Cinema of Desire Venue: BFI Soutbank, London Dates: 1-27 May 2014
The Listening Eye Venue: ICA, London Dates: 20 May-27 June 2014
For more information visit the BFI and ICA websites
While Walerian Borowczyk (1923 – 2006) had been a keen amateur filmmaker since his youth, his professional debut was a handful of short films made with another poster artist, Jan Lenica (1928 – 2001). These films took what was interesting about the Polish posters of the 1950s (the economy of means, a ‘hand-made’ quality) and translated it into cinema. In 1958, Borowczyk co-wrote a documentary film on posters (Sztuka ulicy), which connected both mediums in that they express thoughts and feelings through images and text. Unlike posters, however, films are about movement. Borowczyk was not just a filmmaker, but also a painter and sculptor. During his later years, he returned to graphics (using a technique he referred to as pulverographie, or ‘dustography’, which involved colour photocopying) and produced a series of bizarre wooden sound sculptures (34 of Borowczyk’s ‘dustographs’ illustrate his 1992 collection of short stories, L’anatomie du diable (The Anatomy of the Devil) available as part of Arrow Video’s upcoming special edition box set release Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. Three of Borowczyk’s sound sculptures are featured in the ICA exhibition ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’ (The Fox Reading Room, ICA, 20 May-6 July 2014).
Borowczyk was fascinated with early cinema – the motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey (which feature in Dom), the praxinoscope of Charles-Émile Reynaud (upon which Borowczyk’s 1979 short Jouet joyeux is based), the special effects of Georges Méliès, the physical comedy of Keaton as well as the montage experiments of Eisenstein. Borowczyk did not have a singular style so much as a way of thinking about the world. Some of Borowczyk’s short films are made up from photographs (e.g. Szko?a, Les astronautes), others involve the manipulation of objects (e.g. Renaissance, Le phonographe) or a combination of the two (e.g. Rosalie). In that, he is close Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovskii’s conception of a poetic cinema in which objects could be used to express abstract concepts. Shklovskii described Battleship Potemkin as an ‘uprising of dishes’ on account of the plates smashed during a monologue in which a crew member expresses discontent. Borowczyk took this idea to an extreme – objects are not only on a par with actors (e.g. Rosalie, Une collection particulière) but in some cases displace them completely (Renaissance, Le Phonographe).
While Borowczyk considered painting and filmmaking as two separate genres, he nevertheless fulfilled Fernand Léger’s dream of an artist being able to express themselves through paintbrush and film camera (during the 1950s, Borowczyk had travelled to France to make an amateur film about Léger at work in his studio, and would later make a remarkable documentary featuring Ljuba Popović paintingL’amour monstre de tous les temps). Like both Norman McLaren and Len Lye before him, Borowczyk sometimes painted directly onto celluloid (e.g. Sztandar M?odych) or animation cells (e.g. Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal) and Scherzo infernal). Alternatively, he used the rostrum camera to make elaborate tracks around paintings (e.g. Les jeux des anges). As with many Polish poster artists of his generation (e.g. Lenica, Roman Cieślewicz, etc.), collage was profoundly important to him. Through cinema, the constituent elements could move (e.g. L’encyclopédie de grand-maman).
In 1968, Borowczyk made his live-action feature debut, Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love). Thematically, it is a love story about the lengths a man goes to possess a woman. Stylistically, it was the culmination of Borowczyk’s formal experiments concerning the use of objects as a means of telling stories (e.g. Rosalie), framing (e.g. Les jeux des anges, Gavotte) and combining black and white with colour (e.g. Renaissance, Diptyque). Divorced from both time and place, Goto works as an adult fairy tale, which attracted the attention of Angela Carter. Goto also paved the way for a generation of graphic artists who wanted to work in film (e.g. the Brothers Quay, Craigie Horsfield, Andrzej Klimowski and John Goto – who liked the film so much he changed his name).
After four years and a couple of shorts, Borowczyk’s next feature film was Blanche, a personal project in which he invested his own money. It is loosely based on Mazepa, a drama by the Polish Romantic poet Julius S?owacki. Set in medieval France, Blanche recreates an entire world through set design and props. In addition to painting the sets, Borowczyk fabricated many of the objects that feature in the film. Ostensibly a period drama, Blanche has a number of surreal touches, like a crucifix that transforms into a crossbow. He was a great fabricator, who loved distressing wood to make it appear antique (e.g. Une collection particulière). At the heart of Blanche is Borowczyk’s wife, Ligia, a woman with a remarkable screen presence whose angelic demeanour conceals a demonic sexual impulse. If Ligia was Dietrich, then like von Sternberg, Borowczyk was a master at creating atmosphere. Blanche bombed at the French box office, although it played for over a year at the Paris Pullman Cinema in London.
With La bête (The Beast), Borowczyk tricked his audience into thinking they were watching a refined costume drama, before confronting them with a Monty Python version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ involving gallons of fake sperm. Often described as an erotic film, La bête is more of a Rabelaisian comedy. If anything it was a parody of pornography. Both La bête and Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales) were box office smashes in France. In terms of the way Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord music is used as a counterpoint, the role played by objects and animals (satin slippers and slimy snails) as well as its dreamlike quality, La bête is pure Borowczyk. The sexual aspect was nothing new (it had always been there, lurking under the surface) but now it was visible. The premiere of Contes immoraux and La bête coincided with the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the abolition of film censorship.
Borowczyk’s intention was never to solely titillate. Instead, he was interested in sexuality as a theme, just as violence was a theme in Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Borowczyk was interested in how people and society had, historically, dealt with sexuality. As a Catholic, he was particularly concerned with the role of the Church, both in Poland (e.g. Dzieje grzechu) and Italy (e.g. the ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ episode of Contes immoraux). Borowczyk believed in the importance of sex in Renaissance art, particularly the significance of Raphael’s mistress (the ‘Margherita’ episode of Les héroïnes du mal). Many of Borowczyk’s films deal with the repression of sexuality, and its manifestation in the form of taboos (Contes immoraux) and dreams (La bête). Borowczyk himself was preoccupied by the idea of sin, and thought of his films not as erotic, but ethical. Critics preoccupied with flesh are blinkered to the more transcendental aspects of Borowczyk’s films (both Renaissance and Goto, l’île d’amour are concerned with resurrection). If the displays of self-sacrifice in Blanche have overtly religious overtones, then it is worth remembering that Borowczyk wished to follow up the film with one about the Passion of Christ…
Between 1983 and 1987, Borowczyk attempted to mount a project about the life of Nefertiti, an adaptation of Dumas’s La reine Margot, a film about Chopin and George Sand, an English-language period drama based on a script by Cherry Potter (The Ancestral Mansion), as well as a return to feature-length animation (an expansion of his 1984 short Scherzo infernal, much like Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal elaborated on Le concert). However, all of these projects collapsed. Then Alain Siritzky, the producer of the Emmanuelle series, turned to Borowczyk as a means of bringing some artistic prestige to his franchise. In this respect, Borowczyk sold out no more than Sam Mendes did when he signed on to direct Skyfall. The teaser for Emmanuelle 5, in which a dildo is fashioned, origami style, out of a napkin, is typical Borowczyk. However, Siritzky imposed an actress on Borowczyk, Monique Gabrielle. Borowczyk did not speak English and, by all accounts, did not get on with Gabrielle. Having left the main shoot to his assistant director, Borowczyk focused on the second unit photography: close-ups of objects (including those Borowczyk fashioned for Une collection particulière), reportage of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, not to mention the recreation of a plane crash using scale models (having led an uprising in a harem, Emmanuelle joins her lover, a Howard Hughes type, in an attempt at flying a ‘Spruce Goose’-type seaplane…).
If Borowczyk was guilty of a crime, then it was his inability to delegate work – he had to do everything all by himself on his terms in total freedom. In later years he sought out producers that he thought would allow him to work in complete freedom. He spent much of the 1980s fighting producers (over the title change of Le cas estrange du Dr Jekyll et de Miss Osbourne to Dr Jekyll et les femmes, the inserts from a Joe D’Amato feature spliced into Ars Amandi, not to mention losing control of Nefertiti, which was eventually produced in 1995 as Nefertiti, figlia del sole). Some see Borowczyk as a Jack-of-all-trades, while others see him as a Renaissance man in the vein of Eisenstein or Welles. At his best, Borowczyk made films as if he had invented cinema. At his worst, he filmed like a Martian who had fallen through time and space to make clandestine documentaries about human mating rituals. In many ways, Borowczyk was ahead of his time (his later work deserves to be taken as seriously as, for example, Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac or the films of Catherine Breillat). He was by far the most interesting Polish filmmaker of his generation, and his best films – the shorts of the 1960s and the features from the early 1970s – rank alongside the best of Bresson (in terms of rigour) and Buñuel.
Based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by:Robert Walser
Cast: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John
Colonial Report on Cinema from the Dominion of Canada
Zeitgeist Films Brings Robert Walser via the Brothers Quay to North America
Greg Klymkiw Chats with the Twins
There was a time in the Dominion of Canada, on the hallowed shores of Lake Winnipeg, when a group of virile young men, the Drones, assembled at Loni Beach in the village of Gimli to pay homage to the Holy Fjallkona of Islendingadagurrin. After many days of serving the needs of their respective mothers, they looked longingly at the ‘Woman of the Mountains’, who for one of their kind, the mightily domed Magma Head, represented the dream of Icelandic nationhood. For the others, being Mieuxberry, The Love Doctor, The Claw, Squid and Little Julie, the Fjallkona was the Mother of All.
She stood high atop the Fjallkonan Float as it cascaded down the streets – past the Viking Motor Hotel, Red’s Billiards and Tergesen’s General Store. She stood proudly and waved. The Drones were, however, conflicted twixt deep respect for that which was pure and a foul stirring of the loins as they gazed lovingly upon the decades of hardship etched upon her visage, her upper torso hunched over in servitude to the menfolk of her nation and her digits wracked and twisted with arthritic glories that could only represent her ultimate service to man and country.
At day’s end, their bellies filled with Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta, the Drones retired deep into the bowels of Loni Beach Forest and entered Mieuxberry’s palatial Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. Mieuxberry took his rightful place in a top bunk with Squid for ’twas only Squid who was amenable to the late night involuntary eruptions of dearest Mieuxberry’s Hagfish – followed often by nocturnal meanderings whilst deep in the Land of Nod.
Though The Love Doctor preferred snuggling against the shapely baby-fat buttocks of Squid, he made do with Little Julie’s belly, which was soft as a down-filled pillow that might indeed have been stuffed by the Fjallkona herself.
The Claw required a place to rest his head that was unfettered by the immediate presence of any others of the manly persuasion. The Claw was, in the words of He who specialised in especially odious diseases of the mind, ‘in denial’. (In fairness to The Claw, however, none of the Drones were likely to admit to the afflictions of urnigism as defined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his great work Psychopathia Sexualis.) [Editor’s Note: Greg, are you sure ‘urnigism’ is the right term? I can’t find it anywhere. Greg’s Response to Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – It is indeed the proper term and is buried deep in Krafft-Ebing and appears in an Archangel voice-over – a joke which is meant to make about 10 people in the world laugh: ‘Head size – normal. No evidence of urnigism in family.’]
Magma Head entered the boxcar and as he did every evening, proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. He then took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated.
‘Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,’ cooed Little Julie.
‘You know what I want,’ growled The Claw, ‘And I know you will not bestow it upon me, so I shall not profane Him by even uttering His name.’
‘Oh thtuff it, Claw!’ Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust, his bedtime words of choice. ‘We’ve had to hear that damned Ruthkin tho’ many timeth becauthe of you, I fear we might all become little crythtalths, for Chrith’th thake!’
‘I’m good with whatever,’ Squid opined cheerfully.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
‘Thtuff it, L.D. You’re getting to be ath bad ath Claw. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.’
‘I’d settle for some Bataille,’ The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled and shook his elephantine skull to and fro.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.’
‘Greater than Hamsun?’ Little Julie queried.
‘Greater than all,’ beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he did read:
‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .’
The Drones’ rapt attention clearly suggested that Magma Head’s reading that evening would be no mere precursor to slumber. The eyes, the hearts, the minds of all the young men were fixated upon the tale of Jakob von Gunten and the profound recognition they all did feel in the prose of Robert Walser. They would be wide-eyed and silent until the dawn would break over the hallowed waters of Lake Winnipeg and spill into the boxcar, whereupon Magma Head would gently turn the oil lamp down and continue to read as the golden tresses of God’s warm light of morning caressed the remaining pages.
And their lives, such as they were, would be changed forever.
In 1995, the Quay Brothers unleashed their stunning feature-length adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and I experienced an identical sense of eye-opening to my first helping of their film as I did when I first heard, or rather, read the novel for the first time. Granted, the book and the film are two works that exist separately from each other in completely different mediums and as such, are of lasting value insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other.
Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude, slightly surprised over the money-grubbiness of its principal (Gottfried John) and completely, utterly and wholeheartedly enamoured with the chief lecturer Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige).
Endless days and weeks are spent in rigorous exercises devoted to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit, but as he is drawn deeper into the spell of Lisa, her brother, the Principal, draws himself ever closer to Jakob.
Death, it seems, is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit – personified in one who clings to rendering all to a supine position of grovelling. Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser. At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over their supreme artistry, which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when the character of Lisa Benjamenta, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual experience of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Add to this the fact that visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast of epic proportions, with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled (in the years following its release) in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty. Add yet another element of perfection: a screenplay that captures the spirit and key building stones of Walser’s book with grace, humour and emotion. Add to this a perfect cast, a spirit of cinematic invention and last, but not least, a musical score of such power that it haunts the world of the film as equally as it haunts the viewer.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I have counted. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the now-legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing. If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what it.
I had not laid eyes upon the Twins since 1995. My last memory of them was sitting in some reception hall within the British Film Institute during the London International Film Festival and trying to determine on a map where my Ukrainian ancestry originated to see where it lay in relation to that of Bruno Schulz. At the time, my knowledge of my roots was murkier than it is now and I’m pleased to say that Schulz did indeed come from an Oblast next to mine and that he did indeed reside in the same Oblast for a good portion of his life and career.
Seventeen years, however, is a long time to not converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of Institute Benjamenta via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programmes at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers and the other being a historic exhibit entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets – please find below my conversation with the Quay Brothers on Institute Benjamenta.
Greg Klymkiw: I’m thrilled Institute Benjamenta is now available for home consumption via Zeitgeist Films in North America. I trust you were involved intimately in the process?
Brothers Quay: It was made from a 35mm fine grain and a low-contrast 35mm print both held by Channel Four and cinematographer Nic Knowland, and the two of us supervised the transfer.
I usually avoid watching such extra home entertainment items as ‘On the Set’ segments, as I find they can have the potential to remove any future magic I will derive from the film itself. That said, I trust you both approved its inclusion.
To be honest, the ‘On the Set’ segment is very small, is actually quite all right, and will help considerably in its own modest and informative way as to the location we found and how we worked with it.
Upon watching the segment, I found it moving to witness such commitment, joy and good humour from all the participants in your production, which is so important when one is creating magic. Though this phrase has sadly become a clichéd line from too many who create anything but magic, I still steadfastly hold to the belief that movies ARE magic. I think, though, for that magic to live and breathe on screen it must work its way through every crevice of the picture’s soul, ever forging new waterways and swirling kaleidoscopic tributaries. This is what I see on your set. On a strictly personal level, the ‘On the Set’ segment brought me back so vividly to the production of Archangel where my dearest Mr Maddin and I never once felt the set was anything BUT a secret playground. Am I wrong in assuming you, like Disney’s dwarves, are ‘whistling while you work?’ Is it important to have fun? Are there aspects of moviemaking that bring you back to the joys of childhood? The make-believe? The play? Even to the extent that ‘work’ IS play?
I think we were much too nervous to whistle – literally – but we did have the confidence and the utter loyalty of our hand-picked team. We finished on schedule and under budget and I think we surprisingly proved that our strain of American Protestantism was augmented by Shakerism and Amishism. In the end, yes, everyone was at full ‘play’.
Prior to writing Jakob von Gunten, Walser studied to be a servant and did indeed briefly hold such a position. When not writing, he held several jobs that one might consider to be representative of complete and total servitude. In your film, one of the most indelible sequences for me is when Jakob begs/demands for a decent place to ‘rest his head’. At least initially, this is something that clearly sets him apart from his fellow students in the servant academy (as I suspect Walser himself must have felt like when he himself toiled in similar inconsequential positions of employ).
No one wrote more beautifully about the notion of ‘freedom’, and the un-freedoms within freedom, than Walser. In real life he was a great interloper, a loner, extremely restless, a permanent wanderer and he knew hard and difficult penury but these odd jobs that he so frequently took up were there to protect and keep his writing independent. In Jakob von Gunten, he is both proud and a little defiant, but in order to explore those ‘grey nether regions’ of zero-dom he simply needed a decent place to rest his head and no doubt a table to write on. There was also an enormous element of play-acting, mischievousness, in his role as the servant, but there were lessons he learned and admired and submitted to at the Institute Benjamenta: the renunciations, the strictures.
YES!!! I do so love that notion of ‘play-acting’ in both life and movies. At times, the actors playing the Benjamenta students are infused with a quality of gentle pantomime, certainly not unlike the magical qualities of silent cinema, where performance was rendered stylistically and with a theatrical sense of projection. Granted, so much in those early days of movies came from such theatrical sources as vaudeville, melodrama, and yes, traditional British pantomime. It brought an added magical quality to the medium that, to a certain extent, is lacking in the post-silent era. (There was and is magic, of course, just rendered differently.) However, I am very interested in how so much of Benjamenta is relayed visually – I can even imagine a movie that includes music and soundscape, but where the ‘text’ is conveyed via intertitles. I find your film is so delicately, exquisitely balanced in this regard that while every element of the storytelling is infused with ‘style’ it does not draw attention to itself – you set the ‘parameters’ of Walser’s world in cinematic terms and we go with the flow. To what extent are you consciously invoking elements of ‘archaic’ storytelling and making it your own in order to serve Walser’s vision?
We promised ourselves that everything that we learned in animation wouldn’t be jettisoned just because we moved into our first live-action feature and that the dialogues were NOT going to over-dominate; that Walser’s voice would be heard but only when necessary; and that like in our animation films image/music/sound would dominate first and foremost.
The very exigencies of your production ‘parameters’ (as witnessed in the ‘On the Set’ featurette) seem to allow an even greater penetration into the realm of magic (as cinema and vice-versa). Did making the film in this fashion provide greater freedoms?
No, our first intuitions were correct when we wrote the script. We always told Alain, our co-scriptwriter, that we first had to imagine the setting first, the décor, the light, the music and sound, and only then could we safely permit one single line of dialogue to transpire. AND a lot of them were voice-overs, which allowed even more independence for the image. As you know perfectly well, to do animation is long and patient work, so you think twice and ten times when you have to do a retake. It was so joyous to ask an actor to redo a take and to see how much you could reshape a performance or have them propose something more daring. In that sense we might provoke something and then be there to ‘capture’ that moment. So we were very happy ‘trappers’. We always said that we treated our actors with as much respect as our puppets – which is clearly NOT the same thing as treating your actors as if they were only puppets.
In terms of the flow of both the film and its narrative, there is a clear emphasis on this sequence. To what extent was it of import to establish Jakob’s ‘difference’ at this juncture in the proceedings?
Yes, it was very important that early on there be this sudden unexpected moment of Jakob’s revolt. It’s the moment where he’s trying to swallow the gruel for dinner that he begins to gag and violently shoves the plate away, and then there’s a hard cut to him falling onto the floor and grabbing Lisa’s ankles and begging her desperately for his own room. But after that it all takes care of itself and we don’t make a feast of it.
In terms of crafting a final shooting script, did the process of creating this sequence affect the content that precedes and follows this sequence?
No, it was always there in the script, as it was in the novella, but it allowed for his singular subjective voice-overs to really begin to flow and to comment on the hermetic cosmos of the moribund Institute Benjamenta, the mysterious brother and sister, his fellow students, particularly Kraus, who was all important for Jakob – and for us – in terms of creating the ‘Benjamentian’ perfect zero.
Do you recall the nature of your conversations with Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John regarding this sequence?
No, we don’t, but for sure Lisa has already divined in Jakob the ‘Prince-ling’ who will hopefully come to awaken her from her deep human sleep with a kiss, so she’s already highly pre-disposed towards him as this mysterious interloper who’s just arrived at the Institute. It’s as though at the beginning of the film when she’s bathed in sweat and dream, she’s invoked his arrival. And of course she’s Sleeping Beauty. So there was the whole fairy tale element, which was so important in Walser’s writing, which we overlaid in the film: that Gottfried was the Ogre, the students were the seven dwarfs, etc etc. To this we added the entire fairy tale animal kingdom of deer, and that it was all set in a former perfume factory – musk coming from the deer – that the Institute Benjamenta had moved into and that it had inherited the defunct Deer Museum on the top floor.
As human beings, as artists, was there (or were there) a moment (or moments) when you found yourselves demanding or requesting or proclaiming that you needed something that would allow you to serve either your muse, the art of cinema, or for that matter, anything/anyone else?
No, not in Walser’s demonstrative fashion. But we’re all prepared to!
The Institute’s motto declares: ‘Rules have already thought of everything.’ To what extent, either historically or in contemporary terms, is there truth to this in how the world of man conducts itself?
It’s one of many placards seen on the walls of the Institute but this one so powerfully evokes an implacable dead-end-ness and that it is useless to revolt. So submit!
While I’m sure there are virtues to be found in dominance, it rather seems like an awful lot of work. Submission involves pure innocence (some might say ‘ignorance’) and the exertions of following, of OBEYING, allowing one to drain the exertions of thought and to concentrate on the matter at hand. In this sense, perhaps there’s more potential for a few ‘followers’ (like Jakob) to reverse the power positions as reaction to orders can hypnotize, but just as easily open one’s mind, or at least, open the powers of instinct.
Submission for us – and for a Jakob especially – would not be tolerable if there wasn’t space to breathe with a sense of subversion even if it tests one’s limits, and then the exertion might be so demanding as to make one break down from the negation.
What are the dangers or virtues in this as you see it?
But of course the Institute Benjamenta could easily serve as a wider metaphor, not ONLY as an anti-authoritarian tract but also as a kind of potential spiritual terrain that shapes Jakob’s interior life, and that in all the Institute’s strictures and submissions an immense inner freedom could be located.
Are Jakob’s submissive qualities those that allow him to move more gracefully from reactive to active?
Walser and Jakob pre-exist in that open state already. They merely have to test the boundaries.
German sociologist Max Weber describes a bureaucrat as someone who faithfully, almost blindly, exercises delegated duties in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. This, of course, seems to describe the servants-to-be in the Institute and their ultimate ‘fate’ upon graduation. So, that said, I feel that the universality of Walser’s work and your film is a key element in their place in the world as art – as a reflection and perhaps even a commentary upon mankind.
Only indirectly in so much as we were fascinated, as was Walser, by how one might navigate such a closed and seemingly hopeless and negated realm; that the suppression of freedom makes it possible to experience freedom. We felt we knew and understood that realm quite intuitively.
Beyond Walser’s indelible style, are the aforementioned thematic elements things that have drawn you to him? Were they key elements that infused you with desire to make the film? And if so, to what extent did they drive the film’s story and style?
We chose this novella by Walser because it was like an intimate chamber work and as it was our very first venture into feature films and working with live actors, we wanted to be cautious and not take on something too grand and beyond our scope. We read our first article on Walser written by his translator Christopher Middleton and it was called ’The Picture of Nobody’. Naturally, that appealed instantly to us and we slowly started to devour all his writings – what was available at the time. But whilst first reading Jakob von Gunten we realised at once at just how cinematic it could be. And we also felt very close to the ‘diary’ form so we embarked on writing the script without really knowing if it would ever get financed. We wrote the script with Alain Passes, a writer friend, but we also wrote it visually with great detail, always including the quality of light and the décor.
When writing with such attention to visual detail, to what extent do you think you consciously (or even unconsciously) tie these details into the ‘actions’ of the characters?
We must have had some intuitions how an actor might handle that scene but that was for us the only ‘unknown’ quantum in the equation we were trying to create, but whatever the actor created, it was all bonus because everything else we could pretty much control.
The use of black and white, aside from its inherent aesthetic beauty, seems to enhance a sense of a world where blind servitude is the most logical pre-requisite to unquestioningly follow impersonal rules. At the same time, the medium itself (as I believe, life itself) is replete with ‘colour’ in so far as there are literal shades of white, black AND grey. Why did you see the movie in black and white? Did any of the above have an influence and/or were there other reasons? (Perhaps even practical ones?)
From the very beginning we intuitively knew that the film had to be in black and white, that all the inner rhymes would be found in the classroom blackboard and chalk, in the ethereal dimension that only black and white can give and we asked our cinematographer, Nic Knowland, to exploit the full range of the most intense whites, to the richest of blacks and the most beautiful and mysterious of greys, to shoot with wide open f-stops, and that light was one of the main protagonists and that Lisa knew precisely the hours where and when the sun would journey through the Institute and her rooms.
The idea of light as a protagonist is such an inspiring one. Would you say that the importance of light to the medium of all visual arts – particularly cinema, where the images, the story, the world of the film must be conveyed THROUGH light (whether it be a movie projector or HD monitor) – is something you as filmmakers are keenly, if not always, aware of? It’s been said great filmmakers (and specifically cinematographers) often paint WITH light. How in this context does it inform your work, and specifically, the world of Institute Benjamenta?
Well, since with animation you have to learn ALL the metiers: to build the décors, the puppets, to give them their ‘climates’ and ‘stimmung’ through light, to know the camera and what lenses could give you, to animate the puppets, to learn how to edit, how to do sound – and we’ve always ALWAYS had music first before the film even began. So when we asked Nic Knowland to come on board to be our cinematographer we had a lot of experience about how to light – although very amateurish by comparison. And the element of ‘choreography’ in its widest sense appealed to us not only in terms of literal movement, but because the ballet doesn’t use dialogue but for the most part music only and it tells its stories via gesture and music and décor.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta. What was the process behind casting her?
Initially we had Charlotte Rampling on board – she was a name and we thought it was a coup to have gotten her for the production. But at the last minute Channel Four refused to insure her because she’d walked off a previous film set. Our lovely casting agent had been pushing Alice all along and suddenly we had to pitch the project to her and she wasn’t initially terribly convinced by the script, saying she didn’t know what she could bring to it. So in a panic, we sent her a snowdrift of faxes explaining what we were after and she said yes and jumped on a plane and arrived on the weekend. The filming started on a Monday for six weeks in an old country house near Hampton Ct on the edge of Richmond Park where deer grazed next to the house.
I am in serious love with her performance. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In that sense, was this notion of her magnetic qualities ever a consideration in shots that involved her? Did her natural qualities ever force you to block and/or shoot anything to maintain the perspective(s) necessary to the individual dramatic/thematic/artistic beats of the work?
It was the great unknown blessing to have gotten Alice to play Lisa and she was a dream to work and collaborate with, as were of course Mark and the wonderful Gottfried John. She would keep asking for further takes and you could see she was searching and taking her character deeper and deeper. She kept a flow chart in her hotel room and as we shot the film out of sequence she would always consult us to where emotionally she had to be on such and such a scene.
What was Ms Krige’s understanding and appreciation of Walser, the work itself and her character?
It wasn’t necessary for her to have read beyond the script as we talked to her about Walser and Lisa, his real sister, and all that might help her but she also really responded to the décors and the space we created for her, the climates, the quality of light. And she loved working in black and white. Even after the official shooting ended she came freely to our studio to shoot some extra close-ups that we had devised.
In recent days, I’ve imagined some Ruskin-like Ethics of the Dust transcript involving Ms Krige presiding over a ‘tutorial’ involving yourselves and the other cast members.
No, alas nothing like this.
Well, one can only dream, then.
Of course, Alice was never more beautiful than when she was dead.
From the first time I saw Institute Benjamenta and through almost every time I have seen it, I’m reminded of how beautiful death can be on film. The actor, of course, is infused with the quality of life and no matter how great they can be as actors, this natural quality is especially useful in making characters in death look ‘never more beautiful’. The shots of Ms Krige in death are right up there in my personal pantheon of gorgeous screen corpses, ESPECIALLY in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. In fact, Dreyer is an artist whom I’m pleasantly reminded of when I see Institute Benjamenta. (In fact, I sometimes imagine a Dreyer adaptation of Benjamenta appearing in his canon – probably between Gertrud and his never-made Jesus.) Is he someone you yourselves admire? Might there even be a conscious or unconscious Dreyer influence on your work?
When we were in Copenhagen to do work on the décors for a ballet with Kim Brandstrup, our choreographer on Benjamenta, we visited Carl Dreyer’s grave. He has been one of the most important influences on our work and we have watched and re-watched his films.
One thing I suspect I will never forget, and indeed, think of often, is the young saplings sequence where the men rock back and forth humming, almost chanting, and you favour Lisa in those exquisite shots where Ms Krige evokes both desperation and heartache.
Before the scene was filmed she told us she’d wing it, that she wasn’t sure what would happen but to stay with her. But it was this slow swaying of the students, their backs to her, along with their mounting humming, that of course started to slowly and implacably swamp her appeals, but it is all so dreamlike and strange and troubling, with Jakob helplessly standing off to the side holding pinecones, watching Lisa become undone. But it’s true that by the end of the scene, when Lisa sees Kraus writing the giant zero, you can see that her gaze has seen beyond this life into another one.
From the first time I saw your film in that huge indoor sporting complex (or whatever the hell it was) in Locarno so many years ago, and upon each subsequent viewing, this sequence has moved me to a combination of tears, trembling and physical sensations of tingling and gooseflesh.
Yes, initially this scene was placed much earlier in the script but because of its emotional strength we moved it further back in the film.
The young saplings sequence inspires me with many levels of meaning and emotion, but I will keep them to myself and ask what this sequence means to you, what you wished to achieve with it and how you prepared for it, shot it and rendered it in final form?
The sequence was a premonition of Lisa’s emotionally becoming undone, that she could no longer reach her students, not even her preferred one, Inigo, and that a darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality loomed before her.
Ever the optimist, I suspect we all have a ‘darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality’ looming before us. And speaking of finality, I have one final question for you. Are there things in Benjamenta you’re not completely sold on these many years later or, if given a chance, things you’d do differently (and if so, what they might be)?
No, you couldn’t have really thrown any more money at the production and we didn’t need famous actors. A six-week shoot seemed perfect although how could we have known. We had a very experienced first assistant, Mary Soan. We stayed small and it was beautifully in control and it was a unique and moving experience for us. We actually lived in the top floor of this old abandoned country house during the entire shoot. But there was one scene where I wished we’d been a lot braver, and we’ve talked about it much later with Alice, and that was the scene where she goes upside down and guides Jakob to her. She should have been boldly naked beneath her gown and as Jakob was blindfolded he would have been so disoriented by this unknown region of flesh and pudenda, but we as an audience would have gasped at her erotic boldness.
From the northern most point of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews