In Absentia (2000)

Dir:- Stephen & Timothy Quay (a.k.a. The Brothers Quay)

Starr:- Monika Kaminsky

Scr:- Stephen & Timothy Quay

DOP:- Stephen & Timothy Quay

Producer(s):- Keith Griffiths

The Philadelphian twins Stephen & Timothy Quay have been creating some of the most consistently dazzling animated films since the early 1980’s. Their filmic universe is one populated by a peculiar ‘mittel-European’ aesthetic and philosophy that harks back to the pre-WWI atmosphere of central European, primarily Germanic and Slavic, cultural hegemony. Luxuriously high-brow, occasionally obscurantist and with a definite magpie sensibility, The Brothers Quay have melded together literary influences such as Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka and Konrad Bayer, alongside aesthetic and philosophical influences from the likes of Jan Švankmajer, Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Walerian Borowczyk, Igor Stravinsky, Adolf Wölfli and Jiří Trna, to form an at once entirely self-contained signature style, that, nevertheless, evokes the work of some of the finest exponents of 20th century animation.

In 2000 The Brothers Quay were commissioned by the BBC to participate in a collaborative series of films called Sound on Film International, that brought together some of the very best avant-garde filmmakers and musicians, to essentially create scored visual poems (a kind of cerebral MTV music video, if you like). One of the drawbacks of such a project was that the BBC required The Brothers to break with their usual habit of intuitive improvisation around a theme. The series’ producers wanted some kind of story outline for the film in advance of the shoot, so The Brothers supplied them with a visually dense and thematically haunting take on insanity, that was inspired by a recent visit to the Prinzehorn Collection exhibition ‘Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis’, which had been on display in London’s Hayward Gallery. During their visit The Brothers had come across the unsettling story of Emma Hauck (1878-1928), a German woman who had been institutionalised due to her suffering from dementia praecox (a clinical term that precedes the use of schizophrenia). Her psychological condition manifested itself in her obsessive behaviour, in particular her writing of letters to a husband, using graphite pencil. These letters were part of the exhibition and are barely legible scrawls of writing, often layered three or four sentences deep. In one scene within the film, The Brothers actually managed to incorporate an original manuscript copy of one such letter, that resembles some form of hellish artwork, rather than any recognisable written text.

An Abstraction of Insanity: This is repeatedly used set that The Brothers Quay devised as a kind of surrogate for the insane mind.

The Brothers Quay collaborated on the film with the German electronic composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Intriguingly The Brothers and Stockhausen did much of the original creative work for the project separately, exchanging finished drafts of the score and the film to merely tweak elements of both, this makes the intensity of the finished short all the more impressive. Stockhausen’s score is a hideously distorted series of wails, screeches, clangs and crashes, along with heavily processed vocal elements, such as singing, a lecture, some kind of argument and, most effectively, various different types of maniacal laughter. All of these sounds are underscored by a low bass thrum, which when modulated slightly in the film, sounds as if the whole world is being torn asunder. Stockhausen has, in essence, provided the aural horror of insanity. It is the most obviously challenging element of the movie, being so difficult to endure for any length of time. However, it is by no means the sole strength of this powerfully suggestive piece.

The film itself, like most of The Brothers movies, is created out of the careful use of repeated visual motifs and moments of animated mania. A central idea and motif is the notion of light as having a particular sensitivity to the manic mind. The opening of the movie focuses attention upon a bizarre abstract space that is populated by half-seen objects (a mirror, a stepladder, a disembodied head) shrouded in a stagnant internal fog. This set was no more than a metre squared, but appears to have the limitless proportions of the ocean’s depths, or the universe. Rather than giving a staggering sense of freedom however, this merely seems to constrain, or hobble, the imagination, due to the incomprehensibility of what has been shown.

Shot primarily in black and white, the film then moves on to an external shot of an institutional building, before returning to an internal space and the mechanical motions of a pair of legs that are kicking back and forth, as if dangling from a swing in space. The Brothers have a penchant for the kind of German expressionist cinema of Murnau and Lang and this is self-evident in the skewered angles of some of their imagery and the use of imposing, straight-edged and seemingly monolithic structures (a clock, the institute, a window and window ledge), not to mention their frequent usage of the downward tilt shot. The frantic and disturbing play of light sources throughout the film, was created by the use of time-lapse technology, often in conjunction with the stop-motion animation of certain sequences (such as the motion of the pencil lead, or the movement of the sharpener). Apparently The Brothers had the set placed within their studio space so that a series of mirrors could accentuate the motion of daylight as it came through the window and into the room. When given the added power of the soundtrack it becomes a rather distressing conjuration of the demented mind.

Like classic German Expressionist cinema, or the gently parodic, ultra-weird efforts of Guy Maddin, The Brothers Quay shroud much of Emma's action in gauzy misting. it draws attention to the focal point of the shot, whilst also working as a metaphor for the hazy manner in which Emma's split-psyche views itself.

At the centre of the film is the obliquely viewed figure of Emma Hauck (Monika Kaminsky). The Brothers, often using their own hands, focus the camera tightly on Emma’s grubby, graphite-coated fingers and thumbs. Oftentimes her hand is shown writing in a spasmodically jerky and unnatural fashion. The camera frequently pulls focus on close-up shots of graphite being pressed down on paper with all of the insufferable adrenal energy of genuine neurosis and fear. The Brothers also deliberately insinuate distorted perspectives into their shots. In one instance Emma is shown to be writing in what first appears to be a weirdly cramped, almost palsied manner. However, after a moment it becomes apparent that what appears to be her hands are in fact two right hands, suggesting that some figure stands off-camera (in fact one of the Quay’s) guiding, or tormenting, Emma as she writes. Such horror aesthetics are also present in the manner with which The Brothers capture the way that Emma touches herself. She is seen to frequently grab at her neck, or hold her hands behind her head, but occasionally the camera reveals something unusual in the shot, such as when a third hand appears to be caressing Emma, or when a pair of hands come up her back from an impossible angle for them to belong to her.

Certain colour passages in the movie, which have a similar colour and tone to The Brothers’ Walser piece The Comb, seem to depict a monstrous minotaur, or demon, figure, that is awoken and proceeds to try to enter the confined reality of Emma’s windowed room. Emma’s obsessive habit of appearing to plant her broken pencil nibs in a little bit of soil on the windowsill, leads to an indirect confrontation with this monster, who chooses to desecrate her pencil garden (or graveyard, as The Brothers have suggested). Emma’s sense of confinement is powerfully reinforced by the manner in which the door remains stubbornly shut and the window is never properly looked out of. In one sequence Emma polishes the glass of the window, but it is not her view out that is observed, but rather somebody else’s view in on her. The Brothers have been tremendously careful in only framing shots that scrutinise Emma, or suggest a presence that is watching over her actions from a slight remove. This makes the film even more horrendously close and stifling. Parallels might be drawn here between some of the more impressionistic sequences of mental collapse that Polanski uses in his excellent mid-seventies masterpiece The Tenant.

Visual tics pile up throughout the film, giving it a densely allusive quality. Clock surfaces are shown to be inverted, with time standing still. Locks are shown, but never any keys to unlock what lies within. A picture hook suggests the slender hold upon reality that Emma maintains. Whilst the kicking feet are shown to belong to some figure hanging high above the window on a ledge, as if this might be a metaphor for Emma’s own sanity, poised upon the precipice of madness. The light never stops moving and its perpetual dancing around the faceless Emma (whose visage remains obscured throughout the movie) seems more and more like a merciless taunt, in much the same way as the cacophonous laughter. The whole movie was shot on 35mm film, but one sequence, that features the external shot of the corner of a building with a window open and the wind blowing a net curtain in and out, was taken from 8mm footage of Vienna that The Brothers shot whilst working on a theatre project in the city. This grainy image seems like some memory of a moment in Emma’s life, a fixation point around which her madness has formed, whilst also suggesting the porous nature of her sensory perception (external things pour into her and are then poured out of her in the mania of her writing).

At the close of the film an external presence comes to deposit two pencils under the door, a detail that The Brothers took from the work of Adolf Wölfli. An insert then dedicates the film: “To E.H. – who lived and wrote to her husband from an asylum – Herzensschatzi komm – (Sweetheart Come)”. The film ends on the same abstract landscape, that is now more suggestive of a mindscape, as if the audience has just been forced into the inside of Emma Hauck’s head. Without doubt The Brothers Quay have created one of the most extraordinary cinematic depictions of a state of psychosis (Ron Howard could learn a thing or two). The question that gnaws at the back of my own imagination whilst watching such work, is why do such extreme issues of mental health fascinate and provoke us in this manner?

The Bottom Line:- Simply one of the best evocations of the inner-reality of extreme mental illness that you are likely to see on the silver screen. If you have the possibility to see this in a Cinema retrospective at some point, I strongly recommend you do, as to see it in a darkened theatre is like being immersed in a sea of madness.