Zeitgeist Films // 1995 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // July 24th, 2012
"I should never let myself be rescued, nor shall I ever rescue anybody."
Coming from renowned animators the Quay Brothers, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life is not going to be for everyone, nor is it intended to be. Rather, this is a film for those who prefer to find their own meaning from a cryptic narrative, and enjoy deciphering the symbolism on show.
The film tells the story of Jakob (Mark Rylance, Blitz), who heads to the Institute Benjamenta in order to acquire the training required to become a servant for a wealthy family. Upon entering the institute, Jakob is met by Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John) and his sister, Lisa (Alice Krige, Solomon Kane), who run the school. While undertaking their strange tutelage, Jakob finds himself the focus of Lisa's apparent desire, while her brother's actions become increasingly strange. Uneasy in his surroundings, Jakob begins to explore the institute, in an attempt to discover its origins.
In truth, the Quay Brothers seem less interested in telling a story through traditional means, and instead prefer their visuals to do the talking for them. Highly reminiscent of cinema's silent era in this respect, Institute Benjamenta is a visual poem that, if you submit to its spell, is hypnotic in its beauty, and is as enthralling as it is bewildering. Visually the film is presented as a nightmarish fairytale. The use of light is especially important, as is the manipulation of the image to convey the mood of the piece. While the black-and-white film is often evocative of other works, most notably Nosferatu and early David Lynch -- in particular, Eraserhead -- it is never anything less than a unique experience.
Though the story itself is not enough on its own to keep the viewer fully invested, Institute Benjamenta does at least contain characters who enhance the experience -- all thanks to the quality of the respective actors. Alice Krige delivers a particularly strong performance. Her interactions with the students at the institute, and Jacob in particular, barely conceal a sexual desire that swells as the film progresses. The role of Jacob also poses questions; such as why would anyone give up on themselves so much that they would willingly aspire to a life of servitude. His submissive nature conceals his inquisitiveness, which leads him on a journey to discover the origins on the institute.
Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life is presented in a standard definition 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Due to the way the picture has been manipulated, the picture is unlikely to be anyone's idea of demo material, though everything is exactly as the Quay Brothers intended. The aged look, allied to the softer appearance of the image, adds to the film's dreamlike feel. The Dolby 2.0 Monaural audio offers clear dialogue, while the film's haunting score plays in the background.
Zeitgeist's DVD release of Institute Benjamenta comes with a small selection of extras. The Quay Brothers short film "Eurydice, She So Beloved" is included, and achieves a similar tone to the main feature. The 15 minutes of "Behind the Scenes" footage shows the filming of various scenes. It's interesting to note how the use of color in this featurette alters one's perception of what is being shown. Also included on the disc is a trailer for the film. Included in the slipcase is a twelve-page booklet, with essays on the film and the Quay Brothers themselves.
Institute Benjamenta will demand repeat viewings from those who find themselves drawn in by its puzzle-like nature. What initially may come across as infuriating soon becomes captivating, as the Quay Brothers' vision lingers long in the mind.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated