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Institute Benjamenta (1995)

Courtesy of FilmFour/4Ventures Ltd

Main image of Institute Benjamenta (1995)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
RealisationBrothers Quay
Production CompanyKoninck
ProducersKeith Griffiths
 Janine Marmot
ScreenplayAlan Passes
 Brothers Quay
PhotographyNic Knowland
MusicLech Jankowski

Cast: Mark Rylance (Jakob von Gunten); Alice Krige (Lisa Benjamenta); Gottfried John (Johannes Benjamenta); Daniel Smith (Kraus)

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Jakob enrols into the Benjamenta Institute, a dilapidated boarding school for the training of servants. He then tries to unravel the hidden mysteries of the school, his fellow pupils, and Frau and Herr Benjamenta, the siblings who run it.

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Several years in the preparation, the Quay Brothers' first feature is both a logical development of and a departure from the animated shorts with which they initially made their reputation. Continuity is provided by the Swiss author Robert Walser as literary source (his miniatures had already inspired Stille Nacht: Dramolet (1988), Tales From Vienna Woods (1992) and especially The Comb (1990), a clear forerunner of Institute Benjamenta), a by now instantly recognisable, mesmerisingly beautiful visual style in which light seems to play as expressively vital a role as any human performer, and a narrative that owes more to music, danse and other near-abstract forms than a conventional textbook three-acter. But it also differs sharply from its predecessors in its length, its use of human performers and comprehensible dialogue: previous Quay actors had been resolutely silent.

The satirical source novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), in which a man seeks to strip himself of any individual personal responsibility by training as a servant at the Institute Benjamenta, is filtered through the screenplay by the Quays and Alan Passes to become an archetypal fairytale situation. Jakob is the young princeling, Lisa Benjamenta is the imprisoned princess and her brother Johannes is the ogre guarding her. The film is crammed with symbols, notably the many references to deer in the d├ęcor (the Institute was once a hunting lodge) and the recurring image of an 'O' to represent both the nullity of the Benjamenta students and an escape route through the blackboard, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, into an eroticised fantasy world. Long, near-abstract sequences feature the servants engaged in complex choreography of napkins, utensils (especially forks, another recurring image) and their own swaying bodies.

So far so familiar from the Quays' earlier work, but it's Mark Rylance and Alice Krige who humanise the material with their doomed not-quite-romance. Neither Jakob nor Lisa is entirely comfortable with their allotted station in life, despite their protestations to the contrary, but the mere notion of achieving a happy and fulfilled life with each other proves literally too much to bear.

Institute Benjamenta was one of the last black-and-white features to be made in Britain, and is a rhapsodic celebration of the medium's possibilities as well as an implicit lament for its decline: initial 35mm prints were created using Orwo, an already obsolete East German film stock that most effectively conveyed the tonal qualities that the Quays demanded.

Michael Brooke

*This film is available on BFI DVD and Blu-ray.

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Video Clips
1. Jakob's enrolment (4:00)
2. All these nothings (2:55)
3. Through the O (5:03)
Comb, The (1990)
Stille Nacht (1988)
Tales From Vienna Woods (1992)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)