The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue

Rebel Against Reality: The Spheres of Henri Plaat

Dutch visual artist Henri Plaat's 8mm and 16mm films playfully examine the persistence of the past within the present.

Henri Plaat’s <em>El Cardenal</em> (1972). Courtesy of Eye Filmmuseum.
Henri Plaat’s El Cardenal (1972). Courtesy of Eye Filmmuseum.

“Humor is an antidote to the fear of terrible things. That’s the only way to get a grip on Stalin and Hitler. Humor is the worst enemy of that type.”1

Amsterdam-born Henri Plaat (b. 1936) is a Dutch visual artist and creator of graphic work, drawings, gouaches, and collages. His freedom of spirit expressed itself early in his life when he departed secondary school prematurely in order to enroll in university to study typography. However, feeling limited by the bounds of his academic coursework, he spent time drawing and found inspiration within ancient writing systems, among them Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan script. Influenced by his personal memories of World War II and newsreels of the time, he developed his unique artistic style to, as he puts it, “rebel against reality.”

In 1966, Plaat picked up a movie camera and started to make films—first on 8mm and then later on 16mm. In his shorter filmic performances, he combines the photographic montage with opera, juxtaposing composer Richard Wagner and UFA actress Zarah Leander with war sounds and aircraft noise. Plaat playfully examines the absurd within the theatrical through associative improvisation, and thus sets a contrast to the crude reality of the haunting wars that ravaged Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

Plaat’s interest in the interplay between the imaginary and the real is reflected in his painterly use of analog film. In a career spanning over 40 films, his decision to work on film was informed by the visual qualities of Kodachrome and Tri-X reversal stocks, which could best express his singular preference for light, shadow, and color. His eclectic travelogues are fantastical elegies that venture into dream-like expeditions—to places in Mexico, India, Greece, and New York City—with a focus on derelict landscapes and their dilapidated beauty. There, his melancholic camera gaze takes in fallen empires and captures the persistence of traces of antiquity in the present, expressing his art’s innate nostalgia while also embodying an urge for truthfulness, to learn from history and to conserve this sentiment for future humanity.

As part of the upcoming There are no rules!—a retrospective on Dutch avant-garde filmmaking, docking this side of the pond at the Anthology Film Archives February 24–March 9—a selection of Plaat’s 16mm films will be shown in their digital versions online in a program entitled “Spheres.” Kicking off with Der Graf von Rü (1978) we see a man crouched in his flat, wearing a sailor’s shirt and shorts with bare legs but for a pair of sports socks, licking a popsicle in the shape of a cat. Hiding between a chair and table amid the outside winter light, the odd shot from the window tells us about the possible surroundings, maybe an elevated New York subway with snow-plowed streets underneath. The classic German folk song “Der alte Graf von Rüdesheim” plays on the soundtrack throughout the scene, a haunting and insistent reminder of bygone days. The feeling of boredom that is produced on the subject’s part contrasts with the nostalgic music and the sense of hiding from the cold reality outside.

Another such chamber piece is El Cardenal (1972). A cardinal retreats into his study, which is filled with paraphernalia of the macabre and permeated by an atmosphere of death and transience. The holy scriptures around him are infested with cockroaches and fruit rots away in a crystal bowl while he looks on apathetically for a sign from above. By exposing the delusions of grandeur, Plaat critically dissects the demise of religion and tears into its lost capacity for meaningfulness.

Closing this triptych is I Am an Old Smoking, Moving Indian Movie Star (1969). To the melodramatic sound of violins and a mandolin, we find ourselves in the abode of a cheerful woman, wearing a black veil and sparkling jewellery. She talks at the camera as if being interviewed, her lips moving but her voice inaudible. In between, she occasionally takes a puff of a cigarette, through the veil that is covering her face. The environment and setting here make the nostalgia palpable.

Saying goodbye to performance and jumping ahead in time, A Fleeting Dream (2004) can be considered the nucleus of Plaat’s work. A collage of his own backlog of film footage, spanning almost his entire cinematic oeuvre, we engage in travels to remote places, and are shown random objects, faces, trains rolling, and people dancing. A couple of scenes summarize Plaat’s enchantment with the past: a butler opening a fridge that is in the end empty, derelict sceneries passing by, and smoke coming out of a cut-out in a poster of a movie diva. A Fleeting Dream stands as something like a cinematic testament and a final ode to his filmwork.

A meditation on death, La Muerte en Vivo (1985) has Plaat’s camera walking through a cemetery in Mexico, peeping into walls of photographs and colorful ornaments and telling the story of the deceased and their individual remembering. Now That You Are Gone (1977) is something like its humoristic counterpart. A figurine of Mickey Mouse affixed to wheels is pulled through Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, exploring its surroundings, trees, and an old Ford car. Wobbling gelatine puddings add a colorful and textural absurdist element to this study on the beauty of impermanence.

Concluding with a last laugh, Hitler Stay Away from My Door (1968) shows Plaat at his most direct, critical and funny. At the center of a series of photo collages with images of German advertisements, documented violence, and post-war rubble, we see Hitler’s portrait as a crazy, tongue-sticking-out fool. To the background of marching music and a singing saw, the images are edited in rapid sequence and appear to be animated while being saturated in smoke. Here, Plaat transforms the serious into the ridiculous, or as he puts it: “Tragic situations inevitably have absurdist sides.”

  1. Anna Abrahams, Mariska Graveland, Peter van Hoof, Erwin van ‘t Hart, mm2: Experimental Film in the Netherlands since 1960 (Filmbank: Uitgeverij de Balie, 2004).


Marius Hrdy

Marius Hrdy is a cultural worker, film programmer and writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues