Diamonds of the Night – Heartbreaking beauty by Jan Němec in his first film.

I just don’t know where to start with this beautiful beautiful film.

I’ve actually owned this film for a few months and hadn’t gotten around to watching it yet.  It was on my ‘list’ for a couple of weeks then I sat down to focus this week finally – and as usual, I was stunned a the beauty and courage of Jan Němec and the Czech New Wave in general.  I’m going to lean heavily on the Second Run essay for this review, because they are always so damned good!  This one is by Michael Brooke, curator at the BFI National Archive.

“I was not interested in psychology in the true sense of the term, in a faithful depiction of man’s mental processes, but in an examination of the subconscious. That is what appeals to me most in films – the possibility of discovering the secrets of man’s subconsciousness and dreams. A knowledge of these elements is very important if we want to give a faithful portrayal of man in films – and in every art form.” Jan Němec

Besides the fact of the extraordinary quality of this beautiful film, one of its most interesting subversions occurs even before the film was made. It is a story taken from Arnost Lustig‘s autobiographical novella entitled Darkness Casts No Shadow.  What is interesting about that is that Jan Němec takes a very small portion of the story.  In other words he begins with a process of elimination even before a word is written and before a scene is conceived. Lustig did work on the script with  Němec, and declared it his favourite adaptation of all his works.

The elimination element is crucial to understanding the film, as is the surreal component. At the very beginning, when the boys have first escaped, they take a few moments to lay down in the woods. There is a cut to one of the boys hands crawling with ants. This is an important reference to the work of Luis Bunuel and a flag to inform the viewer this will be a work of surrealism.

So when you pare down the story and commit to surrealism, starting with elimination, what is it exactly that you have?

The opening shot reveals Němec’s strategy, as the camera bursts out of the traps with the velocity of a champion greyhound, keeping up with and occasionally overtaking the two desperate boys as they run for their lives from a goods train briefly glimpsed at the very start. Eventually, in the same shot, the camera slows down for intensively extreme close-ups of faces and hands as they scramble on the ground, evidently close to exhaustion, the sound of screeching breaks, gunfire and guttural German-accented cries of ‘Halt!’ fading into the distance. Throughout the film, Němec and his inspired camera team( Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Ondricek) are at pains to emphasise the relentless physicality of the situation, the harshness of the environment, and the demonstrable toll on the boys bodies, hearts and minds.

The plot is launched at this point, and the two teen boys are on the run.  They will keep running, exhaustion and starvation and injury haunting them, untill they are too weak to go on.  They will be recaptured, but not  until toward the end of the film. There is almost no dialogue.  The boys are so busy running and escaping and relentlessly trying to recapture their dignity there is no time for talk. Only the surreal memories of how they got to this place and who they have becoming in getting there.

A more elaborate flashback early in the film establishes the boys mutually supportive relationship. Sitting in the back of a cattle truck, surrounded by emaciated men in blue and white striped pajamas they exchange boots and they share food.  They do this when food is rare. The boots on the more afflicted boy do nothing to help protect his badly wounded feet, as in silence and through intense close-ups throughout the film, he notices the blood seeping from the other boys foot. Now having escaped, they spend their first night in fitful restless sleep, their flashbacks becoming more frequent and more detailed and more disorienting as many of them simply represent freedom to a teenage boy. Gleefully tobogganing children, fresh linens hanging out to air from families homes, a woman with bountiful cleavage leaning out of a window.  These nocturnal dream-images gradually become more vivid and alarming: trees fall all-around them with thunderous crashes, and more elaborate fantasy about ants culminates in a literally skin-crawling shot of hundreds of them swarming in one of the boy’s eye sockets. As the film progresses, some of the flash cuts add up to something approaching narrative clarity as one boy repeatedly runs past a graveyard, over a field, rings a doorbell and ascends some stairs – it’s not till much later we discover these are all linked to a romantic assignation with a girlfriend, the outcome of which remains ambiguous.

The fist two-way conversation occurs more than twenty minutes in and revolves around  food – or the lack thereof – a reoccurring theme. The boys discover a farm where a woman is alone tending house while her husband works in the fields. In a strange and surreal sequence the woman gives the boys food (they are so hungry their mouths bleed when the dry sharp bread enters) but one of them fantasies about killing her for the food. In a strange series of cuts and repeat cuts, the boy assaults the woman for the food – sometimes in order to take the food from her, sometimes to ensure she doesn’t follow them, and eventually, simply because he can even though there is no need to. These are intercut with images of seduction and desire.  BUt was the woman really assaulted? is the boy delusional or is he so hungry he is willing to club a woman over the head for food.  When I went to Africa I was lucky enough to meet Jerry Rawlings. One of the things he said to me – very close to my face – was “have you ever been so hungry you will pick up a gun?” Thee is an association between hunger and power –  almost as if one legitimizes the other.

It’s possible that the woman, even though she has given the boys food, the film cuts immediately to a long line of elderly German males out hunting (literally) for the boys. Did the woman give them away? This is the start of the most disturbing aspect of the film.  The boys will be captured, but not by German officers, but my a line of elderly German men. Despite the fact that they laugh and eat and act foolish and merry, there is nothing amusing about them at all. They are the perfect example of abjection, pure horror. These are the Sudeten Germans’ the first beneficiaries of Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia. In this case it doesn’t matter that the boys are Jewish. At this point in time they are Czech and they can’t speak German, which instantly categorise them as inferior.

The films virtuosos cinematography and editing have already been praised.  The soundtrack is also brilliantly utilised. One also can’t help bot notice the distinction between the ages of the boys and the ages of the old men. Despite their age, in this Czechoslovakia, the old German men have more of a future. As with the farmhouse sequence the editing is calculating and suggestive offering us two possible endings. Do the old men shoot the boys in the back as they walk, leaning on each other for support, or are the boys ‘free’ to escape into a black forest – starving and seriously injured – as the blackness enfolds around them? We don’t know.  What we do know is this is a truly remarkable film, all the more incredible for it being Němec’s debut. I’m always a little ‘either way’ about surrealism. I can really love it or really hate it. When it is used to depict a madness alive in the world, and play havoc with our own imposed expectations, I love it. Němec gives us a brilliant dose of this.

Highly recommended.  (no really – you must not miss this!)