Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Stille Nacht (1988)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Stille Nacht (1988)
Stille Nacht I: Dramolet
35mm, black and white, 2 mins
DirectorsBrothers Quay
Production CompanyKoninck
ProducerKeith Griffiths

Christmas Eve in a bare and desolate room.

Show full synopsis

The Quay Brothers made their first foray into the world of the pop promo in 1986, when they were amongst a number of animators who worked on Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer' video (d. Stephen R. Johnson). Although they had mixed feelings about their contribution, 'Sledgehammer' was one of the most influential videos of its era, and opened up new commissioning possibilities. In 1988, the US-based MTV cable television music network asked several animators to create a number of very short pieces that could be played as an 'Art Break' between the music videos that formed the bulk of the station's output.

The typically cryptic subtitle reads 'Dramolet für R.W. in Herisau', which is the first reference in the Quays' output to Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956), who ranks alongside Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz in their literary pantheon (and whose work also inspired The Comb, 1990, and the Quays' first feature Institute Benjamenta, 1995). Walser specialised in highly condensed, allusive pieces, including prose, poems and miniature dramas, or 'dramolets'. He spent over two-and-a-half decades in various institutions, culminating in the Herisau sanatorium in eastern Switzerland. On Christmas Day, 1956, he was found frozen to death in a nearby field.

None of this is explicitly dramatised in the film, but there's a pervasive impression of chilly, institutionalised loneliness. The Quays' familiar puppet animation (here looking even more cracked and peeling than usual) is here enhanced by the use of animated iron filings, which suggest the rapid formation of frost over every surface, the swaying of the individual particles suggesting a hefty buffeting by a keen, piercing wind. The puppet watches this 'frost' out of the window, then turns to a bowl that's filled with the same substance. His spoon begins to vibrate and, as if in sympathy, more spoons emerge from the wall behind him. As the picture fades to black (via a silent-movie-style iris-out), the 'frost' is starting to form on the surface of the table. To chime with the shopworn imagery, the music is deliberately distorted, as if sourced from a badly-tuned crystal radio.

The Quays received several more commissions from MTV over the following few years, the one-minute Ex Voto (1989) and what would become the three subsequent instalments in the Stille Nacht cycle: Are We Still Married?, Tales From Vienna Woods (both 1992) and Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993). They also designed an animated MTV station ident.

Michael Brooke

*This film, with an optional commentary by the filmmakers, is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (1:45)
Production stills
Institute Benjamenta (1995)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)