Based on the fairy tale collection Pentamerone by: Giambattista Basile
Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly
Italy, France, UK 2015
The Italian director talks about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an eccentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Matteo Garrone might have made his name with the gritty, realist mafia drama Gomorra (2008), but his latest offering is a different beast entirely. A fantastically bizarre, wildly imaginative and highly stylized affair, Tale of Tales features a trio of stories, set in three neighbouring kingdoms and focusing on the increasingly mad and often hilarious miseries of their royal leaders, all of which are loosely based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile.
Pamela Jahn met with the Italian director at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 to talk about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an accentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Pamela Jahn: It seems like Gomorra, which turned out to be your most successful film to date, and your new film Tale of Tales could not be further apart?
Matteo Garrone: Yeah, it seems strange…But, for me, there are also dark fairy tales in Gomorra, in the same way as the tales talk about archetypes, about human beings, so they are also somewhat modern too. And my approach is always one that starts from a realistic approach, from observation of contemporary reality, but at the same time there is also a fantastic dimension. In this case, I started off with fantastic tales and tried to bring them a little closer to reality. But all my movies are very visual, so the approach was not so different from my point of view. I actually felt that the line was quite natural, especially since I always talk about obsessions in my films, and Tale of Tales is about desire and how this desire becomes obsession. Of course, the language of Gomorra was much more based on a documentary style, but behind this choice of the language is an important visual work.
There are not many fantasy movies coming out of Italy these days.
No, but we also have directors who in the past worked well in that genre. For me, one of my references was Mario Bava, for instance. He worked with horror but also with fantasy. And I also like the early work of Pasolini, his short movies and fairy tales in particular, so we do have a heritage of that in Italy too.
When did you discover Giambattista Basile’s tales for yourself?
As a kid, I read tales like the ones by the Brothers Grimm like everyone else. I discovered Giambattista Basile only four or five years ago, through a friend of mine, who is a painter. I immediately fell in love with them, with the different characters of the stories, but also with the visual aspect.
This is your first English-language film. Do you think anything got lost in the translation of the stories into English?
No, because, first of all the original stories were written on the streets in the Neapolitan dialect of the 16th and 17th centuries. So even when you read the book in Italian you are already reading a translation. I also think there is something Shakespearean in the way Basile writes, and hopefully we helped a little to make him known in the world, finally. Because it’s really unfair that nobody knows this author who wrote the first book of fairy tales in Europe and who was the first to write about Cinderella and about many other famous tales…everybody only knows the Grimms. And at that time, the tales were not for kids, they were seen as entertainment for a mixed audience. That’s partly why these tales are also very dark sometimes and also almost oral because they are of medieval origin. It was important to me to keep the soul of Basile’s writing, the violence but at the same time also the comical aspects, because Basile is a master of mixing comedy and fear.
Toby Jones is brilliant as the eccentric king whose love for a giant flea overpowers the love he feels for his own daughter.
Yes, he’s wonderful. Jones is an actor, who like Vincent Cassel, can play comical and dramatic, all at the same time, and always in a way that never becomes cliché, he’s always believable. And that was very important for me with Basile’s tales, to find the right balance between comic, dramatic and the grotesque.
Like in the scene in which Salma Hayek, who plays a queen desperate to receive a child, has to eat a sea monster’s beating heart.
Salma was very generous with me. She’s Mexican, you see, and when we met, she basically told me I’m like a Mexican director because I’m so crazy. But in all honesty, when you believe in something the rest doesn’t matter, so she went through that scene without flinching because she believed in what we were doing.
What is she actually eating in that scene?
It’s a sort of disgusting cake, I think.
Together with Paolo Sorrentino, you are one of the most acclaimed Italian directors today. Is it true that you live in the same building?
Yes, it’s true. We meet in the elevator sometimes, but since he won the Academy Award for The Great Beauty I decided we shouldn’t meet too much. (laughs)
Why did you decide to work with Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, who is also a long-term collaborator with David Cronenberg and who shot all of his films?
I saw the work he did with Cronenberg. It’s realistic in its roots but at the same time you can feel something that is artificial in a way. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this film, we wanted to create an image that is believable but at the same time you feel like it was created in a studio. Almost like the beginning of the cinema, like the Méliès, something that is almost a performance, something that can surprise the audience, visually and emotionally. But at the same time you feel it’s artificial.
You used to be a painter in your earlier career. Why did you stop?
When I stared making movies I stopped painting, because for me making movies is always a figurative art, and it’s my way of painting now. Unfortunately, I can’t do both, because when I do cinema I think about it 24hours a day, I’m constantly thinking about the language of cinema. It’s something that I cannot combine and think about both at the same time. So if I ever start painting again I have to stop making films. But I’ll probably need at least two years to switch my mind because it takes time. I am very curious though to see what would come out of it, so maybe if I make a movie that is a complete disaster, I’ll go hide in my studio and start painting again.
You mentioned elsewhere that making this film was a very difficult experience for you.
I learned a lot about the technical aspects with this movie, but sometimes it was very frustrating for me because I like to have the control, especially the visual control. And sometimes when you work with special effects you shoot only with a green screen, so you have to imagine what it will actually look like. It’s like you’re giving away your brushes to somebody else and see what they do with them. And it took a long time to see something, like for example, even only to see the giant flea, I had to wait five months.
Has that somewhat discouraged you from making more ambitious fantasy or genre-twisting films like this in the future?
I think making films is always difficult. The world of cinema is somehow connected to something almost esoteric, because when you make a movie in a way you’re blind. Every day you make a piece but you forget what you’ve done the day before, it’s not like when you’re painting that you always see the colour that you put in front of you on the canvas. Instead, putting all the different pieces together is like a mosaic and finally, hopefully, you understand the tone of the movie. But sometimes it is easy to lose the control, visually. And my point of view is this: if a director makes just one really good film in his career, that’s enough. Then you can make mistakes. But imagine if every director would make just one good movie, how rich cinema would be!
There are good reasons why Britain is the home of the wolf.
In 1281 King Edward ordered the extermination of all wolves from his kingdom. Organised hunts had been going on for years and bounties had been offered by monarchs in the past for wolf pelts, but this was a full on attempt to wipe the creatures out. From this point on, any reference to wolves are vanishingly rare in the British Isles and any attempt to spot the last wolf or pinpoint the date is silly. A throat was cut, an animal trapped, or a lonely sick old thing died in the depths of the forest and they were gone. But things that we destroy entirely have a tendency to haunt us in our imaginations. Hollywood shoots its Indians throughout the early days of cinema and right into the 70s as a tacit admission of the genocide. They have to be the threat. They have to be an existential threat. After all, there’s no point killing a whole population so entirely if you’re not going to do them the honour of dancing on their graves and pretending they constituted some kind of threat. Like muscle memory we are forced to kill what we have already killed over and over again.
And so the howling of wolves has a peculiar place in the British imagination, wrapped up with guilt and the prevailing westerly wind blowing through the ghosts of forests long since chopped and burnt. It is an atavistic fear, for once upon a time we were torn apart by those teeth, felt those eyes watching us from the dark, detected the movement of the pack out there where the flickering light from the camp fire wouldn’t reach.
The two earliest Universal adaptations of the ‘wolf man’ are both set in the British Isles. Interestingly the first less successful version, Werewolf of London (1935), has the threat come from foreign parts as a kind of revenge of Empire narrative. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is a botanist hunting an exotic plant in far-flung Tibet when he is bitten by a creature. On returning to England, he is warned by a mysterious stranger that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will ‘attack the thing he loves most’, clumsily tying lycanthropy up as the animal lust that stands in opposition to romantic love. Although the first werewolf in the cinema feels very much like a vampire/Jekyll and Hyde mash-up and was probably influenced by Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, it firmly establishes the werewolf on British soil and will leave a clawed paw print on Warren Zevon’s hit song ‘Werewolves of London’ and John Landis’s 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London.
Watch the trailer to The Wolf Man (1941):
The breakthrough came with Lon Chaney Jr.’s more famous follow-up The Wolf Man (1941). Set this time in Wales, the film sees a distinctly burly Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) return to his ancestral home to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but following a wolf attack Larry begins to change. The change itself became a moment of cinematic magic as the man transformed before our very eyes and a highpoint in all the subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal wolf man had no literary precedent – if not the animalistic Mr Hyde or perhaps a hint of the demon dog from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This meant that screenwriters such as Curt Siodmak were free to invent and manipulate the lore as they wished. A popular character, the wolf man would reappear in early mash-ups like Frankenstein Vs The Wolfman, and with She-Wolf of London even get a female make-over in 1946, re-establishing the English location.
Unfortunately, the quintessentially English Hammer production The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), introducing Oliver Reed to cinema audiences for the first time, was set in Spain, somewhat oddly as it was based on Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris mentioned earlier. But An American Werewolf in London (1981) quickly recognised the home of the wolf. Sure, there was The Howling and Albert Finney in Wolfen, all released that same year, but wolfs in the backwoods of California or prowling New York City seem silly and will always seem silly compared to a foggy night on the Yorkshire moors, interrupted only by a brief respite in The Slaughtered Lamb. The Americans are natural innocents abroad, similar to Henry James’s heroines. And it isn’t only in the damp of the English evening that they find the horror, but also in the grimier reaches of Soho.
Watch the trailer to She-Wolf of London:
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1983) took on the grisly adult themes of fairy tales, bringing the sexual, erotic and violent subtexts to the surface. Unfortunately, this idea has curdled into a lumpy mess of origin stories such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), but Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s story The Company of Wolves (1984) is an imaginative and at times genuinely disturbing take on the wolves that plague the English mind. Beginning in present day, the film frames everything as the nightmare of a pubescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Her dream begins with the ‘nightmare’ of her sister being hunted and devoured by a pack of wolves, signalling immediately that nightmares – as Freud taught – are nothing more than fantasies we don’t want to admit to ourselves. A series of tales told by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) all warn of the wolf as a male threat to a young girl, a husband who might respond to a call of nature at night and come back changed, a travelling man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, an aristocrat with frivolous interest in destroying a girl. Set in the woods of Shepperton Studio, Jordan complained about having to film the same 12 trees on an obvious sound stage, but the sunless dreariness of the woods, the claustrophobia – we are after all in a young girl’s head – all lend themselves to a growing sense of entrapment. In fact, there are animals throughout the film waiting to burst out, under the skin, in dinner parties, eyes shining in the night. And so it is with a dreadful inevitability that, as the film draws to a close, the line between waking and sleeping is also breached and the wolves crash through the windows of our cottages hungry for their ultimate revenge.
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