Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)

Director: Jan Nèmec
Screenplay: Jan Nèmec (based on the novel Darkness Has No Shadows by Arnošt Lustig)
Stars: Ladislav Jánsky (1st Boy), Antonín Kumbera (2nd Boy), Ilse Bischofova (The Woman)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: Czechoslovakia
Diamonds of the Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Diamonds of the Night

Jan Nèmec’s directorial debut Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) begins with an astounding two-minute tracking shot—often referred to as the most complicated tracking shot in the history of Czech cinema. It throws us immediately into the action, as we watch two boys (Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera), having just leapt from a freight train that we can hear just off-screen and briefly glimpse, run along the edge of a dense forest, shedding their heavy coats as they scramble up a steep hillside littered with shorn tree trunks. The camera tracks closely alongside them as voices yell from behind and gunshots ring out; the smoothness of the camera movement contrasts with the boys’ wild, fraught movements as they run and claw their way up the hill (this being pre-Steadicam, the shot was achieved by building a massive track with the camera on multiple carts, some of which acted as counterbalances for the movement up the hill). The camera eventually joins their desperation, shifting to a handheld modality that reflects the intensity of their desperation. The shot mixes both intense, physical realism and a purposefully disorienting use of space, as Nèmec and his cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera keep the camera at the same angle as the boys, which makes their climbing up the hill appear as if they are crawling on all fours on level ground. It is the first hint that Nèmec is not going to maintain any kind of fidelity to physical reality, but rather use the story of the boys’ escape as a leaping-off point for an experiment in cinematic subjectivity.

We later learn that the train from which the boys escaped was taking them to a concentration camp, and their initial escape is just the beginning of a fraught journey to what they can only hope will be eventual freedom. Working from a slim novel by Arnošt Lustig, who himself survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and escaped from a freight train carrying him to Dachau, Nèmec depicts the boys’ as being constantly in danger, not just from Nazi troops, but from the grizzled old farmers who work the countryside through which they are running. Working with the Nazis, they assemble a hunting party to go after the boys, showing in no uncertain terms how the horrors of the Holocaust were enabled by collaborators who never officially put on a uniform. Nèmec depicts these collaborators in as grotesque a manner as possible, particularly in his emphasis on their celebratory eating and drinking when the boys are captured, which is not only vulgar in its own right, but all the more cruel given our understanding of how desperate and starving the boys are. The sense of human cruelty on display grounds the film’s unconventional aesthetic flights, reminding us that Nèmec is not interested in experimentation for its own sake, but rather as a means of getting at deeper, darker truths about human nature.

Diamonds of the Night was one of a number of Czech films at the time to depict the Holocaust—which also include Zbynek Brynych’s Transport From Paradise (Transport z ráje, 1963), Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1965), and Antonín Moskalyk’s Dita Saxová (1968)—the result of the post-Stalin Soviet Union easing some of its restrictions on filmmakers in its Eastern European satellite countries. Unlike most other Czech Holocaust films, Nèmec’s largely eschews a traditional cinematic approach to the subject and instead dramatizes the action through a fractured subjectivity that renders the entire experience dreamlike and fleeting—ruthlessly subjected it to a surreal nightmare logic that often leaves us questioning whether events actually transpired (in this way, his film is evocative of the works of Alain Resnais, particularly 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour). It is a particularly compelling example of Nèmec’s assertion that “the director must create his own world, a world independent of reality, as it appears the time” (his resistance to traditional cinematic approaches is likely why he did not achieve the same prominence as some of his contemporary Czech New Wave filmmakers such as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, both of whom made their way to Hollywood). There is a clear narrative from beginning to end involving the boys’ escape, but that narrative is punctuated throughout with both flashbacks and various dreams and fantasies, which makes the film more of a psychological meditation on stress and survival than a linear story about escape. It challenges our expectations at virtually every turn, including its multiple endings that leave the fate of the boys in limbo.

Diamonds of the Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • Czech Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Video interview from 2009 with director Jan Němec
  • A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s 1960 student thesis film
  • Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, 1993 short documentary
  • Video interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova
  • Video essay on the film’s stylistic influences by scholar James Quandt
  • Essay by film critic Michael Atkinson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 16, 2019

    COMMENTS
    The new 4K restoration of Diamonds of the Night on Criterion’s Blu-ray was made from the original 35mm camera negative, which has been preserved by the National Film Archive in Prague. Apparently, some sections were missing and had to be replaced with footage from a duplicate positive, but I couldn’t spot where those were. The image is generally clean and clear, although you should definitely expect some softness. This is not a super crisp-looking film, although it does have good detail and contrast, especially in the close-ups. There are some defects inherent to the image that were left, as they should be. The monaural soundtrack was transferred from the original 35mm soundtrack negative. While there is no extradiegetic musical score, the film boasts a strong, nuanced soundtrack that is heavy with ambient noises that are essential to creating the film’s unique mixture of realism and surrealism. Interestingly, as the film runs only slightly over an hour, it will take you longer to go through the supplements than the film itself. First up is a 26-minute interview with director Jan Nèmec that was recorded in 2009. His discussion of his career is augmented with clips from a number of his films, and he talks about Diamonds of the Night at length. Also from the archive is Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Nèmec, a 15-minute documentary made for Czech television in 1993, in which Nemec talks about the author whose work he adapted for Diamonds of the Night and his student thesis film A Loaf of Bread (1960), which is also included here. New to Criterion’s disc is “Five Influences on Diamonds,” a highly informative 22-minute video essay in which film scholar and programmer James Quandt discusses the film’s many cinematic influences, including films by Alain Resnais, Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, and Luis Buñuel. Also new to this disc is a 17-minute interview with Czech film scholar Irena Kovarova, who helpfully situates Diamonds of the Night within the film movement that became known as the “Czech New Wave” (which she rightfully insists should be referred to as the “Czechoslovak New Wave”).

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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