I feel more film lovers should discover The Quay Brothers, though they may divide viewers. Through their pioneering stop motion work, dusty, shabby and downright creepy creations easily stay in the memory. These dark and disturbing works could only ever lead to a feature work from these twisted twin directors. This is where Institute Benjamenta comes in.
Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life
Dirs: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Starring: Mark Rylance, Alice Alice Krige, Gottfried John, Daniel Smith, Joseph Alessi, Jonathan Stone, César Sarachu & Uri Roodner.
101mins | Avant-Garde, Drama, Romance | 12
I was lucky to see their first feature in black and white, on 35mm film created under Orwo, the already obsolete East German film stock (with even a short break in between to change the reels over), so my nerd juices were in overdrive. The whole film has a translucent and hyper surreal feel to it, as if it were the birth child of Kafka and Bergman, with a huge helping of gothic aesthetics.
Although the film is the definition of style over substance (many would say pretentious, no doubt), the artistic merits seen here should not be underestimated. At times it felt as if I were in a dreamscape or put into a trance, such is the impact. The story is slight: Jakob enrols to the Institute to train as service staff for a master who might not even be real. Taught by Miss Benjamenta, they soon find themselves yearning for one another, in desperate attempts to break away from the confines of their life. Though will her brother Herr Benjamenta allow this? And more importantly, what does it all mean???
I would go as far to say this has some of the finest examples of cinematography I may have ever seen. Those familiar with their work (and D.O.P Nicholas D. Knowland) will recognise the knee jerk camera swipes (usually shifting up or down) going from one object to another, the austere dusting that they make their own in black and white and the performance art elements within the film for the actors to do (the other pupils who repeat their actions again and again) all feature here.
The institute was originally a hunting lodge and the symbol of deer is everywhere (the number 0 also looms large). In one instance, mounted antlers frame Jakob’s head, Miss Benjamenta uses a pointer made from a deer leg, which she always seems to clutch and many other instances. Maybe its all the manly nature of the deer, as the symbols used would suggest this.
Mark Rylance is a weird and deadpan Jakob. He’s frequent interior monologue usually spouts out philosophical rambling which may not lead anywhere, though he is of the best of intentions. Alice Krige is the perfect Miss Benjamenta: solemn, rigid and the epitome of of a Victorian headmistress. She comes into her own when the class refuses to turn around to her and we see a vision of her, desperate and losing all power over her pupils because she gave in (perhaps?) to earthy pleasures.
Frantic and demanding, it appears to be all over for her in these tellings shots, that would eventually lead to tragic circumstances. As her brother, Gottfried John is an imposing Herr Benjamenta, keeping his sister captive, though perhaps not just in the physical sense. He has a way of gripping us, though some how making look as easy as anything. The ensemble of pupils practicing to be servants are also a flurry of physical energy and menace in equal measure.