In Mystery Shrouded: On the Quays’ New Film

By Paul Hammond and The Brothers Quay

‘The serious wedded to the light,’ said Max Ophuls of one of his films. Take ‘light’ in the luminous sense and you’ve a fitting apothegm for the Quay Brothers’ first feature, Institute Benjamenta. It’s a high-minded work of no small hermeticism, in which light and dark, shadow and substance enmesh to invoke borderline states of mind disquieted by the riddle of being and non-being, desire and nirvana, power and abasement. In fine, sfumato fear and trembling unto death; timbers, shivering.

Institute Benjamenta, or, This Dream People Call Human Life – to give the film its full, archaising title – calls to the ‘rebus cinema’ of metaphysical perturbation announced by Resnais (Last Year In Marienbad), Borowczyk (Goto, Island Of Love), Herzog (Heart Of Glass), Ruiz (Three Crowns For The Sailor). But above all it maximiases the trouvailles of 15 years of the Quays’ own labours in animating the minuscule, tapping the tiny and overlooked for their resonance at the unreasoning level of mind. ‘In the smallest theatre in the world the bread crumbs speak,’ said the poet Charles Simic apropros Joseph Cornell, whose boxes and collage films may just have some mana for the brothers. (Like them, Cornell’s an American artist who took Europe for his cultural homeland). One viewing will not exhaust the fascinating enigma of their monochrome masterpiece, nor three.

That the Quays should have chosen the miniaturist schizotexts of Robert Walser as their starting point is no surprise: they’re great lovers of Mittle Europ late Romanticism in all its forms. (‘A Paul Klee in prose,’ Susan Sontag dubbed the faux-naïf Swiss ironist, a big influence on Kafka). Jakob von Gunten, one of the writer’s four surviving novels, penned during the doddering days of the Hapsburg Empire, provides the armature. Walser’s ‘fairy play’ Snow White and his short story ‘Jesus’ flesh this out.

Jakob von Gunten is the facetious soliloquy of an immodestly modest factotum, a self-castrating pipsqueak who buffs his character armour at the same time as he brassoes the cutlery. Jakob’s mock-heroic masochism, tinged, natch, with sadism, stands him in good stead when he enrols at a mouldering and devious school for servants run by an hysterical ‘principaless’, Lisa Benjamenta, her sybaritic brother, mein Herr the principle, and an inscrutable major-domo called Kraus. Jakob’s a survivor, a chameleon in a desperate world of simulation. Which helps, because the Benjamenta Institute is more madhouse than seat of learning, a chalk circle wherein the inmates bend to the dotty rules and the warders fret about their charisma.  An education here unfits you for life. In this huis clos the illumined blockheads parade their passionless passions, go through the motions, panic whenever they penetrate beyond appearances and confront the void, the big zero at life’s core, pass like ships in the night, play dead and hard to get. The Story Of O, with difference! Speak to me of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even!’ Condemned never to know the soul’s transcendence or the body’s carnality, these tragic automata, one female, eight male – there’s a ‘malic mould’ missing – have screws enough to take the measure of both, to subsist, traumatised, in the shadow of body and soul. It requires a certain strength to live this, to die it. Walser, the dog, wags the tale in his inimitably queasy and teasing way. A revolutionary defeatist, yes; a past master of the minimum programme. The doctor who’d certified Wölfli extended the same courtesy to Walser. Once in the bughouse he never wrote again.

Although the Quays, and their co-writer Alan Passes, have retained the novel’s narrative thrust, they’ve foregone its author’s elfish loquacity. Spare parts of textual Walser are larded with pseudo-Walserian declamations, some of these improvised by the actors, supplemented by the murky insignia, homily samplers, hierophantic lines of calligraphed posey that the brothers habitually favour. The riddle that opens the film, sets out its stall – or stalling. It comes from an anonymous Bavarian folk tale set to music by Carl Orff. (The Quays claim not to know its solution.) In the main, however, they’ve sought the essence of their hero’s spiel in images, in imaged things, imaged events, often wordless, most always gnomic and mystificatory. I haven’t seen the other film version of Jakob von Gunten – directed by Peter Lilienthal in 1971, with Hanna Schygulla as the pricipaless – but in this one the bread crumbs do speak, albeit in an idiom that conceals as much as it reveals.

The Quays have said that their film embraces ‘the fantastic, the mystical and the fairy tale’. Institute Benjamenta indeed links up with ‘the haunted screen of German Expressionist cinema, not just because it’s shot in fulgurating black and white and intends to be a silent film ‘with only music, sounds and a few inter titles’, but because it’s after creating Stimmung, a mood of metaphysical uncertainty, disquieting strangeness. Cinema’s the best means we have for revealing the abstract latent in the concrete, the prelinguistic address things make to our deep psychology – the canny brothers know this well.

The film proper begins with the arrival of bespoke Jakob at the door of the Institute, but before this a brace of disorienting preambles hint obliquely at the aberrance to come. In the first a series of very big close-ups, vignetted, presents us with pine cones and fork tines, antler tines and a crown of thorns. An existential theme is being announced synecdochically: the things man surrounds himself with are humble signifiers, fragile fetishes of his moral, ‘religious’ restlessness. A pagan eroticism will do battle with Christian agape for the souls of the institutionalised brooders. The horned god Cernunnos takes on the thorned god Jesus. The Quays will repeatedly frame the heads of the four main protagonists, now in the halo of a circular window, now between the antlers of a wall-mounted trophy.

The second preamble is equally enigmatic: a goldfish bowl magnifying the features of a man’s face; a hieratically posed figure behind a structure like a clock-case, his arms in a cross, bucket in each hand; water swilled from buckets down a drain; empty picture-frames with the shadow of rain playing over them; a Bcklinesque distant copse under snow; the sweating, swooning face of a prone woman. We aren’t to know, yet, that he is Kraus, stoical custodian of the crucifying mystery enshrined in the Institute’s inner chambers, a deified goldfish making the eternal round of its bowl. (Walser, the gruesome wag, loved his bathos). Or that she is Lisa Benjamenta, Snow White to the bewitched seven dwarves who, the dummies, have signed on as students. When the camera slips from the ‘Bcklin’ into blackness, sliding past the stag-horn blazon above the school’s gloomy portal to come up short against the Magrittean figure of the supplicant Jakob, about the rap, it is as if an eyelid has been closed and a penny placed to weight it shut. We’re below the threshold of consciousness now, in the shape-shifting Castle Keep of the instinctual, and the oneiric. Is what follows the fever dream of this distressed damsel?

Once enrolled, Jakob’s mission in life is to survive the deadly training – how to powder chalk, the way to fold a napkin into a bishop’s mitre, what to do it the viscount’s schnitzel is poisoned, how to serenade the Benajenta top brass – to submit, or not, to the principal’s advances, and those of his sister, to penetrate the secret of those far-off inner chambers. There is more than one secret in play. Who is the dumb waiter Kraus and where does his authority come from? (He’s the deft bucketeer entrusted to change the goldfish’s water.) Why is the principaless falling apart at the seams? (She sews thimbles to the backbone of her night-dress and then lies abed). What means the principal’s priapic behaviour? (He has a pegleg tipped by a cloven hoof).

We’re unclearly in the realm of melancholic perversity, of febrile perdition, here. Lisa falls into a cataleptic slumber from the shame of an incestuous love. Her amoral brother will make off into the bleak midwinter with the supine Jakob. Krauss is left to tend to his Piscean god.

There’s a key scene in which Jakob goes exploring. Passing behind a wafting curtain he comes to a small chamber, its walls hung with antlers. On a shelf a clock-like mechanism with a revolving hand that disturbs the dust piled on the head of a screw. The futile thing is labelled: ‘Perpetual motion compels mortality’. ‘What was the Institute before it was the Institute?’ he muses. Opposite there’s a bell-jar containing white crystals. This too is labelled: ‘Powdered ejaculate of stag. Please sniff.’ He doesn’t. Three doors face Jakob. He enters the one on the left and finds himself in the same room. He tries the door on the right and gropes along the long corridor hung with a strange tapestry, its floor covered in pine cones and needles. He exists through the centre door. He turns and looks through a peephole in it. From this position he can see that the tapestry is an anamorphic representation of a rutting stag and doe. A stag broats on the soundtrack. ‘Perhaps there is a hidden meaning to all these nothing’, he conjectures.

Qutie so, but the directors will retard the revelation of that meaning beyond, as it were, the final frame of their film. You and I will have to divine it for ourselves. Even if it’s lost on the nondescript Jakob, we can, watching this bizarre scene of erotic initiation, fit certain elements into place – the peephole and the anamorphosis resonate with other images of circularity and telescoping at the level of both content and of form, as well as hinting that intelligibility is a matter of where you stand in relation to the image – but that placement may have something strained and hopeful to it, like when a millimetre’s difference in the contour of a bit of jigsaw stops you pressing it into place however obstinately you try. I’m not sure I’ve completely pieced together Institute Benjamenta, but, unfinished as it stands, the puzzle reverberates in the mind’s wish scenery.

How can we know the ‘studio secrets’ that go into the creation of a work of art? This morning the ‘phone rang: ‘Paul it’s the twins’. It was Stephen or Timothy, you never can tell, returning my call. (I’d rung to ask the answer to the opening riddle; an answer I thought they’d already given me when our paths crossed in Locarno, but which I’d forgotten.) We chewed the fat. I floated my idea about the antlered god Cernunnos; also mentioned the Greek myth of Actaeon. ‘What books do you read?’ they laughed. ‘Our teachers never taught us anything about mythology!’ The truth of the matter is that the stag imagery – which is nowhere present in Walser’s novel, but does intrude a little into his Snow White in the figure of the Huntsman – was engendered by the fact that they location for the Institute, an old perfume factory, still exuded the smell of musk. I put down the phone, chastened but unbowed...

For R.W. In Herisav

By the Brothers Quay

This will prove immeasurably that the Memonite Kindergarten we attended as children was neither a dream nor an apparition. As you can see the one brother has an ear infection on his screen left ear whilst the other brother is trying to be embarrassed.. There’s only a little movement in the foto- our toes are drumming rhythmically inside our boots and of course the candles aren’t fake, they’re actually melting. Here then is the only justification we have for making The Institute Benjamenta since nothing else is provable.. Of course at this age here, we were precisely nine years old – and literally six months and eight days later You died on a slope outside HERISAV. Of course it’s far too easy to imagine the candles have a further significance notwithstanding the fact that six months and eight days later we were still standing here in the very same position.. The one’s ear still hadn’t reduced its swelling and the other one is still tolerant that it will nevertheless improve..  And so You died.... our toes stopped drumming when You fell over on that final slope... our candles flickered out... snow fell on our shoe tops and we of course knew we would one day return to SWITZERLAND when no one was looking. This foto is then the only proof we have that we started together..... [Aber nur in der Schwiez]

Paul Hammond is a writer, author of Marvellous Méliès, editor of The Shadow And Its Shadow (Surrealist Writers on Cinema) and (with Ian BreakwellOf Seeing In The Dark: A Compendium Of Cinemagoing.