Acclaimed for their animated short films, the Brothers Quay released their first feature-length live action film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, in 1995. A menacing, oneiric tale inspired by the work of Swiss writer Robert Walser, it follows new student Jakob as he enters a strange school for servants run by the somewhat sinister Herr Benjamenta and his sister Lisa. The film glides fluidly through beautifully textured black and white images that open up imaginary spaces. Intensely visual and musical, its progression is guided not by a linear plot but by dream logic, recurrent motifs and basic fairy tale elements. Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure to interview the Brothers Quay in the wonderland of their London studio.
Virginie Sélavy: You have often been inspired by literature in your work and for your first live action feature you chose to adapt Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. Why did you pick that book?
It’s what we were reading at the time when Keith [Griffiths], our producer, asked us if we would ever think about doing a feature film, and our first response was ‘no way’. The thing about this work is that it’s a chamber piece, so it didn’t seem daunting. And in the background, there was always the precedent of Walerian Borowczyk‘s Goto, Island of Love (1968), which was a chamber work in one space, a hermetic universe. And we realised that with Walser’s book, we could set the film entirely in the institute itself.
So Goto played an important role in convincing you that you could do this?
Yes, in so much as it was a great precedent for animators who moved to live action, like Kon Ichikawa, who did An Actor’s Revenge (1963). It’s quite a leap to come from a graphic universe and move to live action but both Borowczyk and Ichikawa have this great graphic quality to their live universe. They don’t change gears. They make live action submit to the same hermetic universe. And of course it’s quite powerful.
And it gives it that slightly unreal quality – humans don’t seem quite human.
Yes, it’s true. It might not have been easy for people like [actor] Pierre Brasseur, but in the end the actors understood that it was very much a type of universe seen almost from an entomologist’s point of view. For Borowczyk, they were insects in the kingdom of Goto.
The way you approach literary adaptations is very interesting. I believe that for Benjamenta you asked your composer Lech Jankowski to write the music first and you conceived the film from the music. Why do you work this way?
I think that the principle is that the music comes first, whether it’s live action or animation, or in many respects dance. Entire sequences of Benjamenta were choreographed specifically to the music. Music is always in place. That suggests for us far more potential for elaborating a scenography than just adapting a piece of literature.
It also seems to be a way of distilling and condensing the original work. It goes through the filter of the musician, and then you filter it some more through images. Is that a way of avoiding too literal an interpretation of the literary source?
I think we place an immense trust in music in that it will open doors in a way a proper scenario couldn’t possibly attempt. It musicalises the way we approach everything. And it’s true that music makes you move from the word, the text, to a kind of musicalisation of space, which allows for another realm to open up, and you can do just as powerful a reading of the text without relying on Walser’s words but on the context that he sets up.
You made three short films inspired by Walser before making Benjamenta (Stille Nacht: Dramolet , Tales from Vienna Woods , and The Comb ). Did you see those films as some sort of preparation work?
Yes, because we never really thought we’d get the film off the ground. It took 10 years to make it, so they were like little stabs, forays into Walser-land. When Keith first asked us to think about it, it was around the time of Street of Crocodiles, so that was 1985, and we made the film in 1995. We then did The Comb, which really tried to map it out, because at one point we were thinking of a mixture of animation and live action. It gave us a chance to play with a bit of live action, somebody sleeping, Lisa Benjamenta.
In The Comb, there is a contrast between the real world, which is in black and white, and the animated dream world, which is in colour. Did you think of keeping that in Benjamenta?
No, not at all, because there was really no separation, it was all live action. What animation there is is totally invisible.
Why did you decide to make a purely live action film and not to have any visible animation?
It didn’t need it. We did a lot of scenes in our studio and the big set of the inner sanctum was a model, so in the live action décor they built only a walkway and a bit of the wall, and the rest was matted in. It was just us building it here in the studio out of photocopied paper – just textures! There is a sequence where the light animates up, but nobody would realise that that was animated. The set was on the floor, just on the other side of the studio. We were trying to light it with artificial light, and then one day, towards the end of the day, we were sitting here with a glass of wine and the sun passes around the corner and comes through the two buildings and we saw it creep across the floor and we said, go! We just rounded the camera and we started clicking every 3 or 4 seconds, manually, until the light came across, crept up and went up the wall. The next day, we waited for the same hour, and this time we did it every 5 seconds, and the next day every 7. And then it was cloudy for a month! But we had it in the can, it was like liquid gold, like a found object. And we realised that artificial light doesn’t have the intensity of real sunlight, so it was a really beautiful discovery.
What about the scenes where there’s a pattern of light that moves along the walls?
The director of photography, Nic Knowland, just asked one of the technicians to run on the upper floor with the light down the hallway and turn the corner!
It feels like the building is alive with this ghostly presence.
We wanted to create the idea that the school was in an imaginary setting where you’re at the edge of a forest but just on the edge of the city, where the trams move around. So you had the animal kingdom and the forest, and the urban side coming in via the trams way off in the distance, and it made it quite magical.
The work on the light and the texture of the image in Benjamenta is very impressive.
The light was pretty much written into the script. The goldfish bowl is the centre of a kind of focal plane, and when the light hits it at certain hours, it ricochets throughout, and Lisa has these erotic reveries because she knows the light comes at certain hours.
Throughout your work you have an interest in imaginary spaces.
It was all filmed in Hampton Court House, which is opposite the beautiful Hampton Court. Apparently, it’s where one of the Henrys had one of his mistresses, and there’s supposed to be a tunnel, nobody knew where it was. It’s just a dilapidated old place which was rented out to a lot of people, and when we went all the doors were marked in Russian numbers… They allowed you to do anything you wanted with it as long as you reverted it back to the state that it was. So we rented it out for a six-week shoot, we lived there on the top floor, and we built sets inside the place, so there was Lisa’s room, Herr Benjamenta’s office, the students’ room, etc.
Inside the film you create a space that opens up inside one’s self as well as downwards, and it feels like both a personal and a metaphysical journey. Is that the sort of impression you wanted to create?
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. But it had to be almost insufferably claustrophobic at times to allow for this rupture into this inner sanctum of Lisa Benjamenta. And on to this almost neo-realist dilapidated boarding school for servants, we grafted the animal kingdom element, which allowed the fairy tale to slightly contaminate it.
So the stag imagery is both part of the animal kingdom and part of the fairy tale, right?
Yes, very much. I don’t think this particularly came from Walser, it was our own exploration. The deer has always been part of fairy tale lore.
It also seems to be connected to your interest in the fluctuating boundaries between the human and the inhuman, transmutations between the animate and the inanimate, between different realms, throughout your work.
Also, Herr Benjamenta, who, in fairy tale terminology would have been the ogre, was also the great stag deer, Lisa was the doe, and Jakob was the young princeling figure who was meant to arrive with the kiss of life for the sleeping beauty, but brings the kiss of death in a way, both to Lisa, who dies a sort of metaphysical death, and the school, which basically just implodes. And I think that Herr Benjamenta’s implication, ‘let’s go out of this life, out of this world’, is purely fairy tale, but it is a metaphysical journey, to some place, either here or…
Jakob also seems to be on a quest for nothingness, to get rid of one’s self in a way.
It’s a descent into the lower spheres, but also one that opens up potential, a release from the constraints. Normally, everyone tries to go on a journey upwards, and for Walser, going to degree zero was something that could really open up something, an otherness that could be of great value.
And you represent this visually through the circular motifs in the film.
Yes. It was a very crucial formal element. Invariably, the characters would walk around each other and the camera would constantly go in a series of circles. It was a formal way of placing the zero as a physicality as well as a mental notion.
It is a very physical film, there are moments of pure choreography and so much depends on the facial expressions of the actors, like in silent films.
Absolutely. I think that’s why in a way we all like choreography because we watch to see how shapes move through a frame and just what an expressionless face is able to transpose. You have to read it like a mask, and it’s richer than you tend to think. We all have no problem with Buster Keaton because it’s important that he traverse a world mutely with that face that doesn’t give an inch.
Were you inspired by Keaton for the film?
We told Mark Rylance to be aware of that sort of impassivity, because he didn’t have a lot of dialogue. With someone like Gottfried, you didn’t have to tell him that, he knew. He’s a remarkable actor, even in English, he’s faultless. In a way, he was the one character that, although we had written it, we hadn’t a clue how to inform, and he just knew precisely what to do. And he proposed certain scenes like the lipstick scene. We said OK, if Herr Benjamenta would do that, that’s OK with us!
Your films always work on different levels and in Benjamenta you also draw on Walser’s life. Why was it important for you to have this personal element in the film?
Because Walser was that servant, he did do that job. Also, when we first read about Walser, what attracted us was an article that said ‘Portrait of a Nobody’, and we felt that it was for us, nobody, a loser. This was absolutely ideal. You can put more of yourself in or how to elucidate the world of Walser because it is so minimalised, so it allows you to expand that with a sense of décor.
And there’s also the fact that he spent years an insane asylum, so the institute could be a reflection of that.
We had that in mind, that it was also a sort of asylum too. I think in the end we backed away from making it too much of a reference, but it was always there.
You also put in a reference to his death.
Yes, a reference to when he was found in the snow on Christmas Day. We’d shown Mark a photograph and he beautifully added a detail: he makes that gesture at the end and his hat flies off, just like in the photo.
So it was a way of condensing Walser’s life, the servant school, the asylum, the death?
Yes, exactly. And the snow, that was also important. From the beginning, Jakob says, ‘I’ll only be here for a little while until begins the snow’. And it creates this totally fairy tale-ish world. At the end of the book, they go into a desert. So we had to choose the opposite, this Alpine landscape!
What was your approach to the fairy tale element?
We chose a non-specific mode of fairy tale because we didn’t want to have signs of fairy tale-ishness, otherwise it’d look a bit fey. What we wanted was a very hard, proletariat ascent into the fairy tale. The magic is probably closer to something like Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), where suddenly you go through the mirror. That’s what Alice does, you enter another universe that is not only sound but décor. So the images were pulled down into a non-fairy tale simplicity. It was through Walser and through The Comb because he did a lot of exploration of re-telling the fairy tales. He was going through the backdoor and for us it was easier to walk through a backdoor or side door than walking through the big heavily-laden front door with ‘fairy tale’ written on it. That scared the hell out of us. He re-worked Snow White, the text is amazing and we adapted quite a bit of that into Jakob von Gunten, so it’s a real journey through Walser-land to create Benjamenta.
After Benjamenta, you made a second live action feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes ( 2005), but when I interviewed you about it on its release, you described it as a rather unhappy experience. You are now working on a new feature project based on Bruno Schultz’s Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, so your experience on The Piano Tuner hasn’t discouraged you from making feature films?
No, not at all. I think it’s a question of returning to what worked in Benjamenta and creating that climate again. And again making a much more visual film and not getting trapped by the Film Council’s idea that it should be dialogue-bound. I think Schultz really gives us that space, so again it’ll be an exploration of Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, but also a lot of other Schultz material that we know and feel comfortable with.
Street of Crocodiles was based on Schultz, right?
Yes, and it’s not one specific story, it’s quite a few stories.
Are you aware of the Wojciech Has’s 1973 film version?
Of course, but you have to go in the opposite direction, because it’s a very powerful and very singular rendition of Schultz, so we’ll stay well clear.
Is it daunting that there’s already a film version of that story?
There was already a film version of Jakob van Gunten that we knew. It was also pretty weird and wild. Even Careful (1992) has resonances of Jakob von Gunten. Guy Maddin is a great lover of Walser. A good text or a novel can hold a lot of interpretations. It’s like, how many people in the world of opera have a shot at doing a Mozart opera or Tchaikowsky? You just have to approach it from a different angle.
Will it be all live action?
It’ll be a mixture, 70% live action, 30% animation, something like that. Probably black and white live action and colour animation. But again, it’s up in the air, we’ll see…
You have also recently made two shorts, Inventorium of Traces (2009), inspired by Jan Potocki, and Maska (2010).
We’ve just finished a film for the Polish Institute based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask. The year before, we shot in Poland, we did a documentary on this castle in the south of Poland, where Jan Potocki, who wrote The Saragossa Manuscript – another book that Wojciech Has adapted – lived for a while and wrote a piece for the theatre. So Poland has been supporting us for the last two years. We’re also going to do something for the Manchester Music Festival next summer based around Bartok. It’ll be a live performance, music and images.
Is it getting more difficult to get projects made?
No, what intrigues us is to be leaping from one form to another, be it an animation film, a documentary, a dance film and then a feature film. It’s far richer than just be knocking off three features every three years, or in our case it’d be six or 10 years! The smaller format gives greater scope to keep experimenting with that form and not to approach it in a hackneyed manner. We’ve just been given a grant to do a film in a medical museum in Philadelphia. We’ve also just done a little three-minute clip for Comme des GarÃ§ons for a perfume called Wonderwood. They came to us saying, you guys know about the kingdom of wood, you write the script, you do it. They gave us total freedom – that’s pretty unheard of in the commercial world. It’s nice working with people like that because they were very trusting. In commercials they don’t ever trust anybody, they’re always telling you what to do.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Watch the Wonderwood video: