Dream Team: The Brothers Quay

In 1995, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve interviewed twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay about their beautiful full-length debut Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint in full.

The animated-puppet worlds of the Brothers Quay have entranced art cinephiles since 1979. Seemingly made by miniature shadow-fairies rather than the actual tall humans the Quays are, their films – Nocturna Artificialia, 1979, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, 1984, Street of Crocodiles, 1986, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987 – and music videos, including the award-winning ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel, take us eyeball and eardrum through fantastically handcrafted architecturally impossible visions of lost modernity. Deeply intellectual, their work is suffused with moodiness, patterned after the writers who inspire them: Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, whose Jakob von Gunten, 1908, served as the armature for their first live-action and full-length feature film, Institute Benjamenta, which premiered at New York’s Film Forum in March.

Institute Benjamenta – the Institute is a school for servants – is smart and beautiful. Each shot is its own still; each edit, a dazzling transformation of narrative space. As such, Institute Benjamenta is as much a foray into the memory of film itself, a sensuous evocation of the cinema of the miraculous (Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, Sergei Paradjanov), as it is a fairy tale of spirits crushed by the soul-killing monotony of rules, repetition, and subordination.

In reputation the Brothers Quay are wrapped in mystery, including whispers about their dense and dark London atelier (Koninck studios, which they founded in 1980 with their producer, Keith Griffiths), rumored to be crammed with such things as antique dolls in bell jars and stacks of crumbling insect wings. I half expected to find them a pair of wizened gnomes with rusty screws, butterfly dust, and cobwebs dangling from their hair. Nothing so exorbitant – only two disarmingly friendly, whirling personas of elegantly rumpled charisma, who just happen to have turned their accidental birthright as identical twins (born outside Philadelphia in 1947) into one of art’s most ingenious and visionary collaborations. The following conversation took place amidst New York’s blizzard of ‘96, as though the environment were duplicating the atmospheric wonder that the brothers’ films so effortlessly provoke.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve: A beautiful quotation opens Institute Benjamenta:

Who dares it – has no courage To whom it is missing – feels well Who owns it – is bitterly poor Who is successful – is damaged Who gives it – is as hard as stone Who loves it – stays alone

What is “it”?

The Brothers Quay: “It” is the riddle, the enigma. The quote isn’t from Robert Walser’s novella but from an anonymous folktale, a conundrum, that Carl Orff set to music and that we’ve had a cassette of for 19 years. Our initial ravishment was the music; we’d never had the text translated. Yet it utterly intrigued us and so we began corresponding with the Orff foundation to trace the text’s origin – which of course remains unsolved.

TNG: Music seems almost as primary as the visual for you. You once described it as “just the darkest blood imaginable.”

BQ: Actually, we’re failed composers. What we try to do is create a visualization of a musical space – we want you to hear with your eyes and see with your ears. It’s like saying, What kind of decor, in what parallel world, would evoke that music? So Lech [Jankowski, composer for many of the Quays’ films including Institute Benjamenta] wrote the music before the film was shot. He read the book and wrote suites, which he gave mysterious titles – not ‘Jakob’s Theme’, or ‘Lisa’s Theme’, but ‘Chorale’, and ‘Waltz Z.K. Minor’. He made no direct reference to the book whatsoever, at least to our knowledge.

TNG: Filmmakers are often interested in character, but what’s most alive for you is the depth or “animation” of sets and objects. Humans seem like an afterthought.

BQ: Not exactly. It’s just that they’re no more important than anything else. In Institute Benjamenta, what is most magnetized is the space itself. The Institute is the main actor, or the main character, and as a character it exerts a dominion and sway. We wanted it to carry the essential mysterium of the tale, as though it had its own inner life and former existences, which seemed to dream upon its inhabitants and exert its conspiratorial spells and undertows on them. We were looking for that Walserian notion of a world half awake, half asleep, in between.

TNG: Could you map the Institute for me? I mean, does it really exist as phenomenal space, or is it more a miraculous space?

BQ: With the puppet films, we came to terms with conceiving of space: whether it was to be stylized (the great privilege of animation) or realistic, a metaphysical space or a fantastic, nongeographical space, a mental configuration. There could also be analogic spaces, created in the editing process, or abstract spaces, created by massive close-ups and deficient depths of focus – by violations of scale. Whatever form the space took, it was always firstly a poetic vessel through which the fiction would course.

We’ve tried to explore different aspects of space in all our films. In Institute Benjamenta, we searched particularly for mental spaces. Since our location – a dilapidated old mansion – had to be a “found” space (unlike in our puppet films), we had to free it of its own geographics. The Institute seems to be positioned in a city traversed by trams. It’s also beside a port, and it’s also encroached upon from behind by a forest. In fact the forest is slowly invading it, like the tides.

To every space is allied its own quality of light, and this too should be a poetic conception. Light creates the essential Stimmung, the metaphysical climate, those “thicknesses” in the space itself. For Lisa [Alice Krige], the Institute’s instructress, the building is a realm of light. Light swells, advances, becomes like liquid myrrh, glows and invades her. At other times it may be a trapped, fetid, dead light, or an annihilating, corrosive light. What happens in the shadow, in the gray regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can only be said in those beautiful half-tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.

TNG:In the puppet films, you controlled every aspect of production; you can’t do that in live action. Yet you’ve managed to translate your miraculous space, and your whole point of view. To be honest, I was surprised at the effortless transition you made.

BQ: Though the puppet films hadn’t prepared us for the social aspect of ensemble work, we’d worked in theater and opera before [the Quays have designed stage productions in England and Europe], so we knew the value of collaboration, and we realized that we’d have to stop mumbling between ourselves and make ourselves intelligible to our team. We seemed to have earned everyone’s loyalty – that, or they all felt sorry for us.

For the mise-en-scene, we worked with our friend Alan Passes, a writer. We approached the novella with a free hand, trying to conceive it from an imagistic point of view – almost like a silent film. Camera, quality of light, decor, objects, sound and music, dialogue, voice-overs: we tried to create a synthesis of all these metiers. And that’s exactly how we’ve worked all these years in our puppet films.

TNG: I have a personal question about you guys as identical twins.

BQ: Oh, that one.

TNG: I know there’s frustration with the question, but it’s also a logical one: you do experience an entirely different metaphysical existence from the rest of us. This struck me because Lisa’s isolation is a big theme in the film. So I want to know – do you ever experience loneliness? Could you? Or is that outside your experience?

BQ: It would take one of us dying to know what that would be. Until then it’s a mystery.

TNG: Do you know how profound that is in terms of us “singulars”? We go through the world –

BQ: – always alone, searching for some possible other…

TNG: For most of us, encouplement only comes through the lover.

BQ: Yes, in some way our relationship is a reproach or challenge to marriage in the sense that you have to find your soul mate, whereas we had –

TNG: Your soul mate from the very beginning?

BQ: From the very beginning. It was just something that was natural. We always went around together; we couldn’t even help it. I guess the proper thing would be to get a life, get married, break up, but film has actually brought us closer, because of the collaboration. We did each do our own drawings when we were in art school, though.

TNG: Did you draw similarly?

BQ: We both drew with our right hands.

TNG: Okay … but did you have different interests in what you drew?

BQ: We always had a similar, literary interest. We constantly absorbed the same material. There was no way one of us could discover something the other one hadn’t already seen or read or heard about.

TNG: So you really are a unit; more one than two.

BQ: Yes.

TNG: And that’s why it’s frustrating when people want to –

BQ: – search for the dissonance. They want to say, Which one’s who? We always say it’s just the twins, just the Quays. The films aren’t made by Timothy or by Stephen, or by Stephen or Timothy.

TNG: You seem born to make your puppet films, as though you were making puppets and environments as children. But you apparently got into puppets almost as a kind of eccentric dare.

BQ: The British Film Institute said they would give us money for something experimental. We said, We’ve never done puppets, so why not – it was the most experimental thing we could think of. We’d only been illustrators at that point. And we figured if we failed, it would at least be a beautifully slow suicide.

TNG: Suicide?

BQ: Because there were no great expectations. Also, in our huge ignorance at that time (1979), puppet films not for children seemed virtually extinct. But then we saw quite a few puppet films made for adults, and they intrigued us. It was just an intuition that this was something we wanted to explore.

TNG: How do you conceptualize what you’re going to shoot?

BQ: We can bluff a storyboard, but we know from experience that when you’re confronted with the physical space itself (whether it’s puppet space or live action), the space blossoms. You might say, Let’s use a 50-millimeter lens here, but by mistake the camera has a 105-millimeter lens on, and you say, That’s it! We have a great belief in accidents. We sort of nurture them and trap them and build upon them. We’re appallingly open to the chance encounter. We always have a drift, an arc, for a project, we know where we’re going – but it’s a thread, a shimmering web. Things happen as we go along. We’ll discover things.

TNG: As oblique as your work can be, I do see a theme. It has to do with meaningful versus alienated labor. You seem to revel in artisanal craft-like puppet animation, where the hand is utterly involved and you’re immersed in the material process. For you, work in a modern or postindustrial capitalist society is soul-killing.

BQ: Our work is so close to us it isn’t work – it’s a way of rendering life at its fullest. And in puppetry your hands do a lot of thinking. As for Institute Benjamenta, it’s a metaphor at zero degree, of course, in which millions are already enrolled. An image of Kafka’s comes to mind: he spoke of chewing on the sawdust already chewed on by thousands of others. But suspended over the story of a school for servants there’s also a fairy tale – essentially Sleeping Beauty. Walser himself talked about his book as a “senseless but meaningful fairy tale.” There’s a ward with a deer-hoofed wand (Lisa); an ogre (Lisa’s brother Herr Benjamenta [Gottfried John]); seven dwarfs (the students); and the princeling, Jakob [Mark Rylance], who arrives with a kiss.

TNG: What’s the significance of all the antlers and stag imagery in the Institute?

BQ: They’re not in the book. But we thought, the Institute had an existence before it trained servants. So we imagined it had been a factory for making perfume. Musk comes from the male deer – actually from a deer without antlers, but we took a little poetic license.

We also imagined that the man who had run this factory had had a Wunderkammer room where he collected somewhat pathological deer imagery. This is the museum that Jakob discovers. Like the Institute, it’s a maze. On one side of it there’s a hell jar of ejaculate of stag, from when they’re rutting. We got the idea when we were sawing antlers one day and as the horn fell onto the paper it smelled of sperm. Did you know that when an antler deroutes, they presume – it’s not really known – that it’s because the deer’s been shot in the testicle? When a deer is hunted, it turns its behind to the gunshot to run away. If the bullet hits the testicle, that – possibly – deroutes the antler.

TNG: Which means what – that it falls out?

BQ: No, that it becomes aberrational. We have collections of antlers with these extraordinary detours and florescences – a flowering of the testicles in the opposite direction.

All of that was a subtext. We were interested in this contamination of the Institute by the dead perfume factory. Herr Benjamenta closes himself down into this world of deer memorabilia – almost as though it was he who’d been wounded in the testicle. Then the Institute itself, in that it’s for teaching servants, is like a reservation of young bucks – eunuchs. These guys are learning the art of demeaning repetitive labor. They’re being taught an abstraction, an ideal code or system: “Work more, wish less.” And all those elements come together with the animal kingdom in the film’s layer of fairy tale.

TNG: Walser himself attended a school for servants, didn’t he?

BQ: Yes, though not for long. For us, Jakob is a quiet portrait of Walser. He spent the last 26 years of his life in an asylum. At the beginning he still wrote; then he stopped. He said, “I’m here to be mad, not to write.” He died on a walk in the snow on Christmas day. That’s why Mark Rylance does that gesture at the end with his hat – because Walser was found facedown in the snow with his hat falling off, one hand on his heart. It’s the most fairy tale-ish ending. In one of his earliest novels he talks about coming across a poet dead in the snow.

TNG: Is that landscape of death the same landscape that ends Institute Benjamenta?

BQ: Oh yes – in a sense we just tried to create that final realm. We actually took that last walk of Walser’s when we were in Switzerland – we had this photograph of him dead, and we were wandering around trying to position it in the landscape. We never asked Mark to make that gesture; he just did it, and it was only when we were looking at the rushes that we went “@?!@?!!,” because we had shown him the photograph.

TNG: Your description of walking, looking for Walser, suggests how you inhabit the world as flâneurs – wandering around, looking not for something specific but just for what the world will give you. That’s how you build your esthetic.

BQ: Absolutely – walking in the street, we’re always taking photographs of strange still-lifes, the conjunctions and little epiphanies that life supplies. You can miss them but you shouldn’t. We want to uncover those quiet, elusive moments, those drifts that just go off.

TNG: There’s an impression of you as these hermetic souls, like watchmakers laboring at your fantastic miniature constructions. Actually, though, the phenomenal world is as much your laboratory as the music or literature that inspires you.

BQ: Exactly. In a way, Street of Crocodiles was just us documenting Poland, the Krakow and Warsaw of 1974 to ‘86. We’d walk around and photograph, say, a little shop window, empty except for a high-heeled stiletto with little cleats going around it. We generate material just by walking about. An event happens and we tuck it away.

TNG: So though people often bring up the “s” word with you, you’re really materialists, not surrealists.

BQ: Yes, because the material is generated, not invented. We just see it. People do sort of want to stick the label “surrealist” on us, but the world gives these things up to us – they really happen. Mostly, we want things to remain true to themselves. The object can speak in whispers if you let it.

TNG: Which reminds me of the forks in Institute Benjamenta – in the opening scene, the actors make them “sing” by tapping them before using them to eat. Though those moments are live action, they’re actually about animation in the deepest sense: endowing the inanimate with life. You make it seem as if using a fork just to eat is like making people into zeros in their job. In fact your work is furious at how not just humans have been made inanimate, but objects as well: they’ve been stripped of their magic, their “soul,” which you give back to them.

BQ: We knew the fork was part of the enigma. It’s a fantastic thing! We adore forks – part of a ritual, yet so practical.

TNG: And the fork is potent thematically, because so much of the Institute’s teaching is the kind of empty social forms typified by those codes about using a fork properly. So what a wonderful subversion when Jakob “plays” the fork – one of those quiet, sly moments that the worker develops within a space bound by rules. The same with that lesson on how to present a napkin, which you choreograph into a beautiful somnambulistic ritual.

BQ: That scene was conceived to Lech’s music. We worked it visually like a musical cadenza.

Walser was attracted by all that was hard, gray, and lowly. He liked to take the circumference of something small and insignificant – a button, an apple, trouser cuffs, things that were a kind of degree zero – and to show that by passing through the zero, as Jakob does, one could be liberated. That’s why Kraus [Daniel Smith], the servant, who is the perfect zero, is also the pearl in the oyster – the pearl permanently secreted by the Institute.

TNG: At the end of the film, when Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the Institute, is it supposed to look like they’re in one of those snow-filled glass-ball paperweights?

BQ: Yes. At that point we wanted it to appear almost as though Kraus were telling the tale. He’s feeding the fish, and the food falls into the fishbowl; so it’s as though he’s making snow for the fish. Having Jacob and Herr Benjamenta in the snow, which looks as though they were in a glass bowl, gave it that slightly fairy-tale ending.

TNG: Herr Benjamenta tells Jakob, “I’ve pronounced the Institute dead. We are free… Follow me out of this world forever.” Yet Kraus remains. Lisa is dead – killed by the Institute, or, better, by her evolving inability to enact its rules.

BQ: These people course through the film in strange trajectories: Lisa is slowly arcing down, Herr Benjamenta is rising euphorically, and Kraus will be the pearl secreted by the Institute. He’ll be there for all time, with the fish in the goldfish bowl, just turning these endless circles. And Jakob is the princeling who should have woken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss of life, but he’s brought the kiss of death.

TNG: Jakob says at one point, “As long as I obey her, she will live.” But he has instigated in Lisa the desire not to be obeyed, the desire to move beyond this world in which, a sign reads, “Rules have already thought of everything.” But why is it Herr Benjamenta who gets to leave with Jakob at the end?

BQ: In his final speech, he says, “Once I was crowned with success, the world smiled on me. But I hated the world. Hated existing. Hated those I taught to take orders… But no longer, now that I am not a king…”

TNG: “… Now I want to live…”

BQ: Yes, “Now I want to live.” But the film in fact ends unexpectedly, with Kraus – the genuine work of God, the nothing, the servant. Earlier, Lisa has told Jakob that God gives a Kraus to the world in order to entrust it with an insoluble riddle. This line is an echo of that fiddling opening quotation from Orff. And so, ending with Kraus, the film ends as it begins, with a riddle; the circle is reformed. And maybe we’re no wiser, because, as Lisa’s voice from the heavens says in the film, “Things unfathomed still occur. And this fairy tale will tell you last.”

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