Directed by Jan Němec
Jan Němec’s first full length feature film, Démanty Noci (Diamonds of the Night), is a work of complete single-mindedness. At 63 minutes of length, it cannot afford to be anything else. It is about two boys who escape a train destined for a concentration camp during World War Two. The opening is a prolonged scene of the two unnamed boys, played by Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera, running through the woods. Gunshots, voices yelling in German, and the sound of train brakes accompany the boys as they desperately make a dash for the forest. Soon, all that can be heard is the sound of their breathing. The train has started back up again and left. Exhausted, the boys collapse onto the ground. For a while, they just lie on the ground, spitting up their own drool and gasping for breath. One of them collapses onto an ant pile and soon his hand is covered with ants. He doesn’t seem to notice at first. It is only after they completely cover his hand does he shake them off. After that, the boys have no choice but to press on into the forest.
This opening scene, while to some may seem boring or indulgent on the director’s part, sets the tone for the rest of the film. What the boys see, the audience sees. Where the boys go, the audience follows. There is no time for exposition. The only back story that the audience is given comes in the form of quick flashbacks to their lives before their escape. We see them in their old town. We see how they are forced to wear strange clothing to indicate that they are Jews. After a time, we understand why they had to run. These flashbacks are completely silent. Němec makes the interesting choice of using the sounds of the boys escaping as accompaniment to these scenes. If a flashback happens while they are running, all we hear is the sounds of their footsteps and their breathing. But perhaps this is appropriate. We get the impression that these flashbacks are memories that are racing to the front of their minds while they escape. Just as a man doomed to the executioner’s block has his life flash before his eyes, so do these boys. Ah, but I think that I am getting ahead of myself.
I should focus on the story. But it’s difficult to do. I could sit here and list all of the scenes individually, but it wouldn’t leave much of an impact. Diamonds of the Night is a dense, thick movie. I liken it to how Roger Ebert once described the writings of Cormac Macarthy, “But McCarthy's prose has the uncanny ability to convey more than dialogue and incident. It's as dense as poetry.” That is probably the best way to describe this movie. It is comprised of simple images: boys running in the woods, ants covering their bodies when they collapse, them drinking out of a stream. And yet it combines these things together to create a powerful narrative. Simple gestures tell more than any dialogue ever could. Consider the following scene.
The boys have been on the run for a while now. Obviously they are getting very hungry. One of them even starts to delicately pick a pine cone apart and put the individual seeds in his mouth. But by some chance miracle, they come across a farm. One of the boys enters the farm to find a woman in the kitchen. What follows is one of the movie’s most fascinating scenes. The boy enters the kitchen and confronts the woman. She stoically stares at him. Then, suddenly, the boy attacks the woman and takes some food. But then, we cut back to the woman staring at him. It was all a hallucination. Then he attacks her again. But this is still another hallucination. We are witnessing the thoughts that are flying through his mind. Should he attack the woman, even kill her, in order to get some food? Is he desperate enough to kill in order to survive? Thankfully, he doesn’t have to answer these questions. She cuts him a few slices of bread. He snatches them and runs out.
The boys share the bread with each other. Unfortunately, they can barely chew the bread. They spit it back out with blood dribbling down their chins. “She must give me some milk,” one of them says. He returns, opens his mouth, and shows her the blood that is caking his teeth and gums. The next shot shows the two of them drinking a cup of milk. All the while the woman looks on. She ties a veil around her head, and walks away from the window. Has this happened before? Is she mourning them? Němec gives no answers. There is no time. The boys must press on.
Eventually they are captured by a local militia. The group is comprised of older men; obviously the younger ones have already left for the war. One of them is so old that he can barely hold his rifle. Back in the town, the militia celebrates with food and drink. They make merry toasts and sing happy songs. Notice how Němec focuses on their loud chewing. We watch the men noisily stuff down bread, chicken, and beer. Was this their reward for capturing these two Jews? After all, just like the two boys they are just trying to survive. But then why do they make the two boys witness their gaiety? Is it to mock them?
The boys don’t have long to ponder these questions. Eventually the celebrations end. Now, it is time for them to be dealt with. They are escorted to the office of a fat German official where they are informed that the court martial will decide their fate. As they wait, the festivities pick up again. The men dance, play music, and laugh. I don’t need to point out that this contrasts perfectly with the boys’ situation. But there is one quick scene that is so subtle that if I don’t point it out, many might miss it. As the boys await the court martial, the camera focuses on two older men dancing. They were part of the hunting party. They lock arms and dance merrily. Suddenly, we cut to the two boys running in the woods. The contrast is unbearable.
But the coup de grace of Diamonds of the Night is the ending. We see them lined up for a firing squad. And then, without any warning, we see their dead bodies lying on the ground. After this haunting specter, we see them alive again. They are slowly walking away from a firing squad. We hear the men take aim and the order is given to open fire. But they don’t. Instead we hear the sounds of them laughing as the boys run into the woods. This ending has confused countless movie goers. It is a double ending: one with them dying at the end, and the other with them escaping. So what really happened to them? I would like to make a humble suggestion that both happened. They were killed, and at the end we see their spirits walking away into the forest. But then again, that is just my interpretation. I could be completely wrong.
But what else can we expect from Jan Němec? As one of the leading figures of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the 1960s, a film movement that arose out of opposition to the communist regime that took over their country in 1948, he made his career out of making strange, yet powerful films. After Diamonds of the Night he made A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), a bizarre film that was seen as being subversive to Němec’s Communist state. In 1968, he left Czechoslovakia and eventually ended up in the United States. While other Czechoslovak New Wave filmmakers like Miloš Forman went on to find success abroad (Forman would go on to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus), Němec was not as lucky. He would be reduced to video recording weddings (which he nonetheless pioneered). But in hindsight, he did what he had to do to survive. Thankfully, after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, he was able to return to his homeland and continue to make movies.
Němec’s return to motion pictures is a great triumph for the cinema. How lucky we are to regain one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest directors. Few others can summon up such celluloid power with so little. Diamonds of the Night is just one example of his incredible prowess. And what a display it is. A powerful film that examines the human condition on a personal level, Diamonds of the Night is one of the masterpieces of Czechoslovakian cinema. Hopefully one day it will get picked up by the Criterion Collection so that the world can finally see what a statement this film makes. Until then, only those lucky enough to find it can spread the word about this forgotten gem. With any luck, it won’t be forgotten for much longer.