I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Experimental Cinema of Frans Zwartjes

by David Selden
Sept. 20, 2014

In Zwartjes’ Living (1971), the camera swoops and pursues the bourgeois male and female protagonists (the filmmaker and his wife, Trix), who seem haunted by it -- rarely meeting its gaze or each others. The camera floats, rising and falling in a queasy dance as the women’s heel descends on a floor plan. This scene, in a minimal, perhaps unfamiliar apartment, is strangely reminiscent of Herk Harvey’s, Carnival of Souls or Lynch’s White and Black Lodges. The phased organ score and the deathly makeup, the carefully colour coded set, contributing to a deep sense of unease.

Hand processed by Zwartjes, as were all his films, Living, which is the filmmaker’s favourite of his 50+ film projects, has a bleached, ghostly appearance. The editing, which Zwartjes often preferred to do in-camera, becomes a staccato voyeuristic dance in a surreal domestic dreamscape. A dance steeped in erotic implication.

With Living, Zwartjes not only reads the room himself, but allows the viewer to do the same. Within the isolation, an obsessive relation between Frans and Trix is fully apparent. These rooms not only keep the outside world from spilling in, but also keep lust and obsession from spilling out.i

Zwartjes was born in 1927, the son of an errant nun and a local amateur boxing champion. His mother dragged the family through the Second World War on a pension from his father’s job as a railway signalman. Their passionate, intellectually mismatched relationship had ended when he died at the age of 42, during the filmmakers’ childhood. In 1950 Zwartjes took up a position playing viola for the Dutch Opera whilst also working as a violin maker. After six years he felt a loss of direction, and on the advice of his mother he took a job as a male nurse for a year at the Santpoort Psychiatric Hospital.

The experience was to have a profound effect on Zwartjes. He relates how on his first day he had heard an opera that he had performed in on the radio, its beauty contrasting painfully with the psychological extremis of the institution’s patients. This psychological intensity is apparent in all of Zwartjes’ work. Heavily made up and expressionless, the mute characters never directly respond to their alienation and psycho-sexual entrapment. His speechless, fussily dressed, protagonists are caught in claustrophobic close up, the camera insinuating, fetishising, interrogating.

Teaching craft lessons at the Free School in Amsterdam, Zwartjes encountered an artist who suggested he apply for a position at the Eindhoven Academy, where he was to teach the marvelously unspecific “Non-Applied Design” for the next 14 years. There, after a scandalous affair, he married a student, Trix, who was to become his collaborator and to star in many of his films. Zwartjes went on to hold teaching positions at Ateliers 63, the Vrije Academie in Den Hague, the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, as well as the directorship of the Free Academy (Amsterdam).

In Zwartjes’ oeuvre, the camera’s gaze has the same disengagement that can be seen in Warhol’s cinema, and indeed he acknowledges his debt to the artist. In the early 1960’s the Eindhoven Theatre had screened examples of the New American Cinema by Warhol, Bruce Conner, and Gregory Markopolous along with work by the Austrian structuralist filmmaker, Peter Kubelka. Zwartjes was initially irritated by the blankness of Warhol’s films but had found himself drawn back to the film, transfixed by the absence of agency.

“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.ii

Nonetheless, the camerawork and editing (as well as the hand processing) of Zwartjes’ films are a result of a much more profound engagement with the medium than either Warhol or his surrogate, Paul Morrissey, attained. While enthusiastically embracing the spontaneity of accident and improvisation, Zwartjes also deployed an elaborate camera choreography (sometimes handheld and sometimes static) that almost anticipates the fluid disembodiment of Steadicam.

In further contrast to Warhol, Zwartjes’ sets are carefully designed and lit, the 16mm stock is hand graded, and the palette, monochrome or colour, is always immaculately considered. The style, however, is dictated by the limits of the filmmaker’s body, pirouetting with the camera held at arm’s length, and with the edits and lens changes sometimes performed simply by turning the camera off and on again. There is little or no dialogue and often narrative is only barely hinted at.

Repeatedly in these films, excruciating, intimate close-ups are intercut with wide-angle shots, taken with Zwartjes’ favourite 5.7 Cook lens (the widest possible without it being a fisheye), which he had acquired from photographer and documentarist, Ed van der Elsken. This signature lens, along with his idiosyncratic use of music and sound, are fundamental to Zwartjes’ unique and mesmerizing filmic grammar

Zwartjes was amongst the first Dutch artists to embrace the medium of film. Initially using it in 1968 to simply document his performances, he elected to subvert the tedious speechifying that accompanied gallery openings by instead showing films. The following year he was to complete nine films, including Visual Training, Anamnesis and Spare Bedroom. Ever prolific, the director claimed that he could process 300 metres of film a day, and in a few years Zwartjes emerged as an artist of astonishing originality, feted by Susan Sontag as “the most important experimental filmmaker of his time.”

In Behind Your Walls (1970), part of the “home sweet home” series that began with Spare Bedroom and culminated with Living, Moniek Tineke is gradually alienated from her domestic setting. As a finger traverses the keys of an old fashioned radiogram, a mute scream is intercut with the fizzing of an Alka Seltzer tablet in a glass of water. The camera is relentless and intrusive and yet weirdly absent, the film shifting from black and white to colour and wide angle to close up, breaking the conventions of filmic syntax, as pan follows zoom in a jagged montage that evokes both Eisenstein and Godard.

Though not conventionally explicit, Zwartjes’ work is highly sexually charged. In Spectator (1970) he appears as a voyeur observing the minutiae of his wife’s body, through a pair of binoculars. Simultaneously objectifying and being objectified he seemingly shifts between object and subject in an intense erotic reverie which speaks more of complicity than exploitation, the camera lingering on caked eye shadow, devouring in its intimacy.

Despite this complex ambivalence and the overt self-implication of his films, screenings of the feature length Pentimento (1979) were disrupted in Rotterdam by feminists who stormed the projection booth, outraged that the filmmaker was receiving public subsidy. In several instances both the projector and the film were ejected onto the street.

Largely dismissed by the mainstream film community and treated with skepticism by the more austere factions of the structuralist film clique, Zwartjes (always sublimely unconcerned with his reputation) continued to teach and direct into his sixties.

In 1991, in belated recognition of his influence on a generation of younger Dutch artists and filmmakers, he was awarded the Ouborg Prize for Visual Art. In 2007 the Dutch Film Museum and distributor Moskwood produced a retrospective 2 DVD set of the then eighty year old director’s work, Frans Zwartjes - The Great Cinema Magician, which includes the long form Pentimento, a feature length documentary about the director, as well as Living, Spectator and Anamnesis, amongst a wide selection of his shorter films. It is testimony to the power of Zwartjes’ work that it still remains disquieting and provocative viewing.

i Esotika Erotica Psychotica

sex, art, horror and experimentation in world film


ii Interview with Franz Zwartjes. Mike Hoolboom.

Originally published in mm(2): Experimental Film in the Netherlands Since 1960, ed. Anna Abrahams, Mariska Graveland, Erwin Van ‘t Hart, Peter Van Hoof (Filmbank/Uitgeverij de Balie, 2004)


After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com