The Unbearable Weight of Time: Wojciech Jerzy Has’s THE NOOSE at the Museum of Modern Art
Wojciech Jerzy Has constructed his fantastical sets with the diligence and brilliance of a madman. He is most famous for his operatic, elaborate films, The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), and The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), in which fantastical scenarios, built as stories-within-stories, act as both physical and metaphysical landscapes. The highly evocative plasticity of Has’s sets draws as much from theater, and from the practices of such performance artists as Tadeusz Kantor—who, like Has, lived and worked in Krakow—as it does from cinema, including German Expressionism and Luis Buñuel.
Has was also un uncanny master of realism, or hyperrealism, since he expanded the notion the Real to include our subjective perception of time. Human beings are immersed in time—time can be our tormentor, or ally. Nowhere is this more felt than in Has’s feature fiction debut, The Noose (1957). The film, based on the eponymous short story by acclaimed Polish post-war writer, Marek Hłasko, focuses on a broken man, Kuba Kowalski, played by famed stage and film actor, Gustaw Holoubek. Kuba is determined to go through a few day hours without drinking, and, with the help of his adoring girlfriend, Krystyna, to see a doctor and start a cure.
Time and universe conspire against Kuba, and as do singular objects and people. The first sign of malice is beautifully presented in the first shot: Kuba stands to the back of his room, lit from behind, as harsh light of morning filters from the street. Before Kuba, a telephone looms large. Has is a master of deep focus. Here the telephone takes up a large portion of the foreground, while the diminished human figure hovers behind it. Humans are often seen in silhouettes—in Kuba’s case, suggesting that he is a pale shadow of his former self. All this has implications beyond the physical. The telephone is a tormentor, because Kuba’s friends call constantly. The whole town is populated with people who take his drinking, or soberness, personally. Some express sympathy, others skepticism. Still others are so downtrodden they wish to see in Kuba a sparkle of hope. No matter. To Kuba, they are bad omens that come to tempt and to taunt him, reminding him of his previous meanness induced by drink, and humiliations. He cannot make contact with others, without being reminded he’s a drunk. Only memory is as persistently nagging as words. And Kuba makes clear he wishes to drown his in oblivion.
Has renders time palpable. Outside Kuba’s window, a giant clock is being fixed in the street—a hint that time is broken, out of whack, and also that it is being felt more intensely by Kuba. When Kuba breaks his promise to Krystyna and leaves his apartment, he overhears a stranger asking what time it is. The clock—Kuba’s internal one as well—is ticking, and variations of the scene in which people look at watches and announce the exact hour of day will replay throughout. So will the endless mentions of drink, in a social setting that is as permeated with alcohol as it is with the memories of war.
Has creates a claustrophobic ambiance that encircles and ensnarls Kuba. We are told that dark clouds are gathering, a sign that nature itself is headed for disaster. The world is Manichean, depraved, melancholy. Even love proves powerless. When Kuba meets his old flame in a cafe, it is only to learn that she had resigned herself to a loveless marriage, instead of revealing her love for him, because of rumors about his drinking—a bitter moment, since a happy marriage might have been the one thing to save him. But then again, Kuba himself doubts this. War, poverty and people’s coldness have instilled in him, and in his former amour, enough bitterness to now respond to the question, “What happened to you?” with one word, “Time.”
In spite of the metaphysical doom that hangs over Kuba, his struggle is portrayed with incredible psychological nuance. This is no doubt thanks to Hłasko, who not only wrote the original story, but also the film’s dialogues. The impulse of an alcoholic to see himself as a victim is offset by Kuba’s specific acts, which point to his individual responsibility. In the first sequence, as Krystyna comes to say he must wait for her, we see him hide a piece of jewelry. Kuba lies to Krystyna, putting the blame for the theft on his housekeeper. His burst of anger when Krystyna doubts him only confirms his guilt. When the housekeeper offers him money, he takes it, in spite of his being livid with his duplicity. He knows how hard it was for the old woman to secure even a small sum. Yet he steals from people he respects, to have money to drink. It is in this moment, as he violates the trust and harms an innocent person, that Kuba seals his fate. This downfall, we are made to feel, is more significant than all the irksome reflections of himself that Kuba sees in other drunks who populate his town.
Has’s visionary worldview was tinged with persistent pessimism. In The Noose, Kuba fears his free will even more than he fears time. He longs for the moment when he will not be burdened with making decisions—not only forbidden to drink, but physically unable to do so. Yet this wish is also a utopia. And as such, it cannot be fulfilled.