Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay


Did I mention the Brothers Quay? This is a mesmerising piece, and another short film to add to the growing number of Quay works yet to be collected on DVD. Maska (2010) is a 23-minute digital animation based on Stanislaw Lem’s short story, The Mask (1976), which the producers have recently made available on YouTube. It was perhaps inevitable that if the Quays were going to venture into science fiction they’d use an Eastern European source. Lem’s story concerns a sophisticated technological society which is nonetheless still a monarchy. The narrator is an artificial woman who the aristocracy have created for a special mission; her human exterior conceals a robot interior, but this is no Maria from Metropolis. Midway through the story the robot breaks free of its human shell and is revealed to be a mantis-like creature.


The Quays’ corpus has tended to avoid genres of any kind so it’s fascinating seeing how they wrangle both sf and horror into a mise-en-scène which is remote from their decaying European scenarios but which, in its details, is completely familiar: puppet characters, flickering light, shifting focus, everything immersed in shadow. Maska also departs from form by having a spoken narration which offers some rudiments of explanation. The habitual atmosphere of unease is still present, however, and pushed to outright horror in places, assisted by extracts from Penderecki’s nerve-jangling De Natura Sonoris No. 1.


As with Piotr Kamler’s Chronopolis, this is a good reminder of how sf material can be presented in a less obvious manner by animation, offering a view into a world that doesn’t have to be explained down to the last detail. Some of the best written sf, and some comic-strip sf (usually the Continental titles), delivers a strangeness that’s completely absent from most filmed science fiction. Vast budgets demand simple-minded narratives with mass appeal so it’s left to animation and low-budget films to venture into areas that would be off-limits elsewhere. Maska is an impressive film, one of the best Quay shorts I’ve seen for some time. Watch it here.

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