AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life
“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
FEATURING: Marc Rylance, Alice Krige,
PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.
- The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
- The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
- The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
- The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.
Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta
COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of paradoxical riddles over a blurry image of two forks standing erect. As the credits play the camera plays over various objects—clockwork machines, deer figurines, thimbles, pine cones, broken forks—lighting them so strangely, focusing on them so closely and intimately, that these everyday objects become unfamiliar. What are we looking at?
As a chiaroscuro painting on film, Institute Benjamenta is an impressive achievement. Like the movies of Guy Maddin, with whom they also share ample thematic and tonal similarities, the Quay brothers rely on antiquated film techniques to give their movie a classic, out-of-time feel. Scenes are often shot in pre-Citizen Kane “shallow focus” (objects in the foreground are sharp while the background is blurry). The film is often deliberately overexposed to produce a hazy sheen over the image like a fog of light. The Quays delight in simple, low tech optical tricks, like shooting through a fishbowl, reversing the film, or placing gauze in front of the camera lens. Alice Krige, an attractive woman who becomes ethereally stunning when photographed by the Quays, is always dressed in white and doused in light so that she glows like an angel. Lech Jankowski’s deep, moody and mystical score, which pairs Gregorian chant with electric bass and segues from dissonant free jazz into a minor key waltz, proves the perfect sonic complement to the monochromatic visual mastery.
The scenario of Institute Benjamenta can be simply stated. The setting, which we never escape except at the very beginning and very end, is a school that trains servants. Although technique is imparted, the coursework mainly serves to instill the philosophy of servility in the students. A wonderfully bizarre sequence, the funniest in this often morose film, shows us a typical lesson, one that will be endlessly repeated by the students who never graduate or move on to more advanced coursework. They stand in rows stretching and doing breathing exercises, then carefully drape napkins over their forearms. They then repeat the stock phrases that will serve them well in their employment over and over again until they can pronounce them by heart: “Be careful, Viscount, the steeple, it is wobbling!” “Your Highness, don’t eat the schnitzel!”
Those who come here to train have no ambition; they have given up on making something of themselves and only hope to someday be of service to someone else. Our protagonist, an ineffably sad soul who may be suffering from some half-forgotten tragedy, is addicted to world-weary existential narration, often made up of non sequiturs. In plot terms, not much occurs, and what does happen is often arbitrary: characters die without cause, simply because they’ve grown weary. Benjamenta is more about cultivating a melancholy mood than about telling a tragic story.
There are so many with many references to Christianity that we begin to suspect a twisted messianic allegory is at work here. When a servant is being beaten by his master, he is taught to respond with a paraphrase of Jesus’ words on the cross: “I forgive you, highness, for you know not what you do.” Instructor Lisa discusses a student named Krauss, a soundalike for “Christ” (and just in case we didn’t catch the reference, she delivers the monologue while standing in front of a crucifix): “God gives a Krauss to this world,” she tells the protagonist Jakob, “in order to entrust it with a deep and insoluble riddle.” Later, Herr Benjamenta sees Jesus in a dream and wonders, “is there really anything for him to do in this world… and, if yes, what would be the most likely way he would choose to make himself known to us?” Perhaps he is answering his own question when he tells Jakob, “It’s you… you are the one. It’s all happened since you came. Who are you?”
Herr Benjamenta’s ability to identify the messiah may be in question: he has a plain wooden cross hanging in his study, but the beams are deformed, bowed and sagging, as weary as everything else in the Institute. Nevertheless, even if he’s not the savior, Jakob is the reluctant catalyst for change at the Institute: both sister and brother are drawn to him sexually, and the headmaster decides to accept no new students after Jakob arrives. There is a sense that the Institute’s mission must have stretched infinitely into the past, with Lisa repeating the same lessons over and over to the same students, until Jakob arrived and disturbed the school’s stasis. Although he desperately wishes to be, Jakob is not the meek who inherits the earth. It’s his inability to subordinate himself that upsets the status quo. First, he spontaneously begs to be given his own quarters. The act torments him because it shows he lacks a servant’s humility; yet, he blurts out the request against his will. Despite all his attempts to internalize the art of subordination, he eventually goes so far as to literally bite the hand of his master. His rebellion, reluctant as it may be, destroys the Institute and frees its denizens. The scenario is an inversion of the Christ story: whereas Jesus willingly sacrifices himself to save the world by submitting to be bound to the cross, Jakob yearns to be mankind’s servant, but is unable to submit himself. It’s his involuntary lack of servility that destroys the corrupt order and brings a roundabout salvation.
I would not claim the messianic interpretation above is the “proper” way to analyze Institute Benjamenta. It ignores too many other themes running throughout the movie: references to fairy tales (Jakob even claims to be “living in a fairy tale”), pagan ungulate imagery (Lisa uses a doe’s hoof as a classroom pointer and a display case in the Institute contains powdered stag ejaculate), and the interplay of dominance and submission that drives the film’s repressed sexual politics. Institute Benjamenta is an inkblot on film; it’s insistent on its own abstraction. Near the beginning of the Benjamenta, Jakob wonders, “perhaps there is some hidden meaning to all these nothings;” but his journey through the Institute leads him nowhere. The Institute always circles back on itself; he walks through a door and finds himself in the same room he just left. He believes that once he is initiated into the “inner chambers,” he will gain some understanding of what is happening; but when he does, he finds that “instead of a mystery, there is only a goldfish.” The riddle, as Lisa noted, remains “deep and insoluble”; the riddles from the opening narration, the riddle of Krauss, the riddle of the Benjamentas existence. Institute Benjamenta has a delicate beauty that, like a lover, is simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar. Its doors seem to open, but remain sealed; if you think you’ve cracked open its secrets, you’ve missed the point.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…might be described as a Kafkaesque fairy tale with a surreal sense of humor… For all its dazzling visual chicanery, this vaporous film eventually runs out of ideas. There is a fine line between the deliciously mysterious and the tediously precious, and ‘Institute Benjamenta’ loses sight of it.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Never less than mysterious, Institute Benjamenta at its oddest has the inevitable grip of the best David Lynch; its drowsy pace, Freudian secrecy, and totemic non sequiturs suggest Eraserhead in Prague.”–Michael Atkinson, Spin (contemporaneous)
“It’s certainly not for all audiences, but those with a taste for the weird may be richly rewarded by the film, which resembles a moving painting or piece of art rather than cinema.”–Jeff Vice, Deseret News (contemporaneous)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Institute Benjamenta at Zeitgeist Films – The Benjamenta page at American distributor Zeitgeist’s website holds a synopsis, Quay brothers bio, and high-resolution stills
Institute Benjamenta: Interview with the Brothers Quay – An extremely informative interview with the brothers conducted by Electric Sheep magazine to spotlight the movies 2010 BFI re-release
The Brothers Quay: Institute Quay – A profile of the Quay brothers written for CMJ New Music Monthly on the eve of Institute Benjamenta‘s release
DVD INFO: Institute Benjamenta has had a troubled relationship with the DVD format. Originally issued by Kino in 2000, the movie quickly went out of print. The British Film Institute remastered Benjamenta in 2010 for the European market (Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray); it took an additional two years for Zeitgeist films to finalize the distribution rights for the Region 1 DVD (buy). The movie comes in a slim cardboard case with a booklet containing two scholarly essays on the film (one discussing the history of the Quay brothers, and one focused on novelist Robert Walser and how the Quays adapted his work). DVD extras include the trailer, an unnarrated fifteen 15 minute montage mixing behind the scenes footage with the final project, and the 12 minute short “Eurydice, She So Beloved,” produced as a tribute to the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s opera “L’Orfeo.”
If you have multi-region DVD/Blu-ray capacities you may want to pick up the BFI edition of the film (buy) (a Blu-ray and DVD copy are packaged together). The BFI edition contains the same extra features as the Zeitgeist release, but also includes a 30 minute “making of” featurette with Rylance, Krige and the Quays, and two additional short films: “Songs for Dead Children” and “The Comb.”
(This movie was originally nominated for review way back in 2009 by “Mofo Rising,” who warned “I’m not sure it’s a great film, because I’m not sure what it’s about…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)