Classic Czech Film German Review

Diamonds Of The Night

The winner of the Grand Prix for the best debut film at the 1964 the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in 1964, Jan Němec’s ‘Diamonds Of The Night’ (original title Démanty Noci) is considered by many film historians to be first film that brought the Czechoslovakian New Wave film movement to international spotlight. Based on an autobiographical short story by Arnošt Lustig (Lustig is credited as the co-screenplay writer of the film), ‘Diamonds Of The Night’ narrates the harrowing story of two young men who escape a concentration camp transport train and flee into the surrounding forests discarding their long black overcoats marked with the letters ‘KL’ which is the abbreviation for ‘Konzentrationslager’ (concentration camp). Their punitive march through the hostile terrain of the forest and the brutal existential tale of survival is juxtaposed with their memories and fantasies which make the reality of their struggle for survival assume the dimension of a tragic yet surreal journey. The two young men get caught by a cadre of old men, and apparently are released or they escape again into the woods in an eternal cycle which can only end if they are they’re shot dead.

Fractured editing, an elliptical narrative structure mixed with flights of surrealism make this simple tale of survival into an exploration of panic stricken minds lost in the night, fog, rain and the merciless topography of the forest. The inter-cutting between dreams-memories-reality seems to mirror the works Alain Resnais. On the other hand, the meticulous, completely non-dramatic form story-telling echo the cinematic approach of Robert Bresson. The influence of Bresson not only lies in Němec’s complete abjuration of melodrama but also in the ‘acting’ style of the protagonists. Ladislav Jánsky as the older/bigger boy and Antonín Kumbera as the younger/smaller boy – from whose point of view the story is told – do not ‘act’ per se. Instead, they follow Robert Bresson’s dictum defining ‘human models’ who portray, “movement from the exterior to the interior… gestures they have repeated twenty times. The words they have learned their lips will find, without taking part in this, the inflections and their lilt proper to their true nature.” There are some direct references to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andolou (1929) in the film – shots of hands and faces covered with crawling ants. On the other hand the long, visceral tracking shots which are the defining aspect of the mise-en-scene of the film are a sort of throwback to Andrey Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and the films of Mikhail Kalatzov. The use of the long, uninterrupted tracking shots by many Eastern European filmmakers mark a sort of rebellion against the stylistics of the state approved and hence the dominant mode of ‘Social Realism’ and Němec’s use of it falls in the same category. But all these diverse influences do not assume dimensions of pretentious ‘homage’ but act as signposts of internalizing the influence of diverse set of filmmakers by Němec to explore his very own cinematic vision and develop his unique style of cinematic storytelling.

The reality-memory-fantasy narrative structure employed in the film makes us wonder what we see on screen is reality or are they mere hallucinations of terror stricken minds. Are the events which happen in the forest real or are they not? The distinction between memory and fantasy gets mixed up by the juxtaposition of the shots and the surreal/absurd elements that are depicted as memories. For example, could it really be true that the young men wandered freely through the streets of Prague  wearing overcoats with the letters ‘KL’ stamped on the back declaring them clearly as inmates of concentration camps or marked for deportation to the same? Some other scenes like the one in which the smaller (younger?) boy imagines multiple outcomes to his encounter with a farmer’s wife, including three repetitions of killing her brutally by striking her on the head with a heavy stick are surely projections of a delirious mind. The gory fantasy of the killing is also a signpost of the farmer wife’s sexual allure but perhaps the reality of her in terms of the narrative is that she is one who takes pity on their plight and offers them bread and milk when they need it the most. On the other hand the recurring memory motif of the films is perhaps for real – the smaller/younger boy has repeated flashbacks to his action of snatching a piece of bread from the bigger/older boy while the later calmly takes a shoe from him as an exchange or tit-for-tat. The insertion of this memory also serves the purpose of depicting that the two boys are not ‘comrades’ but it is just by sheer compulsion are bought together to undertake this flight to freedom.

The finale of the film involves being the two youth being hunted and captured by a group of old, even ancient-looking German speaking men, who practically totter and dodder in their determination to hunt down the two youth. The old men stage a celebratory meal, complete with music and a song and dance routine which assumes sinister dimensions especially when viewed from the perspective of the two escapees. But here again, one is forced to wonder are these decrepit but cold-hearted old killing machines for real? Surely, at the height of their powers the Nazi regime did not depend on such old men to act as civilian village guards! Or did it? Němec clearly is not interested in providing clear answers – rather the old men and their activities seem to be a metaphor of vicious power of an autocratic state which can turn even innocuous and doddering old men into killing machines.

The ambiguous and open-ended final sequence which makes the story circular – do the boys escape from the clutches of their captors or are they released so that the old men can continue their ‘hunting game’ or that is what happened right at the beginning of the film – which is similar to the opening sequence of the film, both in terms of mise-en-scene and content again mixes up the reality with fantasy to make a very political point – an issue that has haunted generations of Eastern European filmmakers. What is the meaning of a fight against totalitarianism when at the end of the struggle one form of totalitarianism is replaced by another albeit a one which may be a more subtle but equally oppressive?

A 67-minute film with hardly 100 spoken words which are not really dialogues but short bursts of spoken words which merely convey rudimentary information – the first spoken words come after more than 15 minutes into the film – ‘Diamonds of Night’ is a celebration of cinema, a cinema which forces us to think and reflect not only on the various aspects of the ‘events’ portrayed on screen but also on cinema and myriad ways stories can be told through cinema. The enigmatic and amorphous non-narrative story-telling style of the film makes it open to subjective interpretations – every individual viewer is free to interpret the story and the events that are depicted in the film in his or her own manner while Němec provides the clues and aesthetic markers only and does not impose interpretations or ‘meanings’.

‘Diamonds Of The Night’ – an enigmatic, a primordial film – a poetic but nightmarish portrayal of terror stricken minds caught by the pincers of totalitarianism from which there is no escape.

(The film is available for viewing on YouTube)

Czech, German, Drama, Black & White

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