A dejected, hopeless soul, Jakob (Mark Rylance, Angels and Insects) walks through the door of a dilapidated mansion and into a shadowy world pitched somewhere between the 19th century and the imagination. It's a school fo... more »r servants, where Jakob is prepared to sacrifice his individuality for a life of servitude and subservience. "There's but one lesson repeated endlessly," he observes. "None of us will amount to much. Later in life we will be something small and subordinate." Jakob throws himself into his repetitive, meaningless exercises, learning the fine art of humiliation at the hands of his lovely but haunted teacher, Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige), who runs the slowly collapsing school with her demanding, lonely brother, Johann (Fassbinder regular Gottfried John). The live-action feature debut of surrealist animators the Brothers Quay, Institute Benjamenta is a dreamy, self-contained world rich in physical detail (obscure signs, the bric-a-brac and detritus of yesteryear), which cinematographer Nic Knowland captures with a foggy, gauzy black-and-white softness, like a turn-of-the-century film. Full of fantasies and dream sequences and laced with brief snippets of animation, it's a film of strange and wondrous imagery, but an elusive story that loses itself in long, meditative sequences of monotonous action and droning narration. Many will find the deliberate pacing slow going, but this deliriously strange and fragile world lost in its own timelessness offers a mesmerizing dream alternative to traditional narrative cinema. --Sean Axmaker« less
Not a film, but a ballet (and a rather lovely one at that).
E. Steven Fried | Seattle | 01/04/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Okay, so this film has almost no narrative and the characters are as flat as cardboard. I knew that going in and I still enjoyed it. Why? Well, some movies you just can't watch as narrative experiences, they exist by a different set of rules. As I was watching I realised that the most interesting thing was the movement of the actors. There was a lot of choreography involved, so much so, that I came to realise it was more of an elaborate peformance piece than a film (think Pina Bausch). There isn't much to interpret, but then, there usually isn't in a dance, you just enjoy the motion. Also noteworthy is the lighting and the use of moving spotlights to animate the setting. The characters are awash in light of various qualities, some spectral, some soft. The set decoration and production design are also wonderful, always something to look at in every frame. The camera movements are odd and quixotic, just like in any Quay Brothers film. The performances, especially those of Gottfried John and Alice Krige, are nicely articulated, given that they contain only the merest whiffs of character development. All in all, this is a lovely piece of visual poetry. Watch it in bed and let it waft past you."
The Philadelphia Stur
Heavy Theta | Lorton, Va United States | 03/27/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Sun Ra lived in Germantown. David Lynch was across the street from the Mutter Museum of Pathology (that houses the remains of the original "siamese" twins amongst other oddities). And the brothers Quay obviously were influenced by the Franklin Institute. The commonality seems to be a sense of madness and epiphone that lies within the structure of discipline and study. Institute Benjamenta is not so much a story as an experience, exactly what you'd expect from a private fraternity with a history for specializing in visual abstractions. Only it is now startling to see the activity produced by live actors rather than their usual bits of shop class remnants and broken dolls. The effect is less fascinating, but more disturbing. I have a friend who contacted the distributor of this film when it was still restricted to rental, hoping to get enough friends to cover a screening. Instead, when the video came out, she couldn't sit through it. Yet she still is haunted by it. This is not an easy movie to recommend, but you may not want to take the chance of missing it."
Wayne | England | 11/08/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A quiet and softly spoken man arrives at a ghostly building to enrol for the servants class taught there. He rings the doorbell and is greeted by a monkey's face through the small hole in the door. The man's name is Jakob. He enters and meets one of the two owners (a brother and sister). The brother is unpleasant, and informs Jakob that there are no favourites here.Jakob goes into class to meet the other students. They all announce their names to him and then fall over. The lessons are presumptuous and iterative. They involve the men swaying from side to side and standing on one leg. They really are quite eccentric. The institute seems to be its own little world away from reality, with its low ceiling rooms. The sister soon has a strange fondness for Jakob. This is a very sombre film, but has a unique air to it. The pacing is pedestrian, but you stay with it. The acting is good, and the camerawork is meticulous and probing."
Another 2 cents...
Matthew Michael Wigeland | Chicago, IL United States | 08/20/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I sought to obtain this film for my collection almost immediately after seeing it. I cannot give it enough praise.I was quite drawn into the 'perfumery' mythology the Brothers had created for this translation of Walser's work. Of course this mythology has a framework all its own, but is seamlessly fused with the story. Although I have yet to see the rest of the (stille nacht) series, it appears they had built the foundation of the visual largely from their previous pieces "Stille Nacht"(1988) and "The Comb". The photography and animation, as always, commands the highest respect. Some may have difficulty appreciating the dialoge in this film, but I for one thought it was delivered flawlessly; the unstable vibration in Jakobs voice, the side-saddle yet wanting manner of Lisa...I have no clue as to the extent of engineering that went into the voice track, but it exhibits a clever aesthetic nonetheless. The soundtrack is spectacular, not only according to its own merit, but also how closely it embraces the ambience and imagery of the film. Lech Jankowski is quite skilled as a composer, and I look forward to hearing more of his work."
Matthew Michael Wigeland | 09/19/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you appreciate the Quay Brothers and have a facination for David Lynch you will love this video. Filled with poetic imagery, and filmed in beautiful black and white, Institute Benjamenta tells a short story of life within the bleak walls of a school for servants. As surreal as they come with a touch of Eraserhead. I found it hauntingly beautiful."