PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Faceted Depictions of War: On Jan Němec's 'Diamonds of the Night' (Démanty noci)

Antonín Kumbera as 2nd boy in Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) (courtesy of Criterion)

Are fantasies mixed up with memories in Jan Němec's film adaptation of Arnošt Lustig's autobiographical story of surviving WWII, Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)? Will these babes forever be in the woods?

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)
Jan Němec

Criterion

16 Apr 2019

Other

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) announced itself in 1964 as what it remains: a key early film of Czechoslovakia's New Wave and a hard, shiny, multi-faceted gem that flashes in the mind without giving away its essential secrets -- and that's part of its secret. It's not only possible for audiences to emerge from this movie without a clear idea of what happens in it, it's virtually required. We're left with existential terror. That's a remarkable feat in general and especially so with a film that apparently has a happy ending.

A 2018 restoration is now available on Blu-ray from Criterion. In attempting to convey what we glean from this remarkable package, it's impossible not to discuss what happens in the film, so consider this a SPOILER alert even though, in one sense, it's impossible for such an almost avant-garde approach to narrative spoil anything.

The story is simply that two young men, more or less boys, escape from a transport train of concentration camp prisoners somewhere in Germany. They run through the woods, get caught by a cadre of old men, and apparently are released or escape again into the woods in an eternal cycle -- unless they're shot.

Director Jan Němec co-scripted the film with author Arnošt Lustig. They were adapting the latter's 1958 autobiographical story of the same name, also known as Darkness Casts No Shadow, which is inspired by the author's actual escape from such a situation. Therefore, it's a happy ending, right?

The trouble and glory with Němec is that he's interested in fragmentary, fractional, refracted and refractory narrative, based partly on his reading of William Faulkner and partly on his youthful excitement at the discovery of dream-and-memory in the films of Alain Resnais. In a bonus interview, he discusses how such decadent bourgeois films, officially banned in Czechoslovakia, were screened for students at FAMU (Academy of Performing Arts, Prague).

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

He also mentions that he preferred Faulkner because Hemingway was too "crowd-pleasing" and that he finds Faulkner hard to understand; this gives insight into youthful pretension, for hipster scorn remains with us today, but it's also a specific reaction to growing up in a highly regulated society where officially approved things served a propagandistic agenda.

Němec also responded to the meticulous, stripped-down, emotionless observational approach of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), one of the most non-melodramatic suspense thrillers ever made. (Another is Jacques Becker's 1960 film Le Trou, indebted to Bresson.) In another bonus, critic James Quandt discusses these and other influences, from those in your face -- Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1929) with its ants crawling on a man's hand -- to the more subtle, like Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), which Quandt observes would make a good double feature with Němec's film.

How does Němec apply his ideas and influences to Lustig's seemingly straightforward story? After the opening credits alternate silence with distant passages of church bells, the drama opens with a literally breathless long take as our two young figures are captured in the act of running and climbing against a backdrop of distant shots and cries to halt. The camera is running along beside them on a long, specially constructed track up the hill. It's not entirely one take but appears to be very subtly cut together from two or three (they shot it four times over four days), yet the effect is of one endless run in one endless shot.

It will be a solid 15-minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken, and the unnamed boys never carry on a real dialogue. Their existential status as "babes in the woods" functions both literally and abstractly in a situation infinitely more desperate and menaced than that of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953), though we're reminded of it. The basic materialism of the story is never allowed to dominate, for the smaller boy, the "talky" one who says maybe 100 words in the movie, allows his mind to drift to flashbacks and fantasies with the soundtrack of one reality dubbed over another. Things remind him of other things. Sometimes these memories are concrete and directly relevant to their situation, like the shoe he switched with the other boy, and sometimes more distant.

Sometimes the reality of these memories is unclear. Could it really be that the boys wandered freely through the Prague streets with coats whose large "KL" on the back declared them inmates? Are fantasies mixed up with real memories? Other moments are clearly fantasy, as when the smaller boy (is that why we think he's younger?) imagines multiple outcomes to his encounter with a farm woman, including three repetitions of striking her on the head with a stick -- an image mixed up simultaneously with her sexual allure.

Ladislav Jánsky as 1st boy and Antonín Kumbera as 2nd boy in Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) (courtesy of Criterion)

At a certain point we must wonder how much of what we see in the woods is reality. Is this all an allusion to Ambrose Bierce's 1890 story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", hallucinated in the mind of a dying man?

The last part of the story involves being hunted and captured by a group of old, even ancient-seeming German men, who practically totter and dodder in their determination to hunt down the youth of the day. They stage a celebratory meal, complete with music and song, that foreshadows Němec's next feature, A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) and his friend Miloš Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1967). For that matter, feasts that go awry recur in Czechoslovakian films of the '60s.

One brief exchange seems to have the smaller boy lying through his teeth in an attempt to convince some official behind a desk that he's really a Czech soldier or civilian, leading the man to make some reference to a court martial. The boys make plans to escape from the second transport train, or has it all been one transport train? Are the old men playing with them in staging a firing squad, and do the boys really escape again into the woods? Will they always be in the woods? Was one form of totalitarianism defeated only to be replaced by another?

That last question, or rather its answer, haunts Eastern European cinema after the war. The heroic war against fascism was a safe, even preferred topic for filmmakers from the point of view of government censors, yet the irony of this topic lies in the way it presents itself as veiled contemporary comment. The most dramatic example of this, to my knowledge, is Zbyněk Brynych's The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1965), which takes place during WWII yet makes no effort to look like anything other than modern Prague. Němec takes virtually the same approach, and therefore he abstracts and generalizes a highly specific incident in which two presumably Jewish boys become everymen, or everyboys.

Němec's first collaboration with Lustig was the short film A Loaf of Bread (1960), also based on a true incident in the author's life in a concentration camp. That short film's debt to A Man Escaped even extends to the final burst of Bach on the soundtrack. It won international awards and established his fame and context for making this feature.

(courtesy of Criterion)

Also included is the filmmaker's final collaboration with Lustig, a short video documentary called Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec (1993), made for Czech TV. This dates from Němec's final flowering of film and video work when, after having done nothing in film for over 20 years (except wedding videos), he returned from the US to the Czech Republic after the fall of communism and began a flurry of production that's still under-viewed and under-available. Let's correct that please, Powers That Be in the world of DVD.

As mentioned, other extras include Němec's highly informative interview on a 2009 TV program, in which he explains that he cast Antonín Kumbera as his main boy after having seen a shot of him in a railroad documentary by Evald Schorm (and where the heck are his movies?) in which a snowflake melted on his face. The other boy, Ladislav Jánský, was a photographer who later worked on Hustler magazine -- whose publisher, Larry Flynt, was the subject of a biopic by -- wait for it -- Miloš Forman (The People vs. Larry Flynt). You couldn't make this up.

Němec also explains why dolly shots were officially condemned as decadent bourgeois propaganda because they equalized everything instead of singling out the most valuable things. It was a dictum poorly absorbed by Eastern European filmmakers, who are responsible for some of the most glorious tracking shots in cinema from Mikhail Kalatozov to Tarkovsky, and the most vigorously immersive historical films whose elaborate handheld work refuses to keep the audience at a distance. But we digress.

Other bonuses include an interview with critic Irena Kovarova, who makes a point of stressing why she speaks of the "Czechoslovak New Wave" instead of the short-hand "Czech New Wave". The many film references and posters are a salutary reminder that this New Wave, which was under way for several years before the "Czech Spring" was crushed by Soviet invasion and crackdown in 1968, yielded a much richer array of films than the relative handful readily available to film buffs today, and that so much remains to be brought into the digital light.

For that matter, some films of the pre-New Wave also remain to be rediscovered, and Němec mentions a couple of them among the national films he generally despised. He singles out Vaclav Krska, apparently a homosexual director of personal melodramas whom he compares in a manner to Antonioni, and he admires Krska for somehow being able to make movies that didn't discuss the workers' revolution. O brave old world, that has such movies in it! Where are they?


9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror, Vol. 1'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.