Diamonds of the Night is such a bleak, intense, daring experience. It’s pretty different than other Czech New Wave films, including director Jan Nemec’s 1966 film A Report on the Party and the Guests. It’s kind of like if Chris Marker remade Come and See, maybe mixed with a little bit of Robert Enrico’s short adaptation of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
The story is effectively about two young Czech men who have escaped from a concentration camp-bound train. Their flight, the audio of which is captured so impressionistically, is the entirety of the narrative.
Nemec’s film feels different than others of the period because of a general lack of irony. Despite some incredibly effective expansion of time and nearly-whimsical non-linear editing, the film still manages to harbor a strong sense of realism.
Some SPOILERS below.
Here’s one of my favorite clips from the film, one that captures most of those ideas. The static montage to start, culminating in a startling single of the woman staring at 0:22 is beautiful. I love that the rest of the room captures the young man’s attention first. It’s like his awe of the potential of food and shelter supersedes his awareness of a human presence in the space:
The jumping edits that follow, from about 0:24 – 1:00 are what brought me to Occurrence. He sees her history, makes split second internal decisions that are dragged out over time. That’s then harshly contrasted with how slowly she walks starting right at 1:00. The reality of it is so different – and painfully slow given his situation – compared to the flood of ideas that immediately fill his mind.
That his violence is so often repeated in this clip (for a third time at 1:52) really speaks to his instinct – steal, rather than rely on kindness.
2:40 is such a tough moment. Told entirely visually. You have to figure it out. And we do. That’s some beautifully difficult realism. The cut from 3:30 to the two men drinking milk is also bold. We’ve already seen his interaction with the woman, so rather than replay it we can assume that it was similar to what played just before. He face in the window at 4:14 is enigmatic: is it dangerous? Caring? Can they see her looking?
Here’s another clip:
Nemec’s strategy of expanding time at hugely dramatic moments is on display. That shot of the two men, back to us, facing the wall, repeats so often. It’s so dramatic. The bullet that could come at any time. We don’t see their faces. We don’t need to. It’s the faces of the celebrating old men – their captors – that are the blood-curdling story. Nemec just lets their wides and singles play. They drink, dance, smile, all while these two men are so near to death off-screen.
There are other quick intercuts – 0:20, 2:52; the mailbox slot and elevator, respectively. Flashes to a different, freer time. Moments of escape that are anything but.
When I think of New Waves I usually immediately think of French, Japanese, and Czech. But the forerunners for the first two feel technically so much more similar to this film than to other Czech New Wave work that I know. This film is angry – like other Czech films, sure – but it wears its anger outwardly, and combines it with a harsh, tragic beauty.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
I like pairing these films, because Evald Schorm’s 1967 also feels different for the period. It’s the first Schorm film I’ve seen, and The Return of the Prodigal Son feels less concerned with allegory, and more with despair. It’s interesting that this film feels somehow less hopeful than Diamonds of the Night, which is absurdly hopeless.
I think the difference for me is that where Diamonds repeatedly offers glimpses of abbreviated moments of freedom, Prodigal goes out of its way to snuff out what could easily be hope at any turn.
Despite what I wrote earlier, Prodigal must feel allegorical in some ways, simply because of the setting. Jan (Jan Kacer; is he supposed to be a reference to Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in Ashes and Diamonds?) goes back and forth from a sanitarium constantly. Sometimes he escapes. Sometimes he’s let go. It’s almost impossible to not look for the microcosm in the enclosed walls, especially when no one seems happy, and the only adult who feels like she actually wants anything is the lead therapist’s wife…and what she wants is escape.
Schorm’s got some great blocking moments. Several sequences in the therapist’s office have a lot of movement, and are led by semi-whip pans that alternate between motivated an unmotivated. The action in those scenes comes close to jittery and uncertain.
The film feels influenced by Fellini (not least because of the circus at the end), and therefore also reminds me of Capricious Summer. In true New Wave fashion – not just Czech – it’s definitely about the aimlessness of youth; far more so than Diamonds (in that film, aimlessness isn’t an option). It’s not really a fair comparison. Diamonds looks to the past angrily, Prodigal looks to the present frustratedly. In that way they’re a pretty good overview of the pre-Prague Spring gamut.