Brilliant English animators The Brothers Quay create their first feature-length live-action film in this tale of a dilapidated boarding school for the teaching of servants run by a brother and… Brilliant English animators The Brothers Quay create their first feature-length live-action film in this tale of a dilapidated boarding school for the teaching of servants run by a brother and sister in which the curriculum is the repetition of one single lesson. When Jacob, a young man, enrolls in the school, he becomes entangled in the strange lives of the students and headmasters alike. Called by director Terry Gilliam, “The most visually beautiful and hauntingly humorous film I have seen in the last 300 years.”
From the San Francisco Chronicle
by PETER STACK
“Institute Benjamenta,” the first full-length feature by the Brothers Quay, ought to divide people evenly between those who think it’s brilliant and those who think it’s claptrap.
In either case, the decidedly offbeat movie, opening at the Castro today, will probably seem partly, if not entirely, unfathomable.
But that isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could happen to a film as visually fascinating as this one. It has an undeniable black- and-white allure, and occasionally mixes a provocative dreamscape with a brutally repressive atmosphere that imposes the rigors of myth and religion.
It’s probably best to know nothing about “Institute Benjamenta” before seeing it, so that the Quays’ ambitious plunge into fantasy, long silences, weirdly insistent gazes and fairy-tale references come as surprises.
The London-based Brothers Quay (Stephen and Timothy) are known for strange, often eerie animated films (“Street of Crocodile” and the “Still Nacht” quartet are fine examples) that have not been widely distributed but are in vogue among arty cineasts.
“Institute Benjamenta” is an adaptation of the novella “Jacob von Gunten” by Swiss writer Robert Walser, who influenced Franz Kafka. There isn’t exactly a tidy, linear plot. The institute is a boarding school for men who want to become servants, but the curriculum consists essentially of one endlessly repeated lesson: self-negation. The students’ only goal is to become insignificant.
Jakob, the central character, is played by Mark Rylance (“Angels and Insects”). He is singled out by the harsh headmaster (a frighteningly strange Gottfried John) and his beautiful sister (Alice Krige), who beneath her intimidating exterior is filled with longings for love.
The imagery is rich and enticing, if sometimes puzzling. A room is given to Jakob as a special enticement, but the ceiling is too low for him to stand up. Bells ring, but cannot be heard. Some of the most effective action sequences are mimed, as the students engage in strange rituals of mesmerized swaying.
The film was hauntingly scored by noted Polish composer Lech Jankowski.
From Movie Magazine International
by Michael Fox, 1996
As dreams go, “Institute Benjamenta” is a particularly melancholy, ethereal one. The first live-action feature from those twisted masters of puppet animation, the Brothers Quay, “Institute Benjamenta” is an exquisite and hypnotic chamber piece. It’s also a film totally unlike any other I’ve seen, which makes for a disorienting and challenging night at the movies. “Institute Benjamenta” evokes the mood and spirit of German expressionism, sparse in dialogue but rich in sound design, shot in gauzy black-and-white with a hefty dose of shadows. Throw in a nonstop array of bizarre deer symbolism and it all adds up to a claustrophobic study in power and surrender, shot through with the most acute sexual repression. The mood, sensation and aesthetics of “Institute Benjamenta” are crucial, for the plot itself is relatively simple. A hesitant, sharp-featured man named Jakob von Gunten, played by Mark Rylance of “Angels and Insects,” arrives at a boarding school for the training of servants. This decrepit place, Institute Benjamenta, is cut off from the outside world and operated with an arbitrary, dictatorial hand by Lisa Benjamenta and her equally bizarre brother. How weird is this place? Only one lesson is taught, over and over and over.
The setting is eerie and vaguely Germanic, and the time could be the late 1800s or 1947. Jakob is our insecure guide in this upside-down world, reciting obscure monologues that only deepen the sense of existential mystery: “Past and future circle about us,” he
intones ominously. “Now we know more; now we know less.” Based on the writings of early 20th century Swiss author Robert Walser, “Institute Benjamenta” occupies the surreal crossroads somewhere between Kafka and Ionesco. It’s not so much postmodern as premodern, a warning about bureaucratic aloofness and corporate soullessness. I’d venture to guess that “Institute Benjamenta” is also about the devastating loneliness of life at the top, and the peculiar craziness brought on by isolation.
Whatever “Institute Benjamenta” may be about, the film’s real pleasure is in its visual scheme. The Quays seamlessly blend live action and puppet animation to poetic effect. Every shot is so beautifully composed and every movement so impeccably executed that one is often simply mesmerized. If you fall under the spell the Quays weave in “Institute Benjamenta,” you will be transported to a faraway land that isn’t so far away after all. Isn’t that the stuff movies are made of?
Interview with the Quay brothers (3’50)
On the Set (15’35) – Some backstage footage of the filming process.