Content anchor

Wojciech Jerzy Has

Wojciech Jerzy Has, 1968, Photo:
Wojciech Jerzy Has, 1968, Photo:

Film director and screenwriter. Born in Kraków in 1925, died in Łódź in 2000. Best known for directing The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and The Hour-Glass Sanatorium.

Has is often referred to as a visionary of Polish cinema. Critics note that he created a body of work that was surprisingly cohesive in its poetics, as if the director were recounting the same tale in various ways. In practically every film he has created his own world. The adventures of his protagonists, their problems and the storylines in which they become embroiled were always of secondary importance compared to experience of the visual environment in which the action takes place. These worlds are like journeys through the labyrinth of time with its own particular narrative rhythm, and Has's use of an array of strange objects (critics often use the term rupieciarnia - a random collection) create a unique visual universe. As the director himself has said of his cinematic style, 'In the dream that is a film one often has a singular time loop. Things of the past, issues long gone, are overlaid onto current reality. The subconscious invades reality. Dreams thus allow us to reveal, to show the future'. 

Has studied in Kraków at the city's Business School during the German occupation of Poland. He went on to study at the School of Art Industry, essentially the underground facility of the Academy of Fine Arts, until it was closed down in 1943. After the war he went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. In 1946, he also completed a one-year course in film, and began producing educational and documentary films at the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw before moving on, in the '50s, to the Educational Film Studio in Łódź.

In 1947, he made his debut with a medium length feature titled Harmonia (Harmony). In 1957, he began making full-length feature films. In 1974, Has became a lecturer in the directing department of the Leon Schiller Polish National Film, Television and Theater School in Łódź. Between 1987-1989, he was artistic director of the Rondo Film Studio and a member of the Komitet Kinematografii (State Cinema Committee). Between1989-1990, he served as dean of the directing department at the Łódź Film School. In 1990, he became the school's provost and remained in this position for six years. He was the managing director and chief professional advisor at the school's Indeks Studio. In 2000 the Polish National Film, Television and Theater School in Łódź bestowed an honorary doctorate on the filmmaker. 

Has avoided political or commercial overtones in his work, which often alienated him from the propaganda-driven industry. Although he produced his most important films at the height of the famed Polish School, his films were stylistically different and manifested a unique poetic vision. Fellow director Aleksander Jackiewicz said of Has that if he had become a painter, 'he would surely have been a Surrealist. He would have redrawn antique objects with all their real accoutrements and juxtaposed them in unexpected ways'. 

In remembering Has, documentary film director Henryk Kluba stated that he was a director who 'resolved compositions' while filming, treating each shot as a painted canvas. Has has said of his cinema that its 

 point of departure is always literature. Operating on time. Abbreviations of time. Jumps in time. Sidetracks and various layers. Space is the domain of painting; time is the domain of literature and film. Playing with time activates the imagination of film viewers (...) the fundamental topic of cinema to me is that of the journey.

This is evident in Has's best-known films such as the swashbuckling Spanish adventure The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hourglass Sanatorium, and in later works like The Memoirs of a Sinner and The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober.

Has's oeuvre has been associated with Surrealist painting. This is reinforced by the director's poetics of dream and his use of seemingly random objects, which is also characteristic of the Surrealist aesthetic. Film scholar, Mirosław Przylipiak, less obviously describes Has's style as Painterly Cubism. Przylipiak writes of the director's formula of alternative time in The Hourglass Sanatorium. The singularity of Has's films lies in his juxtaposition of several time dimensions in a sort of 'temporal cubism'. In 2009 when London's Barbican hosted screenings of two remastered versions of the film - together with The Manuscript Found in Saragossa - The Guardian's Xan Brooks wrote "The Hour-Glass Sanatorium is even better than The Saragossa Manuscript, and even more adept at driving you crazy. Has's style is playful, teasing and defiantly loopy". 

Has also created a number of intimate psychological dramas during his career - Pętla (The Noose), Pożegnania (Farewells), Jak być kochaną (How to Be Loved), Szyfry (The Codes). Critics have noted that Has specialized in films about people with restless, damaged mentalities who have difficulty settling into life. He was fascinated by outsiders, people evicted from the main current of life and incapable of finding their place in society.Two strands are clear in Has's work: one is his cinema of psychological analysis, the other, his films of visionary form in which he most often uses the motif of the journey. The director's stylistics encourages these strands to interweave. In the book Kino, wehikuł magiczny (Cinema - A Magical Vehicle), Adam Garbicz wrote that Has's dramas were 'always peculiar, always intimate, based on half-tones and on speaking through images'. Andrzej Szpulak, on the other hand, writing in the Kino monthly, remarked,

Each work turns out to be a journey into the depths of a once-glimpsed or once-conceived world. Whether this is eighteenth-century Spain or German-occupied Poland or even the overtly fantastic thirteenth month, we always find ourselves at the fringes of reality, among protagonists who, while awaiting death, passively submit themselves to a capricious and uncertain chain of events. 

Wojciech Jerzy Has and his cinema was the subject of a documentary by Adam Kuczyński titled Ze snu sen (A Dream from a Dream, 1998). Grzegorz Jankowski and Jacek Szczerba also made a film about Has entitled Jabłko. O Pożegnaniach Wojciecha Hasa (The Apple - On Wojciech Has's Farewells, 1999).


Documentaries and educational films:

  • 1947 Ulica Brzozowa / Birch Street (director and writer)
  • 1949 Parowóz P.7-47 / Steam Locomotive P.7-47 (director)
  • 1950 Moje miasto / My City (director)
  • 1950 Pierwszy plon / First Harvest (director)
  • 1951 Mechanizacja robót ziemnych / Mechanization of Earthwork (director)
  • 1951 Scentralizowana kontrola przebiegu produkcji / Centralized Control of Production Processes (director)
  • 1952 Harcerze na zlocie / Scouts at a Meeting (director)
  • 1952 Karmik Jankowy / Janek's Feeding Trough (director)
  • 1952 Zielarze z Kamiennej Doliny / Herbalists from Stone Valley (director)
  • 1955 Nasz zespół / Our Ensemble (director)

Feature films:

  • 1947 Harmonia (Harmony), medium length, undistributed
  • 1957 Pętla (The Noose), screenplay: Marek Hłasko, Wojciech Jerzy Has
    An adaptation of a short story by Marek Hłasko. A study of alcoholism with an excellent performance by Gustaw Holoubek as Kuba, a man who tries to battle his addiction before ultimately giving up and committing suicide. The action is limited to a single day, with the camera accompanying the protagonist in his apartment and throughout his useless wanderings around town. A purposely slow narrative tempo and expressionistic tones in the scenery combine to build a mood of hopelessness. The film depicts the state of mind of its protagonist, who finds himself in a desperate situation. Critics universally underlined the pessimism of the film, though some (notably, Konrad Eberhardt) also noted its creative qualities.
  • 1958 Pożegnania (Farewells), screenplay by Stanisław Dygat and Wojciech Jerzy Has
    An adaptation of a highly lyrical and reflective novel by Stanisław Dygat. The story begins immediately before World War II and centres on Pawel, a member of a conservative, bourgeois family, and his love for Lidka, a taxi-diver. Social conventions and the lovers' inability to defy them force Paweł and Lidka to part. When war breaks outs, Paweł is sent to Auschwitz and Lidka marries his cousin. According to K. Eberhardt, Farewells is, above all, a reflection on the passage of time. 'We are left with the impression', wrote the critic, 'that everything - the sundries from the Villa 'Quo Vadis', these antiques from a palace exposed to the turmoil of war, amusing dialogues and carefree situations, dramatic gestures and poses that cannot be maintained - are peculiarly transformed, subordinate to the director's reflections on time'. Awards: 1959 - Locarno International Film Festival, FIPRESCI Award.
  • 1959 Wspólny pokój (Roomers) screenplay by Wojciech Jerzy Has with dialogues by Stanisław Dygat
    A subjective adaptation of a well-known autobiographical novel by Zbigniew Uniłowski. The adventures of the tenants of a sublet room in a Warsaw townhouse inhabited mostly by students and novice writers, presented against the social context of the 1930s.
  • 1960 Rozstanie (Partings) screenplay by Jadwiga Żylińska based on her own short story
    The central character is an actress (the critically acclaimed Lidia Wysocka in this role) who returns to her hometown after being away for many years. Time, however, has changed the way she looks at familiar places and people. A sentimental journey ultimately proves difficult.
  • 1961 Złoto (Gold Dreams) screenplay by Bohdan Czeszko
    An ensemble cast features in this psychological drama that almost seems to be a routine propaganda film. Set on the building site of an energy plant, it centres on a young man who finds it difficult to work in a team and simultaneously harbours a secret. He is running from responsibility because he believes that, while driving, he hit and killed a pedestrian. In fact, it turns out later that he hit a dog. Has appears in this film in a cameo role, as a police officer.
  • 1962 Jak być kochaną (How to Be Loved) screenplay by Kazimierz Brandys based on his own short story
    A drama about unfulfilled love. The film is for the most part the reminiscence of a radio actress named Felicja, who thinks back to the World War II occupation of Poland by Germany, when she hid a man (Wiktor) sought by the Gestapo. In order to absolve herself of suspicion, she returns to the stage, but is then considered a collaborator in the eyes of her peers in the acting community. Felicja made this sacrifice for Wiktor because she loved him, despite her love being unrequited. 'These two people', wrote K. Eberhardt, 'fail in their attempts to rescue each other: she fails to save him from death, he does not succeed in alleviating her solitude. Their efforts prove fruitless. It has been a long time since a Polish film has offered us such a bitter moral'. Awards: 1962 - Golden Gate Awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival for the screenplay by Kazimierz Brandys and for Barbara Krafftówna's performance as Felicja; 1963 - Edinburgh International Film Festival - honorable mention; Cork International Film Festival - honorable mention; 1964 - Beirut International Film Festival - FIPRESCI Award; Golden Duck - Film monthly award for best film of 1963.
  • 1964 Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) screenplay by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski based on a novel by Jan Potocki
    This adaptation of eighteenth-century Arabesque prose marks the beginning of the visionary current in Has's oeuvre. This three-hour film about the journeys of Alfons van Worden is surprising for its expansiveness and multiple story-lines. The film was variously read as a period comedy, a cloak-and-dagger story, and a fantastic tale and intellectual game. 'The structure is reduced to a single narrative stream', explained the director in Film monthly. 'It is a game of assembly taken almost to an absurd level. Does it not mock our familiarity with dramatic order in film?'. Awards: 1965 - Edinburgh International Film Festival - honourable mention; San Sebastian International Film Festival - Golden Pen (International Journalists' Club Award) and CIDALC Award; 1969 - Sitges International Festival of Fantasy and Horror Films - special medal; 1971 - Spanish Film Critics' Award.
  • 1966 Szyfry (The Codes) screenplay by Andrzej Kijowski based on his own short story
    A psychological drama that focuses on Tadeusz, a man who returns to Poland after spending many years abroad. He has trouble finding then understanding relatives who remained in the country, survived the horrors of war and emerged from this experience psychologically scarred. In spite of a concerted effort to do so, he fails in his attempt to discover the circumstances of his son's death during the war.
  • 1968 Lalka (The Doll) screenplay by Wojciech Jerzy Has based on the novel by Bolesław Prus
    Adaptation of one the most prized titles in Polish literature. The story of the Warsaw merchant, Stanisław Wokulski, all of whose actions are contingent upon his destructive fascination for an impoverished but conceited aristocrat. Has modified the accents in Wokulski's story. In the film it is not disappointment in love that renders him a tragic figure, but, as the director stated, his low self-esteem. Has demonstrates incredible attention to detail, making a film that is very painterly, while accurately rendering the mood of the era and featuring a noteworthy performance by Mariusz Dmochowski in the lead role. In 1977, Prus's novel also served as the basis for a television mini-series directed by Ryszard Ber. Both versions were the subject of heated discussion by viewers. Awards: 1969 - Panama International Film Festival - Grand Prix, cinematography award for Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz, acting awards for Mariusz Dmochowski and Tadeusz Fijewski.
  • 1973 Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (The Hourglass Sanatorium) screenplay adapted from the prose works of Bruno Schulz by Wojciech Jerzy Has
    A poetic, visually refined 'journey through the convolutions of time' as experienced by the protagonist, Józef. In transferring the literary source to film, Has added a series of reflections on the Holocaust, having read the prose of Schulz through the prism of the author's tragic death (shot in the streets by the SS) and through the demise of the world he described. This approach was considered an indulgence by some. Awards: 1973 - Cannes International Film Festival - Jury Prize; 1974 - Trieste International Festival of Fantasy Films - Golden Asteroid; Gdynia, Festival of Polish Feature Films - production design award for Jerzy Skarżyński and Andrzej Płocki.
  • 1982 Nieciekawa historia (An Uneventful Story), screenplay by Wojciech Jerzy Has based on a short story by Anton Chekhov
    Anatomy professor Nikolai Stepanovich analyzes his life and discovers that it consists solely of the monotony of daily activities. Social conventions prevent him from pursuing a relationship with the woman who might provide the meaning he is missing. This drama about solitude is another film in which Has explores the helplessness of a lost life.
  • 1984 Pismak (Write and Fight) screenplay by Władysław Terlecki based on his own novel
    Set in a prison during World War I, the film centres on a journalist who aspires to be a writer and is imprisoned with a safe-robber and a monk. His cellmates appear to him to be perfect characters for a novel. Critic Jan Słodowki described the film as 'a study in isolation told through the voices of three people condemned to be with each other; among them, the writer, a maturing artist, his gaze fixed on himself, proves the central figure'.
  • 1985 Osobisty pamiętnik grzesznika... przez niego samego spisany (The Memoirs of a Sinner) screenplay by Wojciech Jerzy Has based on the novel by James Hogg
    The story of two half-brothers and the wickedness the Devil brings into their lives. This horror film was based on the eighteenth-century novel by James Hogg, a Scottish poet. Awards: 1986 - Golden Grapes for cinematography for Grzegorz Kędzierski at the Lubushan Film Summer in Łagów; Bronze Gdańsk Lions for music for Jerzy Maksymiuk and for production design for Andrzej Przedworski at the Festival of Polish Feature Films in Gdańsk.
  • 1988 Niezwykła podróż Baltazara Kobera (The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober) screenplay by Wojciech Jerzy Has based on the novel by Frederick Tristan
    This story of the Inquisition focuses on Balthazar of Budziszyn, who enters a religious seminary but does not complete it. He is discovered to be someone who communicates with the other world, and, as a 'chosen' one, he faces a series of strange voyages and tribulations. In concept, structure and mood, the film is similar to The Saragossa Manuscript. Awards: 1988 - Gdynia, Festival of Polish Feature Films - sound design award for Janusz Rosół.

Author: Ewa Nawój, July 2003. Updated by Agnieszka Le Nart, April 2011.'s picture
Facebook Twitter Reddit Share

Wojciech Jerzy Has


Wojciech Jerzy Has


Wojciech Jerzy Has


Wojciech Jerzy Has


Wojciech Jerzy Has
Recommended creators