Thursday, March 27, 2014

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)

DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (Démanty noci)           A                           
Czechoslovakia  (64 mi) 1964  d:  Jan Nĕmec

This is what appeals to me most in films—the possibility of discovering the secrets of man’s subconscious and dreams.  But a pure film should be interpretable in itself; it should have its own aesthetics and poetry. 
—Jan Nĕmec

Echoing a theme introduced by his student short, A Loaf of Bread (Sousto) (1960), Nĕmec adapts a novel by Jewish Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig, Tma nemá/Darkness Casts No Shadow, where as a boy in 1945 Lustig had survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, eventually escaping from a train transporting prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp when the engine was destroyed by an American fighter plane.  Shot over a five-week period on a very low budget, the film is a harrowing journey of two Jewish boys escaping from a Nazi death train transporting them from one concentration camp to another, largely a wordless account of their flight through the woods, intercut with subliminal thoughts and fantasies.  Shots of streets and textures form a major part of its affect, though from the outset the viewer realizes the story is told as a brilliantly stylized, expressionist nightmare filled with stream-of-conscious imagery of personal memories that accompany their journey.  No doubt influenced by Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), especially the feeling that these kids could be shot and executed at any minute, Nĕmec however offers his own individual style, including some staggeringly powerful hand-held camerawork from Jaroslav Kučera (where the camera is actually operated by Miroslav Ondříček, later Miloš Forman’s favorite cinematographer) that follows these boys as they escape into the forest, as the close-up intimacy emphasizes the overwhelming physicality of the situation, where our closeness to them is often unbearable, becoming so powerful it turns the wide open spaces into a claustrophobic air of doom surrounding their every move, where the offscreen use of sound, firing shots and yelling shouts to halt, adds to a pervasive sense of menace and peril looming off in the distance.  As the weary boys travel through the forest, there is little to no dialogue, adding an uncompromising aspect to their experience, where the film is stripped down to its bare essentials, likely veering from any literary text.  Even as they remain hidden and safely out of sight, the real mixes with the imaginary, as their minds conjure up ominous images of trees falling down on top of them, adding a sense of delirium to their experience. 

As time passes, we begin to realize the significance of something that happened early on while still on the train, a scene of emaciated prisoners huddled against the wall of a cattle car as one of the kids exchanges a pair of shoes for a piece of bread, but those shoes are too small, creating lingering foot problems, as the longer they travel, the harder it is for him to walk.  As they are constantly on the move, their perpetual walking evolves into drudgery, where they are challenged by a disintegrating mental state and a pervasive sense of dread, as the line between fantasy and reality soon blurs, where the cinematography adds a slightly overexposed texture.  One of the starkest images are the large, pronounced letters KL (Konzentration Lager, the German word for concentration camp) written across the backs of their coats, which are quickly shed during their escape, but there are haunting flashback sequences of these kids wearing those same marked coats as they travel through pedestrian traffic in a city, where they almost appear as phantoms or ghosts as they hop on street cars, or imagine what might happen when seeing a girl, giving the film a surreal effect, especially when these initially inexplicable images appear as brief flashes intercut with longer sequences where they are exhausted with fatigue and hunger, also crippled by the ill-fitting shoes.  While dialogue is heavily present in Lustig’s novel, with the boys sharing memories and stories with each other along the way, Němec’s boys are almost always silent, where it’s nearly fifteen minutes into the film before a word is spoken.  In this way, the film becomes uniquely subjective and deeply personal, a near documentary journey where the camera involves the viewer as eye-witnesses, where because of the ambiguity of the unexplained flashbacks, each viewer may experience it differently.  To the film’s credit, this adds to the potency of the experience, where it is most powerful expressing a fractured, stream-of-conscious state of mind, less so when it resorts to the conventional narrative formalities of an ending.  

While the film is visually starkly realist, depicting a very specific time period, it also shows a highly experimental style, where the subject becomes memory and relationship with the past and present, where the ambiguity of the editing leaves time sequences altered, shown out of time, including offscreen sound, which becomes a trigger for our memories.  While almost entirely a movie about boys on the run pursuing an ever elusive freedom, they become associated with hunted prey.  There is a brief scene at a farmhouse where one of them begs for bread and milk, but the fractured memory association leaves open multiple possibilities of what might have happened, confusing as much as clarifying, including the idea that they may have been betrayed and turned in to the authorities.  There’s a gun sequence that recalls Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), showing similar shots of rifle fire pointed into the air, but also an extended fox hunt, where here the boys become synonymous with human prey as they are chased through the forest by a kind of volunteer local militia comprised of senile old men carrying rifles.  The irony of escaping from the Gestapo only to be hunted down by a squad of toothless and feeble old men is not lost on the viewer, turning their capture into a disturbing display of beer hall gluttony, laughing, joking, and even dancing among themselves, where they have a celebratory feast in front of their starving captives, an image that would be sadistically recreated in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985).  These jovial authority figures are the face of authority imposing their views at the long end of a rifle, where what they finally do in the end is bleakly poetic, showing multiple variations on a similar theme, with the haunting presence of death lingering throughout.  It’s hard to shake some of the effects of the film, the surreal Buñuel touches, the marked coats running through the city, the interior psychological explosion in the scene at the farmhouse, where the interplay of sound and image leaves a lasting effect deep in the subconscious of the viewer.  This extraordinary debut is an example of the complexity of cinema, as while the story itself is relatively simple, the intensity of the experience is anything but, made infinitely more tragic by the flashback editing scheme, recalling moments, both real and imagined, that add a clarifying depth of emotion that elevates the material and remains an aesthetic and technical milestone in the exploration of human experience under extreme conditions, becoming uniquely the vision of the director.      

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