The Quay Brothers Dictionary

By Michael Brooke

street-of-crocodiles-quay-brothers.jpgStreet of Crocodiles, 1986

This is a heavily abridged version of the Quay Brothers Dictionary, which occupies most of the 24-page booklet accompanying Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003, the BFI's recently-released two-DVD survey of their work.


Axolotl – a species of aquatic salamander native to Mexico (the name comes from Xolotl, the Aztec God of Death), and the cause of much fascination to scientists thanks to its ability to regenerate its tissues without scarring, and for its parallel inability to metamorphose into adult form without external assistance. The protagonist of Julio Cortazar's short story Axolotl (1956) repeatedly visits an aquarium to fuel his obsession with the species, and a similar encounter between the Quays and an axolotl at London Zoo in Regent's Park inspired the odd, jerky gestures of the tailor and his assistants towards the end of Street of Crocodiles.

Borowczyk, Walerian (1923-2006) – Polish graphic artist, poster designer, animator, filmmaker and eroticist. Borowczyk was one of the artists whose posters (q.v.) made a life-changing impression on the Quays, and their discovery that he had subsequently moved into animation fired their own ambitions. Despite their reverence for his work, the Quays never met him, the closest near-miss being when they were in Lodz with Andrzej Klimowski at the time that Borowczyk was filming The Story of Sin (Dzieje grzechu, 1975), and the three of them left him a postcard at his hotel.

Calligraphy – one of the many aspects of Polish poster design (q.v.) that fascinated the Quays was the striking use of calligraphy, usually executed by hand by the original artist. Accordingly, their own films feature elaborately-conceived titles, whose appearance is often just as important as their textual content, if not more so. One of their favourite writers, Robert Walser (q.v.), was also noted for the elegance of his calligraphy, though this changed beyond recognition when psychosomatic cramps in his writing hand forced him to switch from pen to pencil.

stille-nacht-i-quay-brothers.jpgStille Nacht I: Dramolet, 1988

Fallari, Ipson and Pulat – fictional twins created by Peter Greenaway for his encyclopaedic 92-part feature film The Falls (1980). The Fallari brothers were played by the Quays, albeit exclusively via still photographs. Greenaway later offered them the roles of identical twin protagonists Oswald and Oliver Deuce in his 1985 film A Zed and Two Noughts, an opportunity for stardom that the Quays politely rebuffed.

Generatio aequivoca – a term used by Bruno Schulz (q.v.) to describe "a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudo-fauna, the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter". The term is sourced from Aristotle's theory (also known as abiogenesis), which postulates that living organisms can emerge from dead matter. Though scientists from the 17th century onwards have systematically disproved his claims, they live on in both the fictions of Schulz and the animations of the Quays, whose work revolves around seemingly breathing life into inanimate (and sometimes formerly organic) objects.

Hunar Louse – a satirical inversion of Lunar House, the Croydon-based headquarters of the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate. A difference of opinion over the Quays' visa status was subsequently immortalised in the full title of the film they were making at the time: Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse, or This Unnameable Little Broom.

cabinet-of-jan-svankmajer-quay-brothers.jpgThe Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, 1984

Posters, Polish – the Quays' first day at the Philadelphia College of Art fortuitously coincided with an exhibition of Polish posters, which introduced them to one of the twentieth century's most distinctive art forms - and, as it turned out, much more. Over the next few years, they would research not only the work of the leading Polish poster artists but would also investigate their subjects: opera, film, literature, often with a strongly Eastern European flavour.

Schulz, Bruno (1892-1942) – Polish writer and artist, who alongside Kafka and Walser (q.v.) has been the biggest literary influence on the Quays' films. A highly distinctive and richly imaginative prose stylist, he was strongly influenced by Kafka, creating a fantastical universe that relies more on its own internal dream-logic than conventional narrative. Schulz's literary career only lasted a decade: he was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz (1928-) – German composer, a leading figure in the musical avant-garde for more than half a century. After creating a hypothetical album cover for a Stockhausen work as an art-school project, the Quays then designed the cover of the book Stockhausen, Conversations with the Composer (Simon & Schuster, 1973) before collaborating directly with him on the film In Absentia . His website is at www.stockhausen.org.

rehearsals-for-extinct-anatomies-quay-brothers.jpgRehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987

Svankmajer, Jan (1934-) – Czech filmmaker, animator, graphic artist, sculptor and tactile experimentalist. Though constantly mentioned in association with the Quays (not least thanks to their tribute film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer), his aggressively confrontational, militantly Surrealist output has less in common with theirs than reputation would suggest. The Quays were also credited as music consultants on Svankmajer's feature Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti, 1996), for which they compiled suitably joyous operatic outbursts to accompany a frottage fetishist's private ecstasies.

Trams – the quintessential Middle European mode of public transport, trams frequently appear up in the Quays' early films, starting with the ghostly night-time rides in Nocturna Artificialia. Their presence is often indicated purely through the sight of a pantograph passing an upper window.

Walser, Robert (1878-1956) – Swiss writer and essayist, considered one of the most important literary modernists. In a series of mostly very short pieces written in the first three decades of the twentieth century, he brilliantly evokes the essential randomness of human existence through unexpected shifts in tone and perspective. The Quays have frequently turned to Walser for inspiration: Stille Nacht I evokes his incarceration in the asylum at Herisau, The Comb is derived from part of a Walser essay on freedom, while Institute Benjamenta is an adaptation of his 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten.


Quay Brothers: The Complete Short Films is released by the BFI.

Michael Brooke is Content Developer for BFI Screenonline, a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and producer of the Quay Brothers DVDs. He is currently producing a similarly comprehensive triple-disc survey of Jan Svankmajer's short films.