When I don’t enjoy a film, I try my best not to proclaim it to be bad, as is the common temptation. If a lot of attention has been paid to the work, then even if I hated everything from the colours to the conceited conception, I find myself wondering what it was that people could have seen in it. This was in order with Institute Benjamenta (1996), and starring Gottfried John, so before I return to worrying about whether there was anything of any merit in it at all, I thought I had better scour the internet looking for viewers and critics that not only liked it, but were raised to spiritual highs by the long-laboured efforts of its creators.
The story is set in an alternate reality and concerns a young man of no aspiration who trains for an unambitious and tedious life in service, at the eponymous institute. There, he and the director’s wife become slowly involved.
The result is a movie made with style — a unique style — and style that contains virtually no content. It’s not just the black and white boredom of the painfully constructed camera shots or the stylised acting, but it’s the stylised delivery, thick with minute details, and jokes that seemed to be sophomorically Kafkan and are repeated too often.
Gottfried John takes part, of that there is no doubt. But I do believe that for an actor to flourish in a role, there needs to be a role to begin with — a character to inhabit — which is not the case with Johannes Benjamenta, who is not a character but is just the conceit of the directors, and is not developed.
Having watched and disliked this film, I found the uploaded records of those who liked it, and I am pleased to say that it did win some awards and has some admirers out there. Most of those admirers seem to be focussing however on the fact that every frame is a beautiful photographic work, which counts for very little round my way I am afraid. In fact, every frame of Fassbinder also counts as a beautiful photographic work if you want to look at it that way, and anyway, film should be about more than still photography, no? Nothing in the film is like real life, and that is good, but I must defer to this film's many admirers, some of whom see it is profoundly philosophic, and leave it for them to enjoy; becasuse even despite the appearance of Gottfried John, who is completely wasted here (he can act! He is not just a face to photograph!) this picture did less than nothing for me.
Perhaps one of the merits of Institute Benjamenta is that there’s nothing else like it out there – many people say that about it — but that need not in and of itself be a good thing. From time to time it is a sign of the opposite.