s worth stating too that Joseph’s confused adventures into his own subconscious aren’t simply surreal nonsense. The film’s elusive plot is so densely packed with allusions and symbolism that I could hardly begin to unpack it here. You’ll also find some social critique of the repressive Communist authorities of the time within the film, such as when Joseph is arrested by agents of an ineffective faceless power for the content of a dream he had many years ago. Needless to say, the real Communist authorities were not amused, and did their best to stop the film being shown at foreign festivals.

While The Hourglass Sanatorium’s dense symbolism may boast plenty to unravel, the film’s greatest draw is its visuals. The sanatorium itself is an absolute masterwork of set design, and the film as a whole boasts some of the most imaginative fantasy sets I’ve ever seen in a film. There’s a wonderful feeling of faded grandeur to the buildings here, as elegant spaces, seemingly under siege from an onslaught of dust and plant life, slowly surrender themselves to ruin. The film’s use of colour too is particularly striking, and often as unpredictable as its narrative. Fans of Terry Gilliam will find a huge amount to enjoy here, as The Hourglass Sanatorium feels like Gilliam’s visual style at its finest and most heightened, yet somehow sustained for an entire film. These releases are an upgrade from the previously available DVD versions of the films, also released in the UK by Mr Bongo. Given the extraordinary visuals of The Hourglass Sanatorium in particular, the switch to Blu-Ray is more than worth it.