I intentionally watched THE HOUR-GLASS SANATORIUM in its native Polish language without English subtitles. I don’t speak a lick of Polish. I was aware that a surrealist film of this caliber would most likely rely on some sort of philosophical dialogue that would spark an internal debate about the human condition. From my experiences as an artist and with other surrealist films, (i.e. Ingmar Bergman) I knew that I could rely on my other senses to extract meaning.
One drawback of watching foreign films is the inevitable subtitle. With the constant shifting of the eyes from written text to moving image something is bound to be lost. That something is crucial in surrealist films. Although dialogue is important, it is not inherently necessary to understand even the most complex and challenging of films. As I began this film and the dialogue ensued, I blissfully zoned out. I entered a trance-like state but was immediately jarred by a cacophony of ambient noise. It felt as though I were in my bedroom trying to fall asleep, unable to ignore every stray sound. By eliminating the sense of sight, one becomes hyper-aware, ceasing to rest until you can rationalize the origin of every indistinguishable sound.
Juxtaposed with this paranoia were moments of almost childlike euphoria. I felt uninhibited and free to explore the other dimensions of the film because I no longer had the cumbersome task of paying attention to the dialogue. Strangely enough, I found I could identify more deeply with the main character as he went further back into the banks of his memory despite my obvious lack of plot cues from the dialogue. Andre Breton, author of the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) speaks of this sensation of retracing memory as an adult in a dream-like state.
At this point, he feels extremely modest: he knows what women he has had, what silly affairs he has been involved in; he is unimpressed by his wealth or his poverty, in this respect he is still a newborn babe. As for the approval of his conscience, I confess that he does very nicely without it. If he still retains a certain lucidity, all he can do is turn back toward his childhood which, however his guides and mentors may have botched it, still strikes him as somehow charming. There, the absence of any known restrictions allows him the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything.
In the waking hour, man recounts both dream and reality and often tries to reconcile the two. Dreams are themselves a part of our memory and our past but you don’t often hear people marking “dream milestones” on their timeline. Instead of an attempt at reconciliation, this film allows the two opposing dimensions to interweave into a non-linear narrative ripe with fantastical landscapes of time.
Perhaps the most poetic of images in this film was the brief shot of the elephants, bathed in the intense glow of the sun, swinging their massive trunks back and forth as our protagonist staggers on. They cause this chaotic journey to reach a temporary moment of clarity, often found in dreams. The trunks transcend our realistic associations and function as a new symbol, the pendulums of a clock.
Perhaps it is ironic that one would favor a retrograde approach to intelligence. Logic dictates that intelligence would improve as one ages, but in this case it is a prior and premature mindset that is ideal. Picasso himself expressed this desire: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” This fear of back peddling, clouds the mind’s natural curiosities that are quite prominent as a child. This child-like stupor can only be obtained again if one can rationalize being irrational.