‘Frans Zwartjes is arguably Holland’s pre-eminent experimental filmmaker. His highly stylised, poetically claustrophobic films achieve a unique level of sensual intimacy in their renditions of sexual and domestic tension, and voyeurism. Most famous for a prolific series of short films created in the 1960s and ’70s including Spectator (1970) and Living (1971), Zwartjes conjured up oppressively private worlds defined by the compulsions of his heavily made-up, fastidiously dressed (or undressed) performers. These wordless works draw on performance art but are equally distinguished by their oneiric visuals, disconcerting editing rhythms and hypnotically minimal sound design. Their expressively grainy visual textures emerge from uncomfortable close-ups and distorted angles, a transcendentally voyeuristic camera that prowls and clings to the figures it films. Yet this vision seems more engaged with the external projection of inner turmoil than the objectification of bodies and, as such, is imbued with its own unnerving compassion.
‘Although his films are widely available in digital formats, this celebration of Zwartjes’s art is a rare opportunity to see them in their original 16mm format. These films are essentially handmade, homemade objects. He devised and mastered a filmmaking technique every bit as personal as the scenes he filmed. He frequently cast the same performers including his wife Trix, Moniek Toebosch, and even himself. He did the camerawork himself, and his complex, astonishingly assured visual rhythms are the result of cutting in-camera, essentially turning the camera on and off during shooting instead of editing afterwards. He even went as far as to process the films himself to obtain the look he was seeking. Only 16mm projection can do this vision full justice.
‘Zwartjes’s background as a musician is one of his many talents (he is also a painter, sculptor, teacher and violin maker) that is perhaps not mentioned enough. The striking sound design of his films, hypnotically accentuating the prevalent mood of mounting psychosis, is one of their most accomplished features.’ — Maximilian Le Cain
FRANS ZWARTJES – THE GREAT CINEMA MAGICIAN
Frans Zwartjes @ IMDb
PORTRAIT OF FRANS ZWARTJES
FZ @ MUBI
Frans Zwartjes ‘Masterpiece / Spectator’ (LP)
In Memoriam: Frans Zwartjes
FZ @ letterboxd
FZ @ Cinema of the World
Susan Sontag zag het al: Frans Zwartjes (1927 – 2017) was ‘belangrijkste experimentele filmmaker van zijn tijd’
FRANS ZWARTJES, FILMMAKER
HM2015 Frans Zwartjes
PORTRAIT OF FRANS ZWARTJES
by Mike Hoolboom
Q: The person making ordinary films in the Netherlands works within a context: you can see a certain filmmaker as an inspiring model or you can dismiss him to try to do it your own way. Did you have a context like that?
FZ: What made a huge impression on me was the New American Cinema. The municipal theatre in Eindhoven presented a new American film program in the early 1960s. For the first time I was able to see films by Bruce Connor, by Markopolous, by that fatso… Peter Kubelka and by Andy Warhol. I thought: Jeesus Christ, what’s going on! In The Shopper by Warhol, the camera is first pointed at the ceiling and then sinks downwards, but you can feel that it was not done by hand. The bolt at the top of the tripod wasn’t screwed tight. The camera sinks down by itself, splendidly. While the camera keeps on shooting, you can meanwhile hear someone talking. The protagonist just keeps on going. The crazy thing is that I started to be irritated by the film after a little while and I went out to get a drink. I must have gone back and forth ten times and each time that I opened the door to have another look, I thought, damn it all, it’s awfully good! Those screenings had a big influence on me.
Q: You developed your films by yourself in your home laboratory.
FZ: Yeah although… actually it was a cupboard. When I got my first little film back from the laboratory, I thought it looked like garbage. I went back to the lab, that was the NLF back then and said: “I want to develop my own material.” The man opened a drawer and handed me a sheet. I looked at it: R36, Agfa. It had instructions for reversal development. He immediately took hold of one more sheet, one which the address was written of Brocades in Amsterdam. You could buy chemicals there.
He also told me which was the cheapest material: Agfa’s 5-61. That was what they made their prints on. An incredibly straight curve and very, very slow: six ASA. You had to make your shots in the sun in order to be able to see something later on. It came in rolls of three hundred meters. In my darkroom, I cut them up into rolls of 30 meters that would fit in my camera. You get really strange things: perforations on the wrong side, or losing hold of the roll and everything falling apart. Then you’re up shit creek. But I always managed. After a while, I became very skilled at developing. I could develop 300 meters a day. Film on Saturday, watch on Sunday. I had students who asked me how I developed that black-and-white. I explained everything, but they still gave up. Because even if you’ve got instructions you’re not there yet. What’s important is how the material is exposed and how warm it is and how long you leave it in the developer. It’s something you’ve got to twig to. You only learn by doing it, really.
Q: Who did you show your own work to?
FZ: I didn’t know anyone!
Q: Did you not have any contacts with other Dutch filmmakers?
FZ: Of the “regular” filmmakers, only Pim de la Parra came to me and said, “You’ve got to apply for some government money. You shouldn’t be paying for those films yourself, are you out of your mind? I’ll help you.” That didn’t really happen, but still… And Johan van der Keuken. They aced normally. All the rest thought my films were strange, very unprofessional tomfoolery. But they couldn’t escape the fact that Living (1971) was something to reckon with. I heard that later from Bert Haanstra. When I was working at the violin maker, Marree’s studio, he came around. He had been given equipment by The Hague. Given! Lenses and a body and some other things: 35mm equipment. He asked if we would make a case for them. That’s how I came into contact with him. And when later on I started to make a film with a friend about the war wounded in Guinea-Bissau, I looked upper Bert. He immediately said, “Wonderful! A documentary, there’s something we understand at least.” He told me they had wanted to give me the National Prize for Living, but they went and gave it to Ed van der Elsken because he needed money. Ed sold me the Cook lens around that time, the wide-angle that I used so much. Money problems, I guess. It was a 5.7, high quality. I wanted the widest possible angle without it being a fisheye.
Q: There is a great deal of eroticism and there are many distorted power relationships in your films. Do you learn anything about yourself by watching your own films?
FZ: According to Trix, I’ve have never been as clear about myself as I am in my films. But I didn’t not see that at all when I was making them. I didn’t interpret those films. Others did, but what they said was often beside the point. I can still remember a screening – Trix and Monique Toeboesch were sitting on a bench in the film – and you know what someone said to me? “Say, I didn’t know that you wife was a lesbian. How terrible for you!” An adult man said that, a family doctor. I explained: “We’re just making a film, you know.” He acted a bit angry, “Look, you can see it too… Take a look!” I said, “I don’t see anything. I certainly don’t see that.”
I can remember Pentimento (1978) being screened in Rotterdam. The theatre was full of feminists saying I should be done away with. “It should be against the law that ever receive another cent!” And wherever that film was shown, they stormed the projection room in groups of ten, grabbed the projector and pitched it into the street, film and all. That happened a couple of times.
Q: Did that upset you?
FZ: No, something I like a lot less is when, for instance, I expect a really strong effect from a scene an right at that moment I see people leaving the movie theatre… If you don’t see anything at all, and you stand up… that’s… Well, that’s not really irritating but it leave me feeling awfully helpless. It’s just like when someone says, “Well, you know you that Bach’s compositions are just repeating fractions.”
Q: What is your own favourite film?
FZ: In my opinion Spare Bedroom (1970) and Living (1971) have a peculiar indefinable atmosphere. That quirky fidgeting and then the whimpering of the music… When I last saw the film I thought: how did I ever come up with that? I would never be able to do it again now.
11 of Frans Zwartjes’ 45 films
Sorbet III (1968)
‘A man in drag reaches for some sorbet and then eats it.’ — letterboxd
‘Hypnotic, repetitive film featuring Trix, Zwartjes’ regular partner in crime – and in life. The second ‘turtle dove’ is a piece of a toy between her fingers. Even before Structuralist film had really found its mojo, Zwartjes made this ironic deconstruction of the watch-the-birdie principle.’ — IFFR
A Fan (1968)
‘A man in drag sits on a couch holding a fan. The wallpaper behind him is floral patterned. Although the man does little more than looking around and waving his fan, Zwartjes created enormous tension.’ — letterboxd
Visual Training (1969)
‘Oppressive black-and-white study of a man in pale makeup surrendering as apathetically as a zombie from a German Expressionist film to primitive, childlike playing with food. Possibly inspired by Viennese Actionism and the mythopoetic American underground, Zwartjes more than once ventured into orgiastic territory.’ — iffr
Spare Bedroom (1969)
‘Two sombre personages who are engaged in a claustrophobic game of attraction and repulsion.’ — MUBI
‘Film in three parts in which a man and a woman, Zwartjes’ regular actors Trix and Lodewijk de Boer, circle around each other, both in the house and outside beside the water, repelling and attracting each other.’ — LUX
‘This 1970 film from the experimental filmmaker tackled the concept of the image as an object of the ultimate expression of desire.’ — Nowness
Behind Your Walls (1970)
‘As he does more often, Zwartjes creates an intoxicating, surreal microcosm – this time through a bizarre pantomime featuring extras in heavy make-up. A great example of how the experimental filmmaker was able to unorthodoxly forge colour and black-and-white, silence and an eclectic audio mix into a lyrical poem.’ — iffr
‘Frans Zwartjes and his wife explore their new home, and the sexual tension they’ve brought with them to it.’ — letterboxd
‘Bedsitters takes place on the landing and the stairs of Zwartjes’ still-new, empty house in The Hague. The filmmaker evokes a mysterious and complex space by using a ‘floating’ camera to film some creeping and mysterious characters. Even when Zwartjes himself appears in the frame, the camera continues to float. The fluid movements and a substantial wide-angle lens turn the house into a building that defies logic.’ — Eye
‘This film is dominated by an icy blue. In a monumental building a group of scientists submit women to obscure and inhuman experiments, in which sexuality and cruelty constantly merge into one another. When the film was released, this horrifying game of power and powerlessness was condemned severely by a militant group of feminists. The criticism was undeserved. After all, ‘Pentimento’ is an art-historical term for a hidden image underneath the actual image giving an indication of how the latter evolved to its current state. The film does not endorse the lopsided power relations in our world but actually challenges them.’ — The Uncomfort Zone
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I think I’ve seen that Myers/Smith Daley film now that you mention it. Hm. Great that you heard from your friends. What a relief. ** _Black_Acrylic, I so agree with you quite clearly! You and your family look as snug as a bug in a rug, as my grandmother used to say. ** Dominik, Hi! Oh, that’s cool. That the post hit your Dorian Electraized pleasure center. It is a strangely good time for rebirth or rethinking your life or something. It’s lucky timing. When I see and hear so many people just stressing out and feeling terrorised, I feel very lucky to just see it as a hassle. The cyber-meeting with Gisele and Zac got postponed until tomorrow afternoon. The TV project, that script, is absolutely cursed. There’s no other explanation. Which is why I’m very, very wary about continuing it with this feature film idea. But … we’ll see. Nice you’re reading that Blake Butler book. He’s great. I’m reading things but having a heck of a time concentrating on them, so I guess I’m more stressed out than I feel like I am. Cool you’re keeping a journal. I’ve loved the periods when I managed to. I liked the Tarantino. I thought it was a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s his best film or anything, but if you like his stuff in general, I think you’ll enjoy it. My day was okay. I was getting a bit panicky because I was running out cigarettes, and all the tabac shops near me are closed, and yesterday I ventured further away seeking smokes and couldn’t find a single open tabac shop except one in the Gare Austerlitz train station, but the police wouldn’t let me enter the station without a train ticket, and I did start to freak out a bit, but I miraculously finally saw a lit up, triangular red ‘tabac’ sign off in the distance, so I was saved. That is not an exciting story in the slightest, but that’s what passes for excitement in my life at the moment, ha ha. How did your four walls and brother and notebook and screen and etc. entertain you today? ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Weird, the DE timing. Last night I would have been seeing Lee “Scratch” Perry live for the first time in my life, and tonight I would have been seeing Yves Tumor live also for the first time in my life. Grr. Everyone, God knows you need things to fill your time, and here’s a gilded opportunity aka Mr. Erickson reviewing Zebra Katz’s debut album LESS IS MOOR right about here. ** Misanthrope, I know all about something weird in the brain. High gloved five. As I told Dominick, I spent part of yesterday desperately seeking smokes and finally scored a carton, and it felt like winning the lottery. We have lines outside markets but sparsely populated interiors and totally full shelves. Very best wishes to your friend and her family. And to you and yours, duh. ** Bill, I think that Coil box is going for a King’s ransom these days. When and, ugh, if they reopen the bookstores, your scenario will likely be the scenario for a long, long time. Pivoting is a blessing. Usually. Very cool. Yes, please do let me know where and how I can watch your gig glitch-free when it’s time. As happy a Wednesday to you as the imaginary man upstairs can allow. ** Okay. If you don’t know the beautiful films of Frans Zwartjes you are in for a great time around here today. See you tomorrow.