The Films That Made Us: Institute Benjamenta

Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (dir. Stephen Quay & Timothy Quay, 1995)

I grew up as a child obsessed with black and white films; first it was Laurel and Hardy, then the silent comedies of Buster Keaton (always Keaton, never Chaplin), and eventually the thrilling, age-inappropriate masterpieces of German Expressionism became my favourites. As a teenaged member of a rep film club I discovered Lang, Buñuel, Welles and Lynch; their utter madness, the way they confronted the abyss of human motives and the darkness of our desires, and their distinctively arresting visual languages were more striking than anything my contemporaries who posed as Goths could ever get out of the Tim Burton universe.

Given my penchant for surrealism and pitch-black humour, I was bound to travel to the Institute Benjamenta at some point in my life. The script is adapted from ‘Jakob Von Gunten’, a novella by turn-of-the-century Swiss author Robert Walser, whose wonderful and perturbing work was said to have entertained and delighted Franz Kafka to the point of rolling on the floor with laughter. That’s right: this film would have made Kafka go OMG ROTFL.

The story sees Jakob enrol at a school for servants, where there is only one lesson, endlessly repeated: how to become zero. A servant is invisible, as servant is inscrutable, a servant has no opinions and no feelings: a servant only serves. The school is located in some unspecified remote alpine village, and the building - about as welcoming as the Overlook hotel, and similarly surrounded by snow - may be hiding something. If you can imagine the Grand Budapest hotel crossed with the cabinet of Doctor Caligari you’re getting close to the look and feel of the place. Running the school are a brother and sister, the titular Mister and Miss Benjamenta, played by Fassbinder regular Gottfried John and Star Trek icon Alice Krige respectively. Both hold a magnetic grip on Jakob’s mind and body that crosses the line from seduction to abduction.

Back in the 1990s my other great passion was theatre. I had seen Mark Rylance on stage and found his acting electrifying: he had a sweet melancholy about him wrapped like a cloak around a fierce intellect, and a fine wit that pumped through the blood of his tragically ill Hamlet. You wanted to save his life, look after him and have him sectioned - all at the same time. So, more than anything else, I think it was Mark Rylance’s name on the front cover that made me pick up a VHS copy of Insitute Benjamenta in the Cambridge branch of hmv, and lie to the sales assistant who asked me if I was over 18. Of course I was grown-up enough to take this.

Rylance’s spellbinding performance as Jakob in this obscure masterpiece was for him an early foray into screen acting. It is modelled in equal parts on Buster Keaton and Jacques Lecoq - a striking physical, facial and vocal feat of genius. He acts with every gene in his body to the point that even his hat develops a personality. (Federico García Lorca - once the best friend of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí - wrote a short surrealist play in one act called Buster Keaton’s Walk, in which Keaton accidentally murders his own children and blames it on his hat. Jakob’s hat is that kind of hat.)

No small part of the magical quality of the film has to do with the Quays’ unique approach to directing: as filmmakers with deep roots in the world of animation and puppetry (think Jan Švankmajer) they repeatedly ask actors and viewers to stay flat, play deadpan, remove emotion, as they conjure up this dark vision and contemplate the meaninglessness of life. But emotion is a funny thing in art: the more you try to knock it down, the more it rises.

Robert Walser lost his mind and was committed to a mental institution. He died during one of his frequent solo walks around the asylum, and his body was found among roses, covered in snow. There is an amazing scene in this beguiling and utterly unforgettable film, when snow begins to fall over the past and present of the Institute Benjamenta, and Rylance is at once Buster Keaton and Hamlet and Robert Walser, living many lives and dying many deaths. The mystery of the Institute Benjamenta - its meaning and purpose - may never be unlocked, but you will want to hold Jakob for a moment and say: look at all this beauty in the world, and all these incomprehensible desires, and all of these strange things that happen to us humans - they don’t mean anything and yet they mean everything. And then walk back to the safety of the asylum with him.

[by Irene Musumeci, Curzon Head Office]

This piece is part of our ongoing series The Films That Made Us. Follow us on twitter, Facebook and Instagram to discover more!