In his 75 years, Wojciech Jerzy Has directed 14 movies, and you probably haven’t heard of them. But you do know the artists he influenced: Lynch, Bunuel, Martel, Scorsese. His legacy remains unwritten only because the Polish filmmaker’s pictures have been on a bootlegs-only basis for decades, but that’ll gloriously cease with the start of a HFA retrospective this weekend. Finally an American screen will be graced by his talents: By the unparalleled control of his compositions; by the painterly eye for detail displayed in each film’s production design; by his grotesque sense of humor, which fearlessly throws each work off-kilter. The collection of his works reveals an audacity nearly without peer—it reveals Has to be among history’s greatest filmmakers.
The Archive have six of the Has films scheduled for April—three early works, three indisputable masterpieces—with the rest to follow in May. The Noose, Farewells (Mon. 4.20) and How to Be Loved are the early trio, completed between ‘58 and ‘62. They’re character studies, marked by multilayered photography and lived-in shooting locations, that consider the pressures felt by marginalized personalities—a drunk, a mixed-class couple, and a convicted Nazi collaborator, respectively—in the wake of WWII. (Only The Noose leaves the war unmentioned—but even there scars are left on the setting, by Has’ use of damaged homes and desolate sets.) Has constantly complicates his close-up’s by contrasting them with background figures: a disapproving parent, an unconvinced court, or a bottle awaiting an inevitable relapse. They’re the henchmen of a culture determined to keep its subjects in line.
The Doll (Sat. 4.25) and The Hourglass Sanatorium announce an evolved aesthetic: vivid colors and super-wide aspect ratios. The former is a magisterial melodrama about an upper class merchant pining for the acceptance of high society—he falls for the titular lass, and learns the difference between having money and being moneyed. Shooting on sets that stretch on for blocks, Has shows off his unparalleled mastery of the tracking shot: The camera travels up and down the streets, documenting a densely realized community with kinetic filmmaking force. Characters float in and out of the frame—occasionally, his subjects are even lost for a few moments, only for them to move back into the shot at the next turn—as he takes in the world he’s created. When Has began to work on these wide canvases, his films began to get lost in time and space.
Hourglass kicked the series off last weekend, but the crown jewel is The Saragossa Manuscript (Fri. 4.17) a 185-minute surrealist-gothic-absurdist comedy that plays like One Thousand and One Nights by way of late Lynch. A Spanish officer wanders about a desolate landscape marked by discarded skulls and hanging bodies. Someone tells him a story; inside that story, someone else tells one; and then again, and again. The tales criss-cross, gaining in intricacy until you can’t even remember how deep the rabbit hole goes—a sustained structural joke that gains in strength up to the final frame.
The tales take Has through the different social classes depicted in his oeuvre: drunks, monks, soldiers, sinners, gentlemen, and even a few ghosts. He gleefully alternates between the ghoulish and the goofball, but always maintains his eye for Brueghelian long shots—they let him look at all of society’s contrasting elements simultaneously. He wasn’t an explicitly political filmmaker, but Has’ philosophies were built into the form of his films: The obsession with narrative and visual structuralism is no mere flourish. Whether tracking through an aristocratic party or floating over a surrealist wasteland, he saw social structures holding everyone in their rigidly mandated positions.
THE WAKING DREAMS OF WOJCIECH JERZY HAS. 4.10 – 5.30. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE, 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT HCL.HARVARD.EDU/HFA