Frans Zwartjes, internationally acclaimed icon of Dutch experimental film, passes away at the age of 90

Frans Zwartjes, 'the most important experimental filmmaker of his time’ (Susan Sontag)

22 November 2017

Visual artist and filmmaker Frans Zwartjes (Alkmaar, 13 May 1927 – The Hague, 18 November 2017) passed away last Saturday. Frans Zwartjes is regarded as one of the most versatile Dutch experimental filmmakers. He has made more than fifty films, many of which were internationally acknowledged.

Zwartjes became known from the late 1960s with his painterly and grainy monochrome films filled with extreme close-ups and startling changes of perspective. Psychological intensity and sexuality are constant themes in a Zwartjes film; improvisation, the unconditional use of black and white and in-camera editing essential elements. The filmmaker focused on sexually charged and intoxicating situations, often with an undertone of fear or despair. The leading actors in a Zwartjes film were often fellow artist Moniek Toebosch (1948-2012), Zwartjes’ wife Trix and Christian Manders.

Essayist Susan Sontag (On Photography) once praised Zwartjes as ‘the most important experimental filmmaker of his time’. Pentimento (1979), Living (1971) – part of the Home Sweet Home series (1971) – and Spare Bedroom (1969) are among Zwartjes’ best-known films.

Zwartjes was not only a filmmaker but also a visual artist, photographer and musician – he played the viola for the Dutch National Opera – and a violin maker. He often wrote the scores for his films himself, occasionally together with his brother Rudolf or theatre director and composer Lodewijk de Boer. He liked to be in charge of everything: from handling the camera, direction and editing to film processing  and sound editing.

Zwartjes was of major importance to Dutch cinema; influenced by the work of Andy Warhol, Bruce Conner and Gregory Markopoulos, he passed on the legacy of the New American Cinema to his students at the Vrije Academie in The Hague and the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Among the prominent filmmakers who studied under Frans Zwartjes are Paul de Nooijer, Dick Rijneke, George Schouten and Jacques Verbeek/Karin Wiertz.

Work by Zwartjes was featured at the Museum of Photography in The Hague, the GEM Museum of Contemporary Art (The Hague), EYE (Amsterdam) and ICA (London). In 1990 Zwartjes was the first recipient of the Ouborg Award for visual artists living in The Hague. His work is included in the Canon of Dutch Cinema, an initiative of the Netherlands Film Festival.  

Films in EYE Film Museum Collection

Film II (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1967)
Breakfast (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1968)
Birds (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1968)
Dolls (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1968)
Fan, A (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1968)
Anamnesis (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1969)
Cheek (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1969)
Collage (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1969)
Compilatie (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1969)
Eating (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1969)
Behind Your Walls (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1970)
Hans in balans (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1970)
Cobweb (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1971)
Audition (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1973)
Bedsitters (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1973)
Contact (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1973)
About Seven Minutes (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1974)
Back Number (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1974)
Be Busy (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1974)
Holy Family (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1974)
Body Art (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1975)
Charon (NL, Frans Zwartjes, Paul Vermeulen Windsant, 1986, Stichting Dansgroep Ruth Meyer)
About Truus Bronkhorst (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1991
Beyond (NL, Frans Zwartjes, 1992)