By far one of the Quay Brothers' most haunting works, 'In Absentia'
depicts the suffering of a late nineteenth/early twentieth century
mental asylum patient, Emma Hauck, who would write letters to her
husband by pencil over and over on the same piece of paper, until the
sheet resembled a strangely beautiful abstract calligraphy of psychosis
-- an unintentional work of art. That the letters' sense of hopeless,
desperate scrawling depicts an eternal reaching into the void for her
husband to rescue her from herself -- a relief that could never arrive
-- is chilling.
The use of light in the black and white film is exquisite, flashing like lightning or electrical charges -- as if Hauck's overheating and tortured brain were illuminating secrets in the darkness that sanity seeks to hide from us for our own preservation. The repetition of the breaking pencil represents the 'brokenness' and futility of her own mind, which is trapped in a hopeless cycle.
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed the music for 'In Absentia', creating the ideal musique concrète score of ambient voices, rupture, madness and unreality. Stockhausen, who was reduced to tears when viewing the film, being reminded of his mother who was exterminated by the Nazis, suggested that, in a role reversal, he had written the images and the Brothers Quay had created the music.
The dress worn by Alice Krige's neurotic headmistress who suffers a breakdown and dies in the Quay Brothers' 1995 film 'Institute Benjamenta' returns in this film, in a suggestion of psychological continuity.