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Jan Nemec - Diamonds of the Night

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Criterion Collection: Diamonds of the Night (1964) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Diamonds of the Night (1964) | Blu-ray Review

There’s a reason director Jan Nemec’s name isn’t immediately conjures in superficial conversations on the Czech New Wave, despite his haunting 1964 debut Diamonds of the Night being one of the movement’s first major offerings. Described as “the movement’s bitterest aesthete” and by film historian Peter Hames as the “enfant terrible” of his peers, Nemec had neither the eventual Hollywood success of colleagues such as Milos Forman or Ivan Passer, nor international awards glory such as the Oscar winning The Shop on Main Street (1965) from Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos. Such is the price to pay for the revel.

After making a handful of features, Nemec left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and upon his return was banned from filmmaking. Eventually he left again in 1974, not returning to his native country until after the fall of communism in 1989. Like many artists stymied in this political turmoil, Nemec’s early achievements floated into obscurity, including the film he is perhaps best known for, 1966’s The Party and the Guests (which has also been largely unavailable in the US). In comparison to his other New Wave contributors (and in keeping with Hames’ marker), Nemec’s filmography is akin to the spirit of the Left Bank filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, especially with the experimental and experiential flourishes which distinguish his idiosyncratic debut.

Two Jewish youths (Antonin Kumbera and Ladislav Jansky) escape from a transport train from one concentration tramp to the infamous Dachau. Fleeing into the countryside, they wander for four days, fighting exhaustion and starvation. As their journey progresses, memory and fantasy are interspersed in their consciousness, segueing into a troubling interaction with a peasant woman. Stumbling into a hunting party of elderly German hunters, the boys are detained and brought to their village, informed they will be executed for stealing bread.

Nemec’s style would eventually influence a variety of international artists, or at least be a formal aesthetic comparison to other instances of survivalist cinema, such as Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See (1985), wherein a Soviet youth is transformed by his experiences joining a violent resistance group against the German soldiers. Likewise, their blind campaign to safety also echoes the degradation of Bergman’s Shame (1968) in their foreboding interactions with strangers. In more contemporary cinematic language, one can compare Nemec’s imprint to something like Jerzy Skolimowski’s later period Essential Killing (2010), in which a dialogue free Vincent Gallo stars as an Afghan POW attempting to escape his captors. Fragments of the boys’ memories are collapsed with violent fantasies (or are they?), such as their encounter with a village woman who gives them bread.

The narrative ends with a sequence where they’re hunted and captured by a local hunter party. Sustenance again proves a primal motif, and Nemec amplifies the grotesque noises of mastication as the boys are detained and forced to watch the men eat prior to an apparent scheduled execution. And yet Nemec leaves us with a viciously ambiguous ending, the men cajoling the boys as they are allowed to walk into the forest juxtaposed with the ringing of shots which also suggest this may have been all a cruel ploy.

Disc Review:

Criterion conducts the first major restoration of Nemec’s filmography with this new 4K digital restoration of Diamonds of the Night, presented in 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are impressive in this new transfer, culled from the 35mm original negative (missing sections were replaced from a duplicate positive). Nemec, who passed away in 2016, is featured in several archival extra features on the disc

Jan Nemec:
This twenty-six-minute segment from a 2009 interview with Jan Nemec finds the director discussing his attendance at FAMU film school in Prague and making Diamonds of the Night.

Irena Kovarova:
Film programmer and Czechoslovak expert Irena Kovarova speaks on the importance of Diamonds of the Night in this sixteen-minute interview recorded for the Criterion Collection in New York in 2018.

Five Influences on Diamonds:
Film scholar James Quandt examines the style of Diamonds of the Night and Nemec’s influences in this twenty-minute essay recorded for Criterion in 2018 (which he cites as one of the most prodigious debuts in the history of cinema).

A Loaf of Bread:
Nemec’s graduation film, A Loaf of Bread, is included here, also adapted from a short story by Arnost Lustig.

Arnost Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Nemec:
Nemec pays tribute to author Arnost Lustig in this fourteen-minute film from 1993.

Final Thoughts:

An exacting anti-war film, Diamonds of the Night is a formally experimental exercise of cinema as sensation, an immersion into the bleak poetry of survival and nightmarish desperation.

Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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