Frans Zwartjes: The Great Cinema Magician

Maximilian Le Cain

6 May 2014
Frans Zwartjes is arguably Holland’s pre-eminent experimental filmmaker, whose highly stylised, poetically claustrophobic films.

An extract from Frans Zwartjes' The Holy Family;  footage exclusive to Purge (NSFW)

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.

This event will be a memorable tribute to a major artist. Once Franz Zwartjes has caressed your eyeballs, you will never be able to see cinema in the same way again.

- Maximilian Le Cain

Full film programme for Frans Zwartjes: The Great Cinema Magician (11 and 20 May 2014):

Spare Bedroom

Behind Your Walls
Seats Two
Moving Stills
Found footage

An album comprised solely of never-before heard music composed and recorded (1966-1999) by Zwartjes will be available at the ICA on Zwartjes screening days. For more information visit the Purge website.

This article is posted in: Articles, Film

Tagged with: Frans Zwartjes, Holland, voyeurism, 16mm