His films can best be described as what we today would call artists’ films. Artistic, experimental films with tremendous poetic force, visually stimulating, colourful and theatrical. References to the past, recollections of what no longer is, are a major theme in his work. Prompted not by nostalgia or a longing for what is past, but rather aiming to put the seriousness of such a longing into perspective. Plaat’s humour and sense of the absurd were his chosen weapons of opposition.
Henri Plaat: The Grand Duke of Absurdism
Visual artist and filmmaker Henri Plaat passed away on 12 August 2023 at the age of 87. Plaat leaves a significant, highly original oeuvre of some 45 films, all of which are included in the Eye collection.
By Mark Paul Meyer17 August 2023
“Yes, I do like to make fun of the past… What I am in fact always doing is a form of charm. Almost everything I present is a ritual banishment… It’s also about death. You see things disappear, and that’s tragic.”
His good friend Cherry Duyns referred to Henri Plaat as the “grand duke of absurdism”: “The heavens above his world are memory – transience is the ground beneath his feet. He travels backwards through time, leaving traces of what he sees and feels: films about beauty and decay and about the beauty of decay, collages, gouaches, drawings, audio recordings with improvised song texts.”
Henri Plaat found inspiration in a wide range of sources: desolate landscapes and tumbledown old cities, archaeology, old newspapers, pre-war films, film divas and old 78-rpm records. Plaat translated these elements into his own, highly original, world of the imagination. Associations between the horrors of World War II, film stars from the thirties and a world in decline go hand-in-hand with dreamy absurdism and playful imagination. For Plaat, humour is an antidote to the idiocy of the tragedies caused by mankind.
In one of his first films, Hitler Stay Away from My Door (1968), Hitler is portrayed using hand-coloured photographs as a raving madman, while in the background cabaret music plays. Second War Hats (1986) is a kind of fashion film in which Henri Plaat and his close friend and artistic collaborator Theo Jeuken stick their heads out of a drain cover in the street and show off colourful, extravagant headgear. In the background, the gloom of war rages, to the accompaniment of a cheerful tune.
His films do not have a narrative, but rather create a poetic atmosphere of wonder. He describes his films as “atmospheric films, often photo montages that mix the sounds of war, the buzzing of planes, Zarah Leander’s voice, Wagner’s music... fragments of all sorts, culminating in an astonishing result.” His films are also never edited with a narrative arc in mind, but rather visually and associatively. His films have their own, inherent logic in the same way that a collage is more than the sum of its parts, and creates a new picture.
Roughly speaking, Plaat’s films can be divided into two categories. On the one hand the staged, theatrical films, usually produced by himself. And on the other the more documentary travel films, for which Plaat worked in a number of cases with professional producers.
His staged films are characterised by improvisation and a theatrical set-up, often shot in intimate settings such as living rooms and back gardens, and starring friends and acquaintances. These films excel in visual experimentation and hilarious situations. Sometimes he composed his film images using photos from magazines, always ensuring that there is movement; a wagging tongue, a flap opening, or smoke passing in front of the camera lens. For Plaat, film was inconceivable without movement, however slight. For him, movement was the essence of film.
For his documentary films, Plaat travelled from New York to India, from Latin America to Greece, always with a camera to record his observations. He was particularly fascinated by landscapes, which represent a significant theme in his visual work too. “Landscapes, I get high from them without drugs … Southern Persia, there you can find stretches of desert where a silence hangs heavy as lead; that makes such a terrific impression.”
The past and decay are also recurring themes in these more documentary films, and in these films he dedicates special attention to weathered walls, dilapidated houses, cemeteries, old cars, chic bodegas, etc. etc. In every case, Plaat through his observations conjures up colourful, enchanting images, such as in Fragments of Decay (1983). In this film, reality and imagination seem to flow into one another: “I love the colours of weathered walls, stains, damp patches, corrosion. I love it when there are damp patches on a white wall and layers start to come loose, beneath the plaster.”
For Spurs of Tango (1980) Plaat won a Golden Calf at the Netherlands Film Festival. The film is a kind of odyssey in search of how the culture of South America is drenched in the tango – in particular that of Carlos Cardel, who died in a plane crash in 1935.
The film stock Plaat used was also a critical factor in his work. He had a great preference for using Kodachrome to recreate colours, light and shadow in the way he wanted, characterised by intense, saturated colours somewhat reminiscent of the old Technicolor films. He also loved the beautiful black-and-white of the old films from his youth, and found that Kodak Tri-X got closest to this photographic quality in terms of atmosphere and character. When Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome in 2010, this in fact meant that Plaat stopped making films. His last films are mostly compilations of leftover material from previous films.
During the past twenty years, Plaat and Eye have worked together closely to conserve and make his films accessible. Henri Plaat had a long history with Eye – formerly the Filmmuseum – where he regularly watched films in the 1950s and ’60s. In later years, the Filmmuseum distributed a number of his films and in the early 2000s Plaat passed all of his films to Eye. In the spring of 2005 an exhibition of his visual work was held in the Vondelparkpaviljoen building, and a DVD with seven of his films was released. Three years ago, Eye digitised ten films to mark his 85th birthday and in 2021 these were presented in Eye, leading to his films being ‘rediscovered’ outside of the Netherlands. A selection of these films can be seen for free on the Eye Film Player. The DVD is also still available from the Eye Shop.