The Quay Brothers make some of the most disturbing stop-motion films, inspired as much by clammy literary surrealists such as Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, and Adolfo Bioy-Casares as by animators like Jan Svankmajer. Timed to coincide with a Quay retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Zeitgeist Films presents a restored HD master (from the British Film Institute) of their first feature, a claustrophic fantasia based on Swiss writer Robert Walser’s novella Jakob von Gunten.
The protagonist is a spiritually crushed student (Mark Rylance) at a decrepit, gray-scaled, weirdly ritualistic boarding school for the training of servants. Classes are exercises in “monotonous repetition”. “We will learn very little here and none of us will amount to much,” he narrates in a neutered voice that somehow seems to look forward to it. Teacher Alice Krige, whose blackboard pointer appears to be the leg of some animal, is as fetishized as possible and becomes central to the film’s erotic-grotesque development.
This live-action film (with animated fillips) feels indebted to the silent era as much as to the Quays’ training in clay and paper. Its visual wit and precisely tuned drollery keeps it from being too gloomy and stagnant, even though the students are imploding in preparation for a life of drab service. This isn’t an action-packed film but an atmospheric one. Its intellectual thrust is grounded in its visual textures and humor, which are as mystifying as the half-grasped dream evoked by the subtitle, “This Dream People Call Human Life”. The black and white imagery is sometimes beautiful almost to abstraction; perhaps the film is indebted also to Rorschach blots.
The main extra is a 2007 short, Eurydice: She, So Beloved, describing itself as a film ballet in homage to the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. That describes as well as anything this smoky, watery, hazy, mostly black and white exercise in visual texture set to music. As to the main feature, there’s a trailer and also an un-narrated behind-the-scenes montage carried over from a previous Kino release. A booklet contains a welcome and intelligent essay by Samuel Frederick in which he analyzes the feature and its relation to Walser’s work, including a drama retelling the story of Snow White.