Despite the fact that Zwartjes—a musician (and one-time violaist in the Dutch National Opera), violin maker, draughtsman, painter, sculptor, and virtual lifelong professor who is somewhat ironically against the idea of teaching art, especially artistic technique—seems to outright reject all forms of artistic tradition, the splendidly unearthly outdoor scenes in his classic black-and-white short Anamnesis (1969) feel like the all the more eerie and haunting post-apocalyptic equivalent to a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting. In short, as far as I am concerned, Zwartjes is to non-linear/non-narrative experimental filmmaking what tragic auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst (De blinde Fotograaf aka The Blind Photographer, De Witte waan aka White Madness) is to narrative arthouse filmmaking, as a true cultural heir to Dutch masters like Bruegel and Vincent van Gogh, as a man’s whose work seems to embody the darkest and most forlorn and macabre corners of the seemingly now forsaken Netherlander Volksgeist. The eldest son of an intelligent and cultivated rebel nun who grew to abandon and hate the Catholic Church and a boorish and uneducated working-class pugilist that died when he was only 9 years old, Zwartjes had a less than ideal childhood that involved nearly starving to death during the Second World War, on top of the fact that he came into contact with much internal suffering during his early adult years as a male nurse in a mental hospital, hence his particularly preternatural mastery of apocalyptic cinematic misery and melancholia. Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that Zwartjes’ films manage to say more about the human condition with a single shot, camera angle, or edit than Tarantino or Spielberg films do in their entirety, but I digress. Likewise, quite unlike the preposterously pedantic and largely emotionally vacant intellectual experiments of pathologically masturbatory avant-garde filmmakers like George Landow (aka Owen Land), Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Tony Conrad, Zwartjes’ films are dripping with grim understated soulfulness, angst, pathos, carnality, Sehnsucht, and Weltschmerz, among other things.
Of course, unlike his rather crude Lowland Countries contemporaries like Belgian artsploitation agitator Roland Lethem (La fée sanguinaire, The Bloodthirsty Fairy, Le sexe enrage aka The Red Cunt) and underground necrophilia enthusiast turned mainstream casting director Patrick Hella (Les sables, La tête froide), Zwartjes refined his craft like an old master as opposed to merely throwing something sadistically silly and vaguely artsy fartsy together that mostly relies on sheer cheap shock value (though, admittedly, Lethem and Hella's proudly obnoxious shorts are refreshingly humorous and anarchistic). Notably, as clearly indicated by the impassioned flirting he does while directing his wife Trix and artist Moniek Toebosch at his house in the Hague in the doc Frans Zwartjes, Filmmaker (1971) directed by René Coelho, Zwartjes also knew how to have a lot of fun on his film sets, even if his oftentimes unnervingly foreboding and claustrophobic cinematic works sometimes hint otherwise. Not surprisingly, Zwartjes’ one-time student Aryan Kaganof—undoubtedly one of the most subversive filmmakers of the modern age—would pay tribute to Living and a number of the master’s other films with his 20-minute flick Mother's Day (2014). While Zwartjes' influence on Kaganof was more in terms of spirit than aesthetics, the South African auteur's masterful Bataille adaptation The Dead Man 2: Return of the Dead Man (1994) certainly has some Zwartjesian moments that recall Pentimento.
Undoubtedly, when I watch Living, I see Zwartjes embodying Faustian man as an eerily elderly and decidedly decrepit sexless undead bourgeois corpse who is too apathetic to even bother to acknowledge that his voluptuous and aggressively lecherous yet nonetheless equally cadaverous wife is flashing her big bosoms and pussy at him. As far as I am concerned, Zwartjes’ film represents the ugly and pathetic extreme of contemporary European man, who is too internally sick and passive to even defend his nation and women from his perennial enemies, or to once again go back to Jung's quote, “We used to regard foreigners—the other side—as political and moral reprobates; but the modern man is forced to recognize that he is politically and morally just like anyone else.” Of course, only a Dutchman of the almost self-destructively individualistic sort could have directed a film like Living where the condemned corpses of Calvinism haplessly wander around a house they no longer recognize in a land that they feel wholly spiritually dispossessed from.
Surely, if I were given the opportunity to bury one single film in a time capsule as evidence of what led to some sort of catastrophic Occident apocalypse, it would be Zwartjes' magnum opus, which ultimately makes the truly hellish depiction of mid-sixteenth century Holland depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterful panorama painting The Triumph of Death (1562) seem like an exceeding exciting time to live by comparison. Quite fittingly, Living is one of the sixteen films that was included in the ‘canon of Dutch cinema’ (aka Canon van de Nederlandse film), thus putting alongside other similarly important cinematic works like Johan van der Keuken's Blind Kind (1964), Adriaan Ditvoorst's Ik kom wat later naar Madra (1965) aka That Way to Madra, Paul Verhoeven's Turks Fruit (1964) aka Turkish Delight, and Alex van Warmerdam's De Noorderlingen (1992) aka The Northerners. Somewhat unfortunately but not surprisingly, one of Joris Ivens' films was also included in the canon. Of course, as a result of Ivens and his dubious legacy, film academics and historians tend to associate Dutch cinema with internationally oriented communist agitprop instead of the true celluloid gold of Ditvoorst and Zwartjes. As far as I am concerned, until the average semi-serious cinephile has the image of Trix Zwartjes' tits burned into their brain, Dutch cinema will not have been given its just due.