Wojciech Jerzy Has' 1973 surreal opus The Hourglass Sanitorium is one of the few Polish movies I've seen. Despite my local Museum of Art hosting a series of 16 films Martin Scorsese selected as "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema", I've only been able to go see 2. I'd only previously known this movie by its odd and amazing poster. When I read more, it sounded intriguing even though I'm very hit and miss on surreal art. I must say that while this suffers from some of the drawbacks of all surreal films, it is one of the most beautifully shot and put together movies I've ever seen and one that I'd happily see again any time.
The "story" as much as one exists, is that of Joseph (Jan Nowicki) riding a train to visit his ailing father Jacob (Tadeusz Kondrat) in a sanitorium. From there we are led on a series of surreal adventures such as being arrested by soldiers for having a dream, confronting living plastic mannequins of historical figures, reliving childhood memories of many different things. All with Joseph leading us through, even through the childhood segments, the adult stands in for his younger self.
Unfortunately, like too many surrealist films, we're not given a base to go from for Joseph as a character, so we don't know why things are happening (sometimes what is happening at all), or what it means to anyone or anything. If they're not relative to the main character leading us through them, and the sequences are meant for the audience and not the character then what's the point of the character in the first place? Just string the segments together like a book of short stories (which is how this movie was adapted in the first place). Another side of this is that there's no narrative momentum leading us from piece to piece, so even though the movie is only 2 hours long, it feels much, much longer.
However, this is easily one of the 5 or 10 most visually splendid films ever made. Though I wasn't always engaged narratively, there wasn't a single second I wasn't fascinated visually. The way Has moves from sequence to sequence has an incredible flow to it, as sets seem to almost disappear, or open up into the next segment. It's truly astonishing filmmaking on every technical level. I am not always one to say go see a movie just for the visuals, but if you can see this movie, do it, even if it's only for the visuals.