Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

Diamonds of the Night

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Němec, Jan, Krumbachová, Ester — Michael at 8:33 am on Saturday, August 26, 2006


Démanty noci

1964, black and white, 64 mins

  • Director: Jan Němec
  • Producer: Miloš Bergl
  • Screenplay: Arnošt Lustig, Jan Němec, adapted from Lustig’s novella Darkness Casts No Shadow (Tma nemá stín)
  • Photography: Jaroslav Kučera (and Miroslav Ondříček)
  • Editor: Miroslav Hájek, Jitka Šulcová
  • Design: Oldřich Bosák
  • Music: none

  • Cast: Ladislav Janský (first young man), Antonín Kumbera (second young man), Ilse Bischofová (woman), Jan Říha, Ivan Asič, August Bischof, Josef Koggel, Oskar Miller, Anton Schich, Rudolf Stolle, Josef Koblížek, Rudolf Lukášek, Bohumil Moudrý, Karel Navrátil, Evžen Pichl, František Procházka, František Vrána, Josef Kubát (old men)

  • Crew: František Černý (sound); Josef Mára, Zdena Černá (associate producers); Hynek Bočan (assistant director); Petr Čech (camera assistant); Bohumil Nový (design assistant); Filmové studio Barrandov (production company)

The Film

One of the earliest Czech New Wave films, Jan Němec’s debut feature Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) is also one of the most startling, and remains a thrillingly original piece of cinema even today. Shot largely hand-held and virtually dialogue-free, it follows the desperate journey of two teenage boys who successfully escape a train (presumably) bound for a Nazi concentration camp, only to find themselves hunted down by a band of old men whose physical decrepitude doesn’t make them any less lethal.

It was based on the novella Darkness Casts No Shadow (Tma nemá stín) by Arnošt Lustig, an Auschwitz survivor who became one of the main Czech chroniclers of the Holocaust, and who himself managed to escape from a Dachau-bound train after it was bombed by the Americans. Although Lustig co-wrote the screenplay and would later cite the film as his personal favourite of all the adaptations of his work, it’s clear that he’s not the kind of author who values excessive fidelity to the text, as it’s impossible to detect from what ended up on screen that it had a literary source. In Němec’s treatment, it’s almost irrelevant that this is set during World War II - it could be any situation involving teenage outsiders on the run from some kind of authority.

So given that Němec has not only stripped the situation down to its barest essentials and that the plot (such as it is) could be written on the back of a postcard with more than enough space left over to add the credits, what are the film’s virtues? His approach is to emphasise the overwhelming physicality of the situation his two protagonists find themselves in. The impression of feverish delirium is enhanced by the extensive use of a hand-held camera (operated by Miroslav Ondříček, later Miloš Forman’s favourite cinematographer) and Jaroslav Kučera’s grainy, sometimes slightly overexposed photography adds a texture to what are already strongly tactile images.

Half-dead with exhaustion and hunger, almost crippled by ill-fitting boots and repeatedly drenched by sudden downpours, the boys’ tortuous progress through the woods is intercut with short, initially inexplicable images, some of which appear to be flashbacks (a tram ride, an assignation with a girl in a cemetery, the journey on the Nazi train), others which seem to be conveying their disintegrating mental state (a rapid montage of tall trees falling towards the camera, a shock-cut to a face crawling with ants - or, more explicably, generalised memories of comfort and pleasure), while later on they seem to be trying to predict the future, or several alternative variants. This last element is most overt in the sequence in the farm, where one of the boys imagines committing at least three different violent acts on the woman he meets there (the last of which hints at rape), and also at the end - or rather ends, as Němec offers two alternatives.

When the boys are finally captured (were they betrayed by the woman at the farm? Němec doesn’t say), the film shifts gear, maintaining the nightmarish tone while adding an element of satire. Their pursuers, far from being lithe Gestapo officers, are a motley gaggle of old men, some of whom appear to be borderline senile, laughing and joking amongst themselves as they hunt them down. This sequence has a universality that goes far beyond the specific World War II period and even beyond Diamonds of the Night’s own production, as much of Czech twentieth-century history (very much including the 1968-89 period) involves a gerontocracy imposing its views on the younger members of the population, often backed up by force. Němec would explore a similar theme in his follow-up feature The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech), another film where the appearance of deceptively jovial authority figures presages disaster.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Němec’s major acknowledged influence was Robert Bresson: although the visual style of Diamonds of the Night is more freewheeling than the Frenchman’s slow-moving austerity, Němec’s essentialist approach to the content of both his images and his soundtrack run very much along the same lines (there is no music, and sometimes he even strips out foreground sounds). Another clear influence is that of Luis Buñuel - this would become particularly overt with Němec’s next feature, the Exterminating Angel-like The Party and the Guests, but the shots of ants crawling over hands, feet and faces are an unmistakable homage to the creator of Un Chien andalou, while Peter Hames’ account of the film (in The Czechoslovak New Wave) also finds parallels with L’Age d’or (the bandits on the run) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (assorted rape/murder fantasies that remain just that).

For a feature debut by a director still in his twenties, Diamonds of the Night is an extraordinarily confident piece of work, and it still looms large in Němec’s output as a whole - though the brilliant career that this seemed to foreshadow ended up moving in fits and starts, with huge and unintended gaps in his filmography. Although Němec was never as much of a victim as, say, Sergo Paradjanov in the USSR (he did at least avoid prison, though by all accounts only just), his patchy post-1960s career is a testament to the difficulty of maintaining a genuinely uncompromising creative stance in systems - whether communist or capitalist - that have very different priorities.


The DVD

Distribution: Filmexport Home Video (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code, on a double-bill DVD that also includes Miloš Forman’s Talent Competition (Konkurs)

Picture: I saw this film on the big screen nearly twenty years ago, and the DVD seems to match my memories pretty well, in that I believe the obtrusive grain and overexposed, almost bleached-out flashback shots are intentional elements of the overall texture. The print is in good condition for its age, with relatively few spots and scratches, and occasional faint tramlines generally come and go with cuts to successive shots, suggesting the original film stock or negative cutting copy was scratched prior to editing. The aspect ratio is the original 4:3. Although the image quality as a whole is only fair to middling, and there’s evidence that the original source was an analogue tape, none of this is especially distracting - the film has clearly been designed to look rough and ready, and virtually every shot is hand-held. So while there’s room for improvement, this will certainly do for now.

Sound: The sound is the original mono, and consists almost entirely of background noise - there is little dialogue and no music other than what’s sung onscreen by the old men towards the end. As with the picture, while it’s far from flawless, I never got the impression that I was being short-changed: it’s what I’d have expected from an early 1960s Eastern European film.

Subtitles: There is so little dialogue in this film that the total number of subtitles must only be in the low double figures - but they appeared whenever necessary (including the opening credits), and did a good, clear, typo-free job. Interestingly, while the English subtitles translate everything, the Czech subtitles merely transcribe what’s uttered on screen - in other words, the German dialogue remains in German, presumably to reflect the boys’ own bafflement and incomprehension.

Extras: There are plenty of extras (covering both this film and the accompanying Talent Competition), many of which look fascinating - but almost everything will be useless to those who don’t understand Czech. But here’s a rundown: a 23-minute introduction by film historian Pavel Taussig (delivered straight to camera and intercut with film clips); a well-stocked stills gallery (36 images, mostly from the film though with a couple of production shots) accompanied, in the absence of any music, by a section of the film’s soundtrack; biographies and filmographies for Jan Němec, Arnošt Lustig, Jaroslav Kučera, Ladislav Janský and Antonín Kumbera; a twelve-title bibliography; a short publicity montage (three images); interviews with second cameraman Miroslav Ondříček (5:44) and assistant director Hynek Bočan (10:33); a list of festivals the film played at; and a DVD-ROM section containing high-resolution scans of contemporary reviews (all from Czech publications). Note that these are just the extras for the Diamonds of the Night section of the disc - Talent Competition has a similar collection of its own.


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