Diamonds of the Night: Into the Woods

Essays — Apr 16, 2019

Most proper New Waves of the 1960s came equipped with a rough balance of assimilable superstars and genuine radicals, and for the Czechoslovaks, the guerrilla flank was led by Jan Němec. Jiří Menzel was adored globally for his wry humor, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer were invited to Hollywood, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos were awarded an Oscar, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš were (eventually) cultified. But Němec—the movement’s bitterest aesthete, the renegade dispositionally unable to accommodate compromise, authority, or orthodoxy—still awaits the culture’s full-on embrace. It was Němec who gave the Czechoslovak New Wave its measure of postmodern rage and its primary jolt of formal risk, and he paid the price for it—four years and a handful of films after the release of his first feature, Diamonds of the Night, in 1964, he was blacklisted, and he soon went into exile, not to return to his homeland and resume his career proper until the Communist regime fell at the end of the eighties.

Hardly enough critical contemplation has been devoted to the question of to what degree the suppressive pressures of life under Communism may have shaped the distinctiveness of the Eastern European New Waves—or, for that matter, to the come-hell-or-high-water way those movements exuded the élan and variegated inventiveness they had inherited from the French New Wave, regardless of sociopolitical circumstances. (The current debate is about whether there was a Polish New Wave at all.) In any case, among the rising voices of the sixties, the Czechoslovaks were particularly unruly, and often attuned to pagan folkloric tendencies, open to avant-garde-ish detours, and outraged by the era’s rampaging conformism. Němec would probably have come out shooting wherever he emerged, and even in the context of New Wave–ism, Diamonds of the Night is a shoulder rocket of a film, bristling with disorientation and howling with ambiguous subjectivity.

Films weren’t made this way anywhere: Diamonds of the Night is lean like a nightmare, frantic like personal panic, unreliable as delirium. Filmmaking, in other words, that seeks to become an internal vision of traumatized experience. Look at a map of those years and you’ll find that only a couple of Soviet miracles—Mikhail Kalatozov’s catapulting dream tapestry I Am Cuba and Sergei Parajanov’s lysergic folktale Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, both of which premiered within a few months of Němec’s debut—sought to subjectivize themselves to the same extent, if in severely different ways. John Cassavetes, and the manner in which he had made Shadows five years earlier—handheld, impressionistic, in a hurry, haphazardly invoking offscreen space, concrete narrative context be damned—may actually be the closest correspondent, though he was hardly as interested as Němec in salting gritty naturalism with a quantum uncertainty.

“There’s something fundamentally cinematic here, in how the situation and action are so gruelingly specific that they attain an abstracted resonance, an ur-ness.”

That Diamonds of the Night is a World War II story, a Holocaust vignette, is almost beside the point. Based on a typical early novel by Arnošt Lustig, a former inhabitant of Auschwitz and one of the most revered Czech novelists to emerge from the war, Diamonds trucks not with introductions or background—singularly, it begins in medias res, breathlessly, running with its two young Jewish protagonists (nonprofessional actors Ladislav Janský and Antonín Kumbera) away from a transport train and through a forest, with only the sounds of Germans and guns in the distance. This extended sequence, dialogue-free but thick with panting, immediately feels like an existentialist process, Beckett if Beckett ever went memoiristic about his French Resistance exploits or understood landscape in a realistic way, or Kafka if Kafka ever went to war. (In exile in the West in the seventies, Němec did make an all-first-person version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for West German television.) The forest is unforgiving, and the camera doesn’t merely persist, it gets intimate with ordeal, in close to real time; Němec insists that we experience the moment firsthand, not merely share it or empathize from a convenient arm’s length. Later, the protagonists’ passage across a vast field of jagged rocks, with the painful impediment for one of the boys of a bad foot that just keeps getting worse, is a distended trial, like a punishment out of Dante. The film scans like a virtual manual on how to survive in this particular wilderness—or merely how to suffer within it.

Němec’s strategy in the film seems so simple in its no-nonsense ferocity, nearly as simple as the taut artery of the story, and it has been widely imitated since (the Dardenne brothers have fashioned an entire, ubiquitously copied aesthetic from Němec’s withholding, too-close, over-the-shoulder perspectives). The rawest details—like the starving heroes’ attempt to eat a farmwife’s bread, which makes them reflux blood—still feel primal. But the visceral impact isn’t all there is—there’s also something fundamentally cinematic here, in how the situation and action are so gruelingly specific and untempered by “this is a story about . . .” that they attain an abstracted resonance, an ur-ness. The ordeal means. The inky forest, the desperate teenagers (shot silvery and ashen, like forgotten Lindow Men trapped in a dream-film bog), the startling absence of context, the radical reduction of familiar history to present-tense emergency, the mad rush forward into the unknown—the dynamic has the electric traction of a universal trial, a wilderness battle we all fight, unguided and alone, against a godless world.

At least, that was the sense I had first watching  Němec’s cataract, as teenager in film school myself; the other New Wave insurgencies offered up, from everywhere, could feel genteel and secondhand by comparison. It’s a burn that hasn’t healed over—the leaner Němec’s film seems, the larger its circumference of reverb expands. Of course, what we took for hyperreality in the movie’s first act may not necessarily be “real” at all—Němec’s scheme quickly broadens, approaching his ambition for what he called “dream realism” by shuffling diegetic “reality,” memories (of the transport the boys escaped from, for example), and various modes of hallucination (the German camp acronym “KL,” for Konzentrationslager, painted on the protagonists’ long coats, as they dash through train cars and saunter past Nazis on sunlit city streets). The weave aggregates into a shifting consciousness caught on plastic, a torrential object mirroring a subjectivity scarred by experience. But the subjectivity doesn’t steer our empathy or understanding, because it’s not attributed to either boy—or to anyone at all. It just is; it’s the film itself, its own concrete manifestation of doubt and torment and hope. In the fantasy chunks, the rotten foot is healed, and the boy’s desperately needed cane is twiddled idly—a wishful daydream that could belong to either boy, or both, or Němec, or us.

The moment of Diamonds of the Night was a heady one, on the edge of the Iron Curtain in the post-Khrushchev-thaw years, a young culture filthy with samizdat, underground artist alliances, and dissident cabals, but Němec stood out as a John Brown among obstreperosities. Even his film-school career was riven by charges of insubordination, threats of expulsion, and censorship; denied permission to shoot one Lustig story for his thesis short film, he simply chose another and bulldozed through (with 1960’s A Loaf of Bread), winning festival awards in Amsterdam and Oberhausen. Famously, his second feature, the conscientiously provocative parable A Report on the Party and Guests (1966), was banned by the government “forever,” and by the end of the decade, Kamil Pixa, the general manager of the production company Krátký film Praha, reportedly explained the filmmaker’s blacklisting to his face thus: “You know, Němec, we can’t let you make movies. You are so clever and such a swine. You would learn how to do it better than those who we are allowing to work now, those nontalented cretins. You would build up your position, and when the party and society stopped watching you, you would stab us in the back. You are unreliable. Simply forget about making films again.”

You think of the well-known crack, recounted by André Breton in Les manifestes du surréalisme, of Paul Valéry’s about his poet’s anti­pathy toward writing novels because he could never bring himself to put down a sentence like “The marquise went out at five o’clock.” With his first films, Němec kept faith with this protomodernist poetical recalcitrance, and in Diamonds of the Night he pursues it with an obstinate rigor usually reserved for avant-garde filmmakers, from Dziga Vertov to James Benning. Even the film’s last act, which otherwise explodes with bald-faced social critique (the German locals, drunk and dancing and slobbering their sausages, hit the hills for a shooting party with their family shotguns and capture the two starving fugitives), launches into fitful abstraction, with granular-detail still lifes (hallways, windowsills, keyholes), repeated splats of hallucinatory action (an old-timer’s boozy jig), and a much-noted and fascinatingly indeterminate two-pronged ending, in which the boys are executed by these self-indulgent old Germans and then escape again (or still) into the forest.

Němec, in any case, did not have the career he should have, interrupted as it was at the end of the Prague Spring and then running in low gear in Germany, France, and the U.S. for two decades, before he returned to Prague after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 to make a handful of very odd, free-form valedictory films up until his death in 2016. By the same token, given the kind of artist Němec was, it may’ve been the only career imaginable for him, an abbreviated and brawl-scarred calendar of resistance, against conformity and orthodoxy and whatever force of state or business might insist he make cinema its way or no way at all. It’s more than fitting that his two masterpieces, Diamonds of the Night and A Report on the Party and Guests, however different, are both bitter, roiling currents of struggle, in which the besieged individual is offered no hope for himself but fights on regardless.

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