The first feature length live action film from The Quay Brothers is named after the titular institute where the film takes place. Located somewhere in Europe (the film hints that it might be Germany), this decaying and rundown old building is home to a school that trains men to work as butlers for a variety of well to do clients. A man named Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enrolls in the school, feeling that he would make a good servant for someone some day, and soon joins the small class of students studying at the school.
The school is run by Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John) and his sister, Lisa (Alice Krige), a pair of disciplinarians who teach the students using some ritualistic and very unorthodox measures. As Jakob acclimates to his new life, Lisa begins to show an unusual attraction to him while Herr Benjamenta starts to seem more and more unhinged, all while Jakob begins discovering the truth about the school's unusual past and how it all ties in with what he's going through.
Beautifully shot in black and white with all manner of filters and visual trickery employed,Institute Benjamenta is a gorgeous film to watch. The story is odd and at times meandering but fans of surrealism should appreciate what The Quay Brothers have accomplished here. The performances are quirky enough that the characters stand out and the script is tense enough in spots that it will hold your interest but really, more than anything else, it's the visuals that make this strange little film as interesting as it is.
Much of the film plays out as a macabre fairy tale, what with the dark forest surrounding the lone building and the mysterious brother and sister team running the show, and like many fairy tales before they were watered down and made safe, things don't always end on a happy note. The imagery here, while not quite horror movie territory, gets very dark and eerie and there's a really strange feeling about the whole production that can get under your skin at times.
The movie also mixes up a lot of different symbolism and religious imagery resulting in a picture that is as ripe with metaphors as it is with painterly compositions. Much of what this all means and why it's included in the first place is left up to the viewer to decide and this isn't a film that spells everything out for its audience, but there is very definitely a method to the madness on display. Much of the religious symbolism is easy enough to figure out while the visual nods to early German horror films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari make it clear where much of the influence came for this wholly impressive film.
Institute Benjamenta arrives on DVD from Zeitgeist in a newly restored transfer supervised by the Quay Brothers that looks quite good and was, if the BFI logo is any indicator, taken from the recent high definition transfer that the British Film Institute used for their Blu-ray release a couple of years ago. Obviously this standard definition port doesn't offer the same detail or depth as the Blu-ray did but it looks quite good given the origins of the film. Contrast is solid, detail is nice as is texture, and there are no issues with compression artifacts. Any obvious print damage is simply in keeping with the intended look of the film and isn't distracting. The 1.66.1 framing is nice and overall the image is solid.
The sole audio track on this release is an English language (with bits sometimes spoken in German and African) Dolby Digital Mono track that includes subtitles in English SDH only. The audio isn't all that exciting in that it's a fairly simple mono track but it is well balanced and very clear and free of any audible defects. The score sounds good and the dialogue is easy enough to understand.
The main extra on the disc is an twelve minute short film entitled Eurydice She, So Beloved that the Quay Brothers made in 2007. It's a strange black and white short presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen that has a similar eerie vibe to that seen in the feature. Also found on the disc is fifteen minute collection of Behind The Scenes Footage entitled On The Set Of Institute Benjamenta that is a collection of color footage shot on set during the production of the film contrasted with some black and white production footage taken from the film. It's all presented 'fly-on-the-wall' style and without any context but it's interesting enough that you'll want to check it out once.
Aside from that, look for a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter stops. Tucked away inside the case is a twelve page booklet of liner notes that detail the history of the film and the people who made it.
Simultaneously bizarre and beautiful, Institute Benjamenta is pretty strange stuff but definitely worth a look for fans of odd art-house cinema. It tells a pretty interesting story but it's the visuals that will stay with you once it's over. This DVD release from Zeitgeist looks and sounds fine and includes some decent extras as well, and although the British Blu-ray release of the film trumps it this domestic release comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.