A superb early example of the Czechoslovak New Wave receives a well-deserved upgrade.
Diamonds of The Night (Démanty noci) throws you right into the action. Two teenage boys run hell for leather through the German countryside towards a forest while gunfire, and the shouts of Nazi soldiers, echo all about them. The exhausted, malnourished pair – who remain nameless throughout – are escapees from a train en route to a concentration camp during World War II and the story of their flight unfolds over 68 tense and harrowing minutes, a world away from the optimism implicit in the film’s title.
Based on Arnošt Lustig’s 1958 novella, Darkness Has No Shadows, Diamonds marked the feature debut of director Jan Němec, who’d go on to be a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. His 1964 film is shot in black and white and split into three main sequences – the boys’ escape, an encounter with a woman at a farmhouse, and their capture by a group of heavily-armed elderly men. Interspersed are fragmentary flashbacks to the pair’s former lives in Prague – simple images of cats and dogs, children tobogganing in the snow, a romantic assignation, pillows and warm blankets airing on a windowsill. Everyday stuff that is no longer part of their everyday.
But there are possible futures and fantasy moments presented here, too – the teenagers (played by Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera) lying dead, having been shot, Jánsky killing the woman at the farmhouse, ants filling the same boy’s eye-socket, an encounter with a group of strangers on an abandoned tram. It’s disorienting and confusing, and quite deliberately so – Nemec is keen to place you directly into the shoes of these desperate young men and does so with a bravura mix of realism (reflecting their harsh circumstances) and surrealism (reflecting the addled state of their minds).
Cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera’s camera follows the boys in close up; we witness their every step, breath and expression, smell the sweat on their backs and feel the filth underneath their fingernails. The sound design is also crucial to the immersive experience as the pair stumble over rocks, snap branches underfoot, dodge gunfire and barking dogs. Even the Blu-ray menu here features the sounds of footsteps and bird song rather than music because Diamonds has no score. Everything is stripped back and then some.
Nemec guts Lustig’s original novella – eliminating a good deal of the Czech writer’s dialogue as the film plays out with barely two dozen spoken lines (the boys don’t have an actual conversation until the 23rd minute). Despite that, this is as much the Jewish author’s film as it is Nemec’s. As Peter Hames – an expert on the Czechoslovak New Wave – reveals in his appreciation of the film included in the extras, the story is semi-autobiographical. Lustig had survived the concentration camps himself and was once even placed on a death train to Dachau but escaped. According to his daughter – Eva Lustigova – who we see interviewed, the late writer was present during Diamonds’ shooting and editing and considered the film one of the best adaptations of his work.
The Germans in the film are treated with a certain amount of disdain by Nemec, especially the men. We see two effeminate SS officers mincing down a Prague street like something out of ’Allo ’Allo, while the band of old men recall the bumbling home guard in Dad’s Army. One member of the doddery gang even lugs his bicycle into the forest, only for a decrepit comrade to trip over it. Later, they drink, eat and celebrate their capture of the starving kids but have to dance with each other or alone because there are no women present. This rickety, toothless bunch are an absurd spectacle, as is the mayor who commands them; a bloated Nazi in a black leather overcoat with the air of a Bond henchman. The director’s enmity is palpable.
Diamonds is about the boys’ bond of friendship as much as it’s about the horrors of Nazism or authoritarianism in general. Jánsky’s character has every opportunity to leave behind Kumbera – who is hobbling with a foot injury – especially when they attempt to board a moving truck. But he won’t do it and puts his life in serious danger as a result. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but they face it together.
Nemec’s film has long been available from Second Run on DVD. But this multi-region Blu-ray release (a world premiere) marks a serious upgrade in the form of a new 4K digital restoration from the original negative by the Czech National Film Archive.
The highlight of an excellent set of extras is the first collaboration between Nemec and Lustig – an 11-minute film called A Loaf Of Bread (Sousto), based on another of the author’s short stories. It’s a heist movie in miniature which sees three starving POWs plot to steal a single loaf from a Nazi goods wagon. The men work out that whichever of them draws the short straw will have just 56 seconds to grab the bread before they are discovered. It’s perfectly paced, incredibly tense (“Start coming back at 40”) and every bit as good as the main feature.
There’s also an exhaustive commentary from film historian Michael Brooke, who does an impressive job of directly comparing scenes in Diamonds with Lustig’s novella, reading out several passages from the latter. He traces Nemec’s cinematic influences – Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel and Alain Resnais – and how they impacted the film. He’s also very good on the director’s life and career (Nemec ended up making wedding videos in the US), and Diamonds’ initially mixed critical reception.
Also featured are the aforementioned interview with Lustigova, and Hames’ learned appreciation of the film. Additionally, there’s a booklet featuring a couple of short essays, one on Diamonds itself, another about the director. A trailer rounds off what is another essential purchase from Second Run.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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