Novelty is one of childhood’s great pleasures. Life is still largely unseen and untasted, appetites are insatiable, and the world’s supply of marvels seems as limitless as our demand. But the more we see of the world the less its contents surprise us, and this is why the Quay Brothers are such rare creatures. Identical twins and Philadelphia ex-pats who live and work in London, Stephen and Timothy Quay began making stop-motion animation films in the 1970s. Their films reveal a starkly beautiful and entirely original realm, one governed by an alternative set of physical laws and ordered by an aesthetic composed of modest, drab materials—gears, wires, doll parts, flathead screws—familiar elements used in unique and startling ways. A child’s impulse to imbue the objects around him with secret life is transformed by the Quays into an adult vision of longing and loss, dereliction and grace.
This in itself would be enough to make their films required viewing, but the Quays go one step further: Their work opens portals into universes beyond their own. In a 2001 interview in which they are treated as one person due to their tendency to finish one another’s sentences, the Quays name Bruno Schulz as the “secret catalyst” for their work. Their short film adaptation of Schulz’s story, “The Street of Crocodiles,” premiered in 1986, and it periodically returns to the big screen as part of a Quay retrospective, like the one playing now at New York City’s Film Forum.
I had never heard of the Brothers Quay—or Bruno Schulz—until I encountered their films 15 years ago at just such a retrospective. Then in my final years of college, I was just beginning to give serious thought to how to pursue my lifelong desire to be a writer. Intrigued by the brief literary passage from “Street of Crocodiles” that appears at the end of the Quays’ film, I tracked down Schulz’s story and—in an exquisite period of literary gorging—devoured every morsel of his prose that I could find. The discovery of three artists whose visions of the world spoke directly to my own longings presented me with twin epiphanies that expanded like simultaneous Big Bangs in my brain. Like the very best literature, the Quays’ cinematic vision caused me to re-examine my own ways of seeing; reading Schulz felt like discovering a friend with whom I shared an unspoken understanding, a companion in my desire to transform thoughts and experiences into magic on the page.
Bruno Schulz was a Polish writer and artist who published two stunning collections of short stories before his death in 1942. A lifelong resident of Drogobych, he was a quiet man who taught drawing at the local high school; in his off-hours he drew pictures and wrote stories. His literary subjects included his parents, his father’s tailor shop, the family housekeeper, and the curious ways of his small town. But this was not mundane, provincial fiction. Schulz didn’t just write, he mythologized: His subjects are infused with forces that carry the reader beyond the realm of the everyday and onto a fantastical plane. Desire, scorn, shame, and wonder function as points on a carnal compass that guides the reader through a sensual world of amplified perception in which the weather, a house, or a tailor’s dummy are endowed with as palpable a life force as their human counterparts. No wonder Schulz functions as the Quays’ “secret catalyst”: These are men whose stock-in-trade involves bringing the inanimate to life.
Terry Gilliam ranks the Quays’ film among the ten best animated films of all time, but it also deserves to be on a short list of the best film adaptations. The Quays create a cinematic analogue to Schulz’s literary world that does not mimic but instead mirrors its literary forebear. The protagonist of Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles” is less a person than a setting: a drab, run-down commercial sector of cheap goods and odd-lot people who traffic in empty promises and unfulfilled hopes. Schulz transforms this rather mundane and seedy part of a small, Polish town into something magical; in the Quays’ film version, this world is set into motion by a globule of spit, which lubricates a strand of tensioned wire, which in turn feeds through a series of pulleys to activate the tethered wrist of a marionette, loosed upon this world when the wire mobilizing its arm is severed.
To a 21st century reader accustomed to the stark intellectualism and surgical brilliance of David Foster Wallace or Martin Amis, encountering Schulz for the first time can feel like coming across a strange animal with an uncomfortably strong smell which one is reluctant to touch with ungloved hands. The Quays reproduce this effect perfectly. When the marionette, our guide to the street, enters the tailor’s shop, Leszek Jankowski‘s soundtrack begins, and the interplay of sound and image ambushes the viewer. Mobilized by a tense interchange between cello and violin, a phalanx of salesgirls—their cloth bodies topped by empty china-doll heads—is launched into action by a similarly embodied shop clerk wielding a needle like a maestro’s baton. The empty-eyed dolls take their unsuspecting customer in hand and wrap him in paper as the store clerk does the same with a slab of uncooked meat, bringing the sensualism of Schulz’s images to life. When the marionette’s head is detached and replaced, his body buffeted by the hands of his caretakers-turned-tormenters, anyone familiar with Schulz cannot help but see echoes of the author’s own biography.
Like the Quays’ marionette, Schulz was subject and then victim to brutal external forces. After Germany invaded Soviet-occupied eastern Poland in 1941, Schulz came under the protection of a Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, who hired Schulz to paint portraits and murals in exchange for food and the designation of “necessary Jew,” a label supposed to protect him from deportation to the camps. On November 19, 1942, Schulz was murdered in the streets of the Drogobych ghetto, singled out for death by a Gestapo officer named Karl Gunther looking to get even with Landau, who had shot a Jew under Gunther’s protection not long before. Schulz was buried by a friend in Drogobych’s Jewish cemetery, all traces of which have since been eradicated by a housing complex. He was known to have finished four new stories and to be working on a novel at the time of his death, but these writings have never been found. Only his correspondence and the stories published before his murder survive.
Schulz’s work didn’t appear in English until 1963, and reached a wider English-language readership in 1977 with its inclusion in Penguin’s excellent “Writers from the Other Europe” series. Until 1999, the Quays’ work could be viewed only by those lucky enough to live within distance of an art-minded movie theater. Though there is no substitute for seeing the Quays’ work on a big screen, ten of their best short films, “Street of Crocodiles” included, have been collected on videocassette and DVD. Together, the Quays and Bruno Schulz challenged me to look beneath the surface of the everyday. I envy people who will be encountering their work for the first time: They will be rewarded with the rare gift of art that transmogrifies this old, familiar world.