On the Quays’ Side: The Comb (from The Museums of Sleep)

By Claire Kitson

comb-quay-brothers.jpgThe Comb, 1990

Following her piece on the Quay brothers’ Street of Crocodiles (1986) in our Vol. 4 Issue 1 October issue, we are pleased to publish another film portrait written for Clare Kitson’s British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor. But this is one that got away, one of a group which had to be cut before publication, in a desperate attempt to reduce the book to manageable proportions, and so is published here for the first time.

Like Street of Crocodiles, The Comb (1990, 17mins) derives from what the Quays have called a ‘reservoir of psychosis’ [1] which they identify with certain central European authors writing in the early decades of the 20th century. Bruno Schulz is one inspiration, Kafka another, as is Robert Walser, on whose work The Comb is loosely based. One attractive feature of these writers is a tendency towards the first person point of view, an interest in the small and the local, a certain intimacy. ‘They don’t try and write too hugely, which would intimidate us.’ [2]

Ever since Street of Crocodiles (1986), the twins’ producer, Keith Griffiths, had been urging them to develop a feature film, but there was some reticence on their part. All their films had been conceived and realised, basically, by them alone with input from certain specialist collaborators, and this arrangement had worked well. As identical twins, they find communication easy and instantaneous – but a feature would require a far larger team. However, they did find a property which interested them – Robert Walser’s 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten – and began developing it. The Comb would function both as a short and also as a pilot for that feature. Griffiths brought the proposal to Paul Madden at Channel 4. French broadcaster La Sept was also to partner the production, and Koninck themselves were happy to defer a proportion of their fees in order to retain rights in the film. So C4’s contribution would be modest – around £30,000.

The plot of Jakob von Gunten has siblings Lisa and Johannes Benjamenta running a training establishment for domestic servants. When Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance in the feature) enrols, he disrupts the routines of the institution, with both siblings falling for him. The novel itself evokes fairytale traditions – with Johannes seen as an ogre in his castle, Lisa as the princess and Jakob as the lad who will brave the ogre to reach the princess. As well as his novels, Walser had also written a series of what he called ‘dramolets’, short, ironic dramas based on fairy-tales, one of which was Snow White. It was on the basis of this that the Quays decided to embark on their first attempt at the genre – ‘previously we’d always been stand-offish about fairy tales. We thought they were too cute’ [3]. What they really wanted was ‘a fairy tale with blood, a Dostoyevsky fairy tale’.

comb-quay-brothers-2.jpgThe Comb, 1990

It may also be relevant that when a French journalist interviewed them in a puppet museum they appeared very uneasy in these wholesome surroundings and talked of the ‘deadly, excruciating sweetness of it all’ [4]. Why, they asked, are puppets always imagined as ‘clean, safe, sanitary and for children’? ‘You almost want something pornographic’, they decided. This was their chance to make a puppet fairy-tale, with a princess, a princeling and an ogre, which was not cute, sweet or safe. And it would give them a chance to work out some ideas and some technical issues for what would become Institute Benjamenta.

The music was by their regular composer Leszek Jankowski and as usual it was provided near the beginning of production, with the film then tailored to its rhythms. In fact, the twins originally had a different Jankowski piece in mind for the film, but on their arrival in Poznań to see him, the composer handed them this, as a gift. They liked it a lot: ‘just one big fresco’. It comprised a large aleatoric element, interspersed with melodic guitar sections. As the ogre was to be represented by a shaking finger and as the guitar is played by fingers, it seemed natural to give the ogre’s scenes the guitar music, with the princeling’s attempts to penetrate the castle accompanied by the aleatoric passages. The shaking finger, incidentally, was inspired by the view from the twins’ flat in Cricklewood, which overlooked a mental health home. One of the residents constantly shook his fourth and little fingers as if thereby trying to ward off evil spirits. In the film the ogre would wag his finger at the princeling, creating a spell to keep the latter away from the princess. And, as the twins observe, it is also like a penis.

The film would try several new things, notably a completely different colour spectrum from their more usual subdued tones. In the event, the ravishing reds and greens of the dream section were even more different than expected, for the dye the twins used to make the colour was, unknown to them, out of date. The configuration of the dream landscape relates to another film they were researching at the same time as The Comb, De Artificiali Perspectiva, otherwise known as Anamorphosis. The latter film looks at strange, barren-looking sixteenth-century landscapes which, when viewed from the side, reveal hidden portraits. This décor was a kind of homage to these artists, with two ponds, like eyes, staring at the princeling – ‘perhaps they were the ogre’s eyes’.

comb-quay-brothers-3.jpgThe Comb, 1990

The brothers were also experimenting, for the purposes of Benjamenta, with embedding some animation within the live action and did a camera test this way. It worked, but ‘it worked too well, looked too good. Like cheap effects.’ So they decided that the animation must be kept separate from the live action, associated only by suggestive editing. A further innovation was the addition of a voice-over with actor Wladek Schejbal as the voice of the ogre, warning the princeling off: ‘I own the sky, the mountains, the clouds…’ The impression is of paranoid ramblings, of the kind one might imagine penetrating the walls of a mental asylum – such as that which housed Robert Walser at the end of his life.

Sometimes the Quays write detailed treatments or scripts (e.g. for Street of Crocodiles), but not for The Comb, so insubstantial was it in terms of action. However, even when they do produce a script they do not pay too much attention to it, so the improvisational manner of this production was no different from usual: It’s about discovery. […] We always have a trajectory that we’re aiming for, but within that trajectory there are tons of doors that you can open. It’s as if you’re in a forest and you get lost a bit sometimes, but then you find that there’s a path that’s more interesting. For us it’s often a case of taking a long way round.

The twins feel they might have opened a few wrong doors around the middle of the film, but are pleased with the way it all comes together at the end, as the princeling comes nearer and the girl’s sleep becomes ever more agitated before she wakes.

comb-quay-brothers-4.jpgThe Comb, 1990 

I agree that it does seem to lose its way a bit in the middle, but for me this film, like Street of Crocodiles, provides more than enough visual and aural compensation. I would endorse the verdict of Slarek, whose DVD Outsider website, reviewing the Quays’ short films DVD, sums up the film as ‘divinely baffling’ [5]. And there is no getting away from the erotic element. It is packed with sexual symbolism, and the tension becomes palpable as the sleeping girl and the advancing princeling seem to respond to each other. Some Western audiences might have found it hard work but it went down a storm in Japan, where the cinema would be packed with, mostly, teenage girls on their way home from school or college. At the Annecy festival, where audiences are not reticent, opinion was divided, and noisily. Yet it took a top prize at Oberhausen.

After The Comb, producer Griffiths managed to raise the finance for Benjamenta and the twins finally took the feature film plunge. Completed in 1995, it left Koninck with a distinct cash-flow problem and a need to concentrate on commercials and pop promos for the next four years [6]. Sadly, by 1999 when they next brought C4 a proposal for an animated short, the context had changed. It would have been an intriguing and elaborate mix of live action and animation, Bulgakov, Berger and Rilke, but we were finally unable to finance it. Since then, there have been few animated shorts for broadcast: the brothers have diversified into dance films and installations and continued with stage design, occasional commercials and feature films (albeit with a larger animated element than in Benjamenta). Now working in digital media and financing their own developments, they have become even more self-sufficient.


[1] Interview by Yves Montmayeur of 11 February 2000 in ‘Footnotes’ section of the collection of the Quays’ short films released by the BFI.
[2] ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, the Quay brothers interviewed by André Habib (Senses of Cinema)
[3] Most of the material in this piece is from an interview with the Quay brothers by the author on 8 December 2006 and follow-up emails. Any information from other sources is identified as such.
[4] Montmayeur interview, op cit.
[5] dvdoutsider.co.uk review
[6] Keith Griffiths interviewed by the author 17 August 2006.

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor is available from Parliament Hill Publishing.

Clare Kitson is a former commissioning editor for animation at Channel 4 and author of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator’s Journey (pub. John Libbey).