May 3, 2015

2nd War Hats

Not unlike Frans Zwartjes (Visual Training, Pentimento) and to a lesser extent his student Paul de Nooijer (N.E.W.S., Nobody Had Informed Me), albeit in his own particularly idiosyncratic way, Dutch experimental auteur filmmaker Henri Plaat (I Am an Old Smoking, Moving Indian Movie Star, Postcards) seems to be totally cut off from any sort of film movement, style or trend, even in his homeland of the Netherlands, to the point where he is not even mentioned in Amos Vogel’s relatively authoritative cineaste text Film as a Subversive Art (1974). In a sense, also not unlike Zwartjes and de Nooijer, Plaat is the ultimate auteur as the idea of a film crew is completely alien to him as he is the sole person that works on his films, which he shoots on his various handheld 8mm and 16mm cameras that he has acquired from around the world. Indeed, most of Plaat’s films, which oftentimes transcend the usually fine line between documentary and absurdism, were shot in various third world shitholes, with the director oftentimes hiding the fact he was filming members of the indigenous population. An eclectic artist who works in various mediums, especially painting and watercolors, Plaat first received a Eumig-camera in 1966 and would ultimately describe his experimental cinematic art as nothing more than, “an exploded hobby,” yet he has managed to assemble a totally singular oeuvre with a distinct cinematic language that seems foreign to every except the director himself.  The first film I saw by Plaat was Fragments of Decay (1983) and it amazed me how Plaat was able to make such things as a dirty rotten dog corpse, a recently dug grave, a retarded Greek boy, and a mostly skeletal horse corpse in a Turkish river, among other various morbid and grotesque things, seem quite magical and beauteous. As Plaat remarked regarding his own work in the documentary Cadavre Exquis: On Dutch Experimental Filmmaking (2004) directed by Anna Abrahams,“They are films that perhaps…have more to do with a dream world. Sometimes they tend to lean towards surrealism. But they always start out from reality.” Undoubtedly, out of all of Plaat’s films, the most overtly oneiric, absurd, arcane, and just plain bizarre is the mere 3-minute short 2nd War Hats (1986), which was made in collaboration with the filmmaker's artist friend Theo Jeuken and is indubitably the director’s closet and most flagrant attempt at making a high-camp work. A ‘war film’ in sort of the same sense that Werner Schroeter’s compulsively campy tragicomedy Der Bomberpilot (1970) is a war film, Plaat’s perversely playful piece features a cameo from the director in quasi-drag and turns World War II into an absurd fashion show where Nazi officers burn, drag queens vainly show off their latest vulgar hats while sporting equally goofy smiles, and a Slavic city is reduced to smoldering rubble. One of the director's few films that has actually been recognized in any way as the winner of the 1989 L.J. Jordaan Prize, 2nd War Hats is ultimately a wonderfully ridiculous remainder of how unforgettably potent short films can be, as sort of celluloid bombs that, although brief, have lasting effects on the mind of the viewer that long and plodding feature-length works with linear narratives oftentimes lack.  Not unlike with Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929) aka An Andalusian Dog and the shorts of Zwartjes, Gregory J. Markopoulos, Kenneth Anger, and James Broughton, I could probably watch Plaat's micro-epic thousands of times and it still would not lose its impact.  Indeed, like the greatest of short films, 2nd War Hats is a virtual celluloid dream that was generously shared with us by its dreamer, who certainly demonstrates that, like most things in life, some dreams are greater than others.

Although opening with the inter-title, “Somewhere in a bombed city…,” 2nd War Hats is set in Warsaw, Poland where the apocalyptic destruction of the metropolis is ultimately trumped by the aesthetic majesty of fiercely flamboyant headwear that is modeled quasi-shemales who don’t seem to realize that the most deleterious war in human history is going on despite all the ashes falling from the sky and covering their oh-so fancy ‘diva’ hats. As if symbolic of the fact that fashions are ‘rooted’ in cities, virtually all of the people featured in the film are imprisoned in the ground, with only their hat-covered heads poking out of the seemingly smoldering asphalt. In between featuring shots of various sexually dubious models modeling off their hyper hokey and all-around aesthetically repugnant hats, a collage featuring the portraits of dozens upon dozens of German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe officers burns to the point where only a couple of the men’s photos are not reduced to ash. Ultimately, this naughty Nazi collage seems to not only be symbolic of the destruction that the German military brought to Warsaw, but also Germany itself. Notably, one of the models sports a red ‘phallic’ hat that has a banana sticking out of the end of it. Later in the short, another model takes the banana in their mouth as if they are literally hungry for cock. Eventually, the model with the banana hat goes underground and a model with a silver bullet-like hat appears from the ground, though their head is protected by glass. Meanwhile, sullen hat-less women become quite happy after hats magically fly onto their heads, as if to reflect the rejuvenation of the city after the war.  During the final scene of the short in a scenario that seems symbolic of the post-WWII butchering of Europe into the rivaling Americanized liberal capitalist west and enslaved Soviet communist East, a fence featuring a sign of a typical 1950s America advertisement model drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola on it appears.  If one thing is quite apparent by the conclusion of 2nd War Hats, it is that both war and fashion are rather whimsical phenomenons that ultimately end with the destruction and replacement of the previous social model.  Of course, the National Socialists were indubitably the kings of both war and fashion and those that replaced them were surely innately inferior, especially in terms of aesthetics.

While I can only guess auteur Plaat’s intent with the short, 2nd War Hats seems to be an allegory for the ‘changing fashions’ that occur as a result of war, especially the Second World War, which destroyed Europe’s control over the world as a whole and split the continent into two opposing, albeit if not similarly materialistic and anti-cultural, entities that were controlled by largely alien elements that hardly had Faustian man's best interests in mind. Notably, about 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during WWII, thus the city surely made an apt, if not initially seemingly strange, choice for the subject of Plaat's film. Why Plaat did not use the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which was also all but completely destroyed as a result of German bombing, instead of Warsaw is questionable considering the filmmaker is Dutch and all, but I am glad he did because it allows the film to be interpreted in a different way. Indeed, due to the fact that it has survived various wars and catastrophes throughout the centuries, Warsaw has earned the nickname of ‘phoenix city,’ thus 2nd War Hats adds more credence to my theory that the film is an allegory for the perennial changing essence of not just Warsaw and other cities, but humanity in general. Whatever Plaat’s intent with the film might have been, there is no denying that it is a strangely potent and insanely idiosyncratically jovial work that manages to reduce one of the most apocalyptic and culturally deleterious events in human history into the world’s most aesthetically absurd, patently pointless, and pathetically pretentious fashion show, with the unequivocal best dressers—the Nazis—being figuratively burned alive and turned into a representation of ‘hardcore fashion’ and, in turn, total evil. As indicated by the fact that both a SS officer and a photograph of Adolf Hitler appear in his later film A Fleeting Dream (2004), it seems that Plaat, not unlike many Dutchman of his generation, was haunted by the ghosts of the Second World War, which the Netherlands has arguably never fully recovered from (on top of the trauma and devastation that the Dutch people suffered as a result of the war, they still suffer from a sort of undying collective guilt as a result of what happened to the Jews of their country). Notably, Plaat stated in the doc Cadavre Exquis regarding his experimental documentaries, “I traveled extensively in South America. Maybe four or five times. The first time I went there…the front pages were always filled with horrible accidents…heads cut off, people hauled from graves…by the police. I felt that it was part of that world. That cruel absurdity.” Of course, there was no greater “cruel absurdity” than the Second World War and that is made abundantly clear in 2nd War Hats, which is arguably the most inexplicably wayward and eccentrically esoteric WWII flick ever made. Indeed, in it's own patently peculiar and absurdly awe-inspiring way, Plaat's short says more about WWII and it's aftermath than classic Dutch war flicks like Paul Verhoeven's Soldaat van Oranje (1977) aka Soldier of Orange and Fons Rademakers' De aanslag (1986) aka The Assault ever could. 

-Ty E

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