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Dark dreams in the stille of the nacht
A region 2 DVD review of THE QUAY BROTHERS SHORT FILMS 1979-2003 by Slarek

What was it that scared you as a kid? I'm not talking about the tangible things of childhood, like going to the dentist, or angry dogs, or getting caught lying to your Mum, but the stuff that crept into your head when the lights went out and you tried to get to sleep, that messed with your brain and made you imagine you heard or saw things in the darkness. I'll wager you can remember the feeling but not the specifics. That's certainly how it is with me. But every now and then, all these years later, something will trigger off a vivid recollection of those solitary moments in the dark.

Art, in all its forms, is uniquely placed to capture the essence of such abstract sensations. It can present an idea, an emotion or a memory in physical form for the interpretation and recognition of others. When it works – and it's a subjective experience every time – it can catch you by surprise. The first time I saw a photograph of Salvador Dali's mannequin sculpture 'Rainy Taxi', for example, I was seriously freaked out, and for the life of me couldn't rationally explain why. It tapped into an irrational fear that I am still unable to explain, something dragged up from long ago nightmares, things back there in the dark.

And then there's film. My first encounter with Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou was a disturbing one, not just for the notorious opening eye-slicing, but for the experience of seeing subconscious and unconscious imagery made flesh and realising that my own experiences in this realm were not unique. The Surrealist movement specialised in this, tapping into the unconscious through recalled dream imagery and the juxtaposition of unrelated objects and ideas, order usurped by a strangely logical chaos. Over the years, my subconscious childhood terror triggers began to pile up: reality disassociation, decay, harm inlicted on eyes, creatures with oversized heads (my horror of babies stems partly from this), mannequins, dolls or statues that move on their own, anything with no eyeballs, gaping wounds, people or animals with the top of their head missing...

If you want to get me on a discussion panel, I am quite prepared to argue the case for the animated short as the richest and most exciting of modern artistic forms (see the opening paragraph of my review of Fantastic Planet for a capsule summary of my reasoning). Often the result of the artistic passions of one or two fiercely dedicated individuals, such films can unite and draw on a wide range of artistic forms, including painting, sculpture, literature, set design and lighting, and then make the resulting creation move, breathing life into inanimate objects and imbuing them with human or animalistic characteristics, in the process transforming the real into the surreal. I was on the brink of becoming a devotee of this art form when I first discovered Street of Crocodiles. Plenty of films before, both animated and live action, had contained the odd unexpected terror trigger – the statue of Talos turning its head just a little in Jason and the Argonauts, a chest of drawers thundering towards the camera in The Exorcist, Henry Spencer's horrible baby in Eraserhead – but this one was just bristling with them. It's hard-to-fathom plot took us inside an archaic mechanical device, where a gaunt, mannequin-like figure explored a greying, cluttered and semi-abstract world that was riddled with decay, where he encountered – horror of horrors – animated dolls with no eyes and the tops of their heads missing. Several of them. Unaware at that time that these creatures were something of a signature for these particular animators, I was left with the sneaking suspicion that the Brothers Quay, whomever they may be, had crawled into my head one night, spent a few hours making extensive notes, then spent eight months constructing a work specifically designed to stick artistic pins into my shudder centre.

It was this film specifically that really kickstarted my fascination with the animated short as the modern art form. For about three years solid I taped just about every such film that TV was kind enough to throw at me, and in the process discovered the works of such animators as Clive Whalley (And Now You), David Anderson (Deadsy, Door), Andrew McEwan (Toxic) and the mighty Jan Svankmajer. The work of the Quays has often been linked to that of Svankmajer, despite the clear difference in the style and content of their films. It's hardly surprising – both employ stop motion to surrealistic effect, both have successfully combined animation with live action, both are heavily influenced by Eastern European and specifically Czech art and culture. And from a personal perspective, the arrival of a new film from either party was soon to prove an annual high point.

So distinctive is their approach and style that almost every Quay Brothers film is instantly recognisable as their work. Specific elements recur and evolve throughout their filmography – the use of sometimes strangely constructed puppets that move fluidly and realistically, eyeless dolls that are battered with age and missing the tops of their heads, stylised and almost dreamlike settings, the workings of archaic machinery, the use of focus pulls and swift, almost mechanical camera movements, an absence of dialogue and a striking marriage of imagery with music. The storyline of the average Quay film is largely a springboard for visual and aural experimentation and can prove initially elusive or even completely obscure, but it never seems to matter. You'll probably be three or four viewings into Street of Crocodiles before you even care to look for meanings, so dense and darkly beautiful are the settings and characters and so divine the animation. Search for narratives in The Comb or Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies and you're likely to end up with a headache. Watch them for their astonishing artistry, for the richness of their subtextual suggestion, or their ability to disturb without recourse to narrative crutches or emotional manipulation, and you will be astonished.

The debate over whether film can ever be really classified as an art form to stand alongside painting or sculpture still occasionally rears its head, but in the face of such work it seems absurdly obvious. This is film as art, as beautiful, visionary, challenging, intricate and stimulating as anything you find in a gallery or museum, and I'm not remotely interested in arguments to the contrary. Playing at times like Grimm fairy tales performed by the Royal Ballet by way of Hieronymus Bosch, and filtered through the veil of a dream, these are films that tap directly into our inner child. Not the fluffy, innocent one so beloved of Hollywood, but the scared little kid who peeks nervously into the closet and knows that, despite what they've been told, there really are monsters in there.

the DVDs

The problem for animated shorts, especially experimental ones, is that there is no ready-made venue for their exhibition and appreciation. They almost never play in cinemas, are rarely shown on TV, and can be a swine to track down on any home video format. At the time of my real awakening to the form, Channel Four were doing a marvellous job of funding and screening such work, and in the one dealing I had professionally with their animation unit, I encountered a group of real enthusiasts who were only too keen to do what they could to help you locate specific films for cinema projection. Oh how things have changed. In the world of post-Big Brother Channel Four, animation is largely restricted to showing cut episodes of The Simpsons, and the Quays themselves have expressed disappointment at the demise of such enthusiastic funding sources. I can thus wax lyrical over how brilliant Raoul Servais's Harpya or Geoff Dunbar's Ubu or Philip Hunt's Spotless Dominoes are, but with the sad knowledge that you'll probably never get to see any of them. Which makes DVD releases such as this one all the more important.

A few years ago, Kino Video in the USA released a Quay Brothers collection on DVD that may not have been perfect, but given the difficulty of locating some of their films it was nonetheless welcome. It seems typical that I should chance across the disc not through web browsing or active research, but while browsing the shelves in a small video shop in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, where I found it tucked inside a small bucket of imported discs. For almost three years it has been a treasured possession, but now I've had cause to stick it back on the shelf. It has, shall we say, been superseded. And how. This two-disc set from BFI Video is as close to a definitive DVD presentation of the Quays' work as you're likely to encounter. The only things missing are the films they haven't made yet. The short films themselves are on Disc 1, so I'll deal with that first.

the films

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) (13:40)
Actually part of a 54 minute documentary on the titular Animator of Prague, this has a livelier music score (by Zdenek Liska) than in the later Quay films, but many of the other stylistic signatures are already taking shape, not least the set design, the use of suggestive title cards, and the character animation. I have no doubt that the title is at least partly responsible for the frequently quoted link between the Quays and Svankmajer, especially with a plot that has a Prague-based master taking on a pupil (the Quays themselves, perhaps?) and instructing him in the ways of his art.

This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) (10:45)
Described at the start as "a largely disguised reduction of the Epic of Gilgamesh," the Quays' take on the one of the earliest of literary works sees their style developing further, with some fabulous production design, very fluid and realistic animation, and rapid mechanical camera movements.

Street of Crocodiles (1986) (20:35)
Pure poetry whispered into the ear in the dead of night, this is guaranteed both to delight and disturb. Everything comes together here in breathtaking harmony, the beautifully fluid animation, decaying shop-front sets, atmospheric lighting, and of course, those creepy eyeless dolls. The mood is further enriched by the first of many collaborations with composer Leszek Jankowski. One IMDB contributor wrote that if you only see one Quay brothers film, then make it this one, but see it and you'll want to watch everything else they were ever associated with. Despite the remarkable works they have created since, this remains my favourite.

Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987) (13:56)
One of the Quays' most baffling pieces is also one of their most visually striking and suggestive. Shot in monochrome widescreen, the black-line-on-white motif that runs throughout has calligraphic origins, but expands to suggest string instruments, threads and hair, and even the bars of a prison cell. With a stark but arresting décor that is dedicated to "London Underground as part of its present evangelical rampage," it makes for unsettling viewing, the image of a forehead mole being repeatedly rubbed having a particularly troubling quality.

Stille Nacht 1 – Dramolet (1988) (1:45)
The first of four monochrome shorts that abstract a single moment, this feels as much like an experiment as anything the Quays have done, springing from their discovery of just what you could do with iron filings and magnets. Once again, the production design and animation are excellent.

The Comb (1990) (19:23)
Divinely baffling short film number 2 is the first Quay film to integrate live action sequences fully into the narrative (the opening of Street of Crocodiles is more a prelude), although quite what is going on here is open to multiple interpretations. An inversion of the Matter of Life and Death colour scheme presents the real world in dreamy monochrome and an under/overworld that is rich in orange hues, inhabited by creatures who appear to be advancing on and taking control of an earth-bound sleeping girl.

Anamorphosis (1991) (13:45)
A short documentary with voice-over on the technique of the title, which involves illustrating objects in a distorted fashion so that they appear geometrically correct only when viewed from a specific angle. A technique that has been in use for centuries, sometimes to include coded images in paintings or drawings, it has been adapted more recently for surprisingly everyday use (signs painted on road surfaces, sponsorship logos dyed onto cricket pitches). This is a fascinating introduction to the process.

Stille Nacht II – Are We Still Married? (1992) (3:19)
One of the first Quay Brothers films I saw and still one of my favourites. At a time when British indie label 4AD were putting out some of the most interesting music around, it should not be completely surprising that two of animation's most talented artists agreed to create a music video for one of their releases – Are We Still Married? by His Name is Alive. Again focussed on a single moment – a young girl stands against a door preventing the entry of a second party – it is abstracted in mesmerising and unexpectedly playful fashion, as a white door knob flies from its housing and becomes a ball to be batted, the girl repeatedly stretches her legs to stand on tip toe, and her actions and that of the would-be intruder are mimicked by an excitable rabbit. Delightful in itself, its marriage of image to sound is georgeous.

Still Nacht III – Tales From Vienna Woods (1992) (4:10)
A gun is fired and a bullet flies through the surrounding forest, a dramatic moment that the Quays still manage to transform into dream imagery.

Still Nacht IV – Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993) (3:47)
A second song from His Name is Alive revisits the imagery and characters of Are We Still Married?, although we appear to be presented at one stage with an alternative viewpoint of the previous film's action, that of the would-be intruder. Again, a playful and deliciously inventive piece with some suggestive undertones.

In Absentia (2000) (19:20)
In a room penetrated by shifting light, a white-dressed woman takes a pencil from a drawer, sharpens it, and starts to write a letter. Boasting a slightly (and only slightly) more conventional narrative structure than the Quays' previous films, In Absentia develops in enigmatic but largely opaque fashion. Unexpected clarity is provided in the final moments, which should prompt an immediate second viewing to appreciate the clear purpose of what initially seemed random and dreamlike. Shot in graphite pencil greys and set to a brilliant, sensory-battering score by Karkheinz Stockhausen, it illustrates a steady shift towards live action following their first feature, Institute Benjamenta (1995). A mesmerising piece.

The Phantom Museum (2003) (11:17)
Subtitled "Random forays into the vaults of Sir Henry Welcome's Medical Collection," this is as close to a cinematic coffee table book as the Quays will probably ever come, a gentle drift through some of the more unusual objects in this collection, which white gloved hands hold up for us and even demonstrate their function. There is, save for the trips to and from the location, no abstraction or surrealism, and there is an almost leisurely feel to the animation, though anyone who has done any stop motion work will never associate such a term with the process of its creation. It's still interesting for its content, but surprising in its tone.

sound and vision

All of the films here have been restored and remastered for this DVD release and it shows. Picture quality throughout is excellent – Street of Crocodiles looks better than I've ever seen it, and contrast and detail on the Stille Nacht shorts and Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies as close to perfect as you could hope for, while the absence of solid black levels on In Absentia is clearly deliberate. Some grain is evident on The Comb, but this is never a problem. Most of the films were shot 4:3 and are presented in this aspect ratio – Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, The Comb, In Absentia and The Phantom Museum are presented anamorphic widescreen.

All soundtracks are Dolby 2.0 with very clean transfers and clear presentation of music and sound effects (dialogue is rarely an issue here). I couldn't help wondering what In Absentia's music would have done to my nerves in 5.1...

extra features

Disc 2 boasts a whole cabinet of features, but before I get to them there is one very important extra on the first disc that alone should have Quay fans scrabbling for their credit cards: Commentaries by the Quay Bothers themselves on The Unnameable Little Broom, Street of Crocodiles, Stille Nacht II, Stille Nacht III and In Absentia. All of these are excellent, providing a welcome insight into the approach, production, the technique and background of the films. Their comments on Street of Crocodiles and In Absentia are especially enthralling and I'm not just saying that because these are two of my favourites – the Brothers are enthusiastic speakers with plenty to say, and there will be few who do not learn something new while listening to them. And get this – they're all subtitled for the hearing impaired. A wonderful inclusion.

DISC 2: Footnotes

BFI Distribution Ident (1991) (0:19)
It is what it says. The only extra which has dust and sound crackle, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is intentional (I find it hard to believe the BFI wouldn't have a pristine copy of their own ident).

Introduction by the Quay Brothers (2006) (20:31)
An interview with the Quays, in which they discuss their career, the influence of Polish posters and Kafka, their move to Europe and to the Royal College of Art, their first film, and a whole lot more. Essential stuff.

Nocturna Artificiala (1979) (20:34)
The oldest surviving Quay film may appear primitive by comparison to the later works, but the seeds have clearly been sewn here, and the use of light and titles and even camera movements definitely point the way forward.

The Calligrapher (1991) (1:08)
Three idents commissioned for BBC2's re-branding back in 1991, all of which were rejected. Just why remains a mystery.

The Summit (1995) (12:31)
A short pilot for a 70 minute performance by Barnaby and Jonathan Stone – who worked under the name of Ralf Ralf – made shortly after the completion of Institute Benjamenta. The picture and sound quality are not great, having been transferred from low band video, but the performance itself is fascinating, an exploration of the emotions and body language of political debate and rhetoric. Shot for Channel 4, who rejected it. I see a pattern emerging here...

The Quays' interest in anamorphosis has led to them regularly screening some of their films in a stretched format, widescreen expanded to scope through the use of anamorphic projection lenses. At their request, scope versions of both Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies and In Absentia have been included here. If you want to try it on The Comb, change the settings on your DVD player to output a letterboxed picture to 4:3 and then switch the TV picture to 16:9 and you'll get the same effect. Both transfers are as well presented as the widescreen originals.

The Falls (excerpt) (1980) (4:54)
A short excerpt from Peter Greenaway's encyclopaedic film, in which the Quays appear in still pictures as twin brothers Ipson and Pulat Fallari. The inclusion of this extract adds to the feeling of completism and should at least prompt a few viewers to hunt out Greenway's film.

Archive Interview (2000) (28:34)
Conducted by French critic Yves Montmayeur at the Paris Doll Museum, this is presented in its unedited form and thus has a few camera ticks and a couple of pauses, but is still interesting stuff, not least for the uncanny way the Brothers finish each other's sentences or simultaneously arrive at the exact same word. There is plenty here that is not covered in the commentaries or other extras, a particular favourite of mine being their bemusement at the very idea of Quay Brothers merchandising.

The final extra is not on either of the discs, but takes the form of a Booklet, which contains a reproduction of the Quays' original treatment for Street of Crocodiles, and a Quay Brothers Dictionary, which usefully expands on many of the things touched on only briefly in the commentaries and interviews, and provides us with the correct pronunciation of the name 'Quay'.


Speaking as a long time fan of the films of The Brothers Quay, I was seriously excited by the prospect of this two-disc set, but I have to say that it exceeds my wildest expectations. The transfers are excellent and the extra features both numerous and consistently high in quality. Whatever Quay related video or DVD material you already have, shelve them and buy this instead – you will not be disappointed. If you are new to their work, and many of you probably will be, then there has never been a better time to discover why it is held in such high regard. A superb package, and one of the essential DVD releases of the year.

The Quay Brothers Short Films 1979-2003

UK 1979-2003
315 mins total
Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay

DVD details
region 2
4:3 / 1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 mono / stereo
English on commentaries
Commentaries on 6 films by the Quay Brothers
BFI idents
BBC2 idents
Nocturna Artificiala – the Quay's oldest surviving film
The Summit – rejected promo
Scope versions of rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies and In Absentia
The Falls extract
Quay Brothers interview
Archive Quay Brothers interview

BFI Video Publishing
release date
20 November 2006
review posted
1 December 2006

related reviews
Institute Benjamenta
The PianoTuner of Earthquakes
Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films

See all of Slarek's reviews