or This Dream People Call Human Life
Gottfried John / Alice Krige / Mark Rylance / Daniel Smith / Joseph Alessi / Jonathan Stone / Ceasar Sarachu / Peter Lovstrom / Uri Roodner / Based on the novel ‘Jakob von Gunten’ by Robert Walser / Art Direction Alison Riva / Costume Design Nicky Gillbrand / Production Design Jennifer Kernke / Editor Larry Sider / Original Soundtrack Lech Jankowski / Producer Karl Baumgartner / Directors The Quay Brothers
The thing about the Brothers Quay, is that their films can be taken in two quite different, though equally legitimate ways. That is, as deeply profound pieces, with a haunting intensity of perception.. or a collection of disparate moments that ultimately mean sod all.. either way, the result is beautiful and sublime. To be honest, on the whole I’ve never been all that keen on their stop-frame shorts, as blasphemous as that is to admit, given the brothers iconic status in the animation world, but they’re just a little too pretentious for my liking. That brand of Eastern European animation was pretty draining even in it’s original form, let alone in regurgitated homage. You just know the Quay boys collected milk-bottle tops, went into rhapsodies over spinning toys and purposefully broke the keys on the family piano, just to delight in off notes. Institute Benjamenta uses some of the same imagery and stop-frame effects, but manages to work in harmony with the actors, and resonates with a steady rhythm that is quite hypnotic, weaving a dream-like sensation that both embraces and disturbs in equal fashion.
We enter the Institute with Gottfried John, who seeks to learn ‘the divine duty of the servant’, along with a band of oddball potential butlers and waiters. The high point of the film is Alice Krige (yes, ST:TNG’s Borg Queen) as the incredibly sensuous Headmistress, dressed in pure white corset and a quite worrying riding crop that appears to be made from a goat’s hoof. Krige floats about her scenes with a preternatural grace, small traces of ecstatic electricity emerging in flickers across her powerfully emotive features.. or are they almost blank? Odd how those two are so closely realated. There’s a quite direct link to Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl, with it’s sado-masachistic-lesbian Fraulein, holding sway over The Home for Lost Girls’. Whilst Pabst chose the Avant-garde dancer Valeska Gert for the role (probably the single most disturbing performance of the entire Silent period), here in contrast we have the strikingly beautiful Alice Krige (though no less disturbing a force). The Brothers Quay clearly reference Pabst, but change the dynamic somewhat by making the pupils male, and somewhat complicit in their subordinacy to this dominatrix. Also add in for good measure, a dash or two of both the 1931 Maedchen in Uniform, and it’s ’58 remake with Romy Schneider.. ‘What is it’s strange appeal? Why does it stir the emotions?’
There’s very little point in overanalysing much more of the plot, other than to say that we journey into the labyrinthine bowels of the Institute, and weave about the increasingly palpable eroticism of Alice Krige’s performance. It’s a prose piece that dwells in a continual dreamstate, the world glimpsed giddily through an eternally smokey filter.. how do the Brothers Quay put it? Oh, yes, through ‘a dusty window pane.’ The lighting really is exquisite, showing a subtlety that Pabst and Josef von Sternberg would have applauded, treating Alice Krige like a flood-lit Louise Brooks, or a stoic Dietrich, whilst stepping into a Victorian box of curiosities.
‘I should never let myself be rescued.. nor shall I ever rescue anybody.’
‘The divine duty of servants..’
‘Sometimes more life dwells in the opening of a door than in a question. Past and future circle about us. Now we know more.. now we know less.’