Diamonds of the Night (Demanty noci) Review
A startling debut feature by director Jan Němec, Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) uses a Bressonian approach of pure cinema to tell the story of two teenage boys who seem to be constantly on the run after escaping from a train en route to a Nazi concentration camp. Němec unravels his film with minimal dialogue, even choosing to remove the audio (and corresponding subtitles) for some of it. With images this strong, ranging from chalky white lettering on the boys' coats that brands them as "KL" (Konzentration Lager or, in English, Concentration Camp) to the Buñuelian ants that surround the hand and, eventually, eye socket of one of them, dialogue would almost seem superfluous. It's to Němec's great credit that he created a movie which manages such a devastating impact - and I must admit to never having this visceral of a reaction to any of Bresson's comparatively staid pictures - the first time out and with a real economy of plot. In some ways you'd perhaps have to go back to F.W. Murnau and his supposed insistence on limiting intertitle screens as much as possible in silent films like Der letzte Mann to come up with such an effective example of purely visual cinema. The dialogue Němec does allow often comes off as more conciliatory than necessary. At no point do the few words heard or read actually convey anything we can't already understand through sight.
Credit, too, must go to the two-headed brilliance of cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera (Daisies) and camera man Miroslav Ondříček (Intimate Lighting, If...., Amadeus). Both were near the beginning of their careers and Kučera, particularly, became known for the kind of inventive experimentation that can be found here. Flashbacks take on the ambiguous appearance of bright, overexposed black and white. A patch of rain invokes a spiritual cleansing of the boys' accumulated filth and also serves as a reminder of their new-found, if possibly fleeting, freedom. Perhaps most impacting are the scenes where the boys are on the run. These sequences structure the film on exhausting tension, like a fox hunt where the foxes are our human protagonists. The elliptical nature of the ending when combined with the opening escape seem to confirm the implication that these nameless targets are very much akin to wild prey. They're entirely dehumanized, a point that the film further makes in limiting their dialogue and then making the few words they do speak be about basic needs like food.
When one of the boys finds a source of sustenance in the form of a woman in her home kitchen we see several variations on how the sequence could possibly unfold. If these options are indeed in the boy's mind, they again indicate a simple brutishness where violence and sex are intertwined and the primary considerations are fraught with the basest of instincts. Němec's insistence on showing these imaginings once would get the point across but he instead repeats such violent shots over and over again as though the boy cannot make up his mind as to whether he should simply accept the bread offered or strike the only witness to his presence there. The editing, as is the case throughout the film, confuses as much as it illuminates but does so in a manner that's remarkably stimulating. A first viewing of this rather short film (64 minutes in PAL) seems like merely the beginning of an odyssey into a world hardly anyone watching can possibly identify with or, maybe more persuasively, shake from his or her consciousness.
While it's true that the basic story in Diamonds of the Night can feel simple and secondary, the backdrop is compelling enough to fragment the focus in light of the viewer's acquired knowledge of what's at stake for the main characters. The struggle to avoid a concentration camp is fraught with emotion and tension on its own, but at almost every point in the film this seems to be marginalized in favor of an emphasis on simple survival. The manner in which this is presented could concern most any form of persecution. Here it's literal, and the callback is more or less to moments of increased humanity, possibly as a means to juxtapose against what these two face versus their earlier experiences. They are neither likable nor detestable. They exist as ciphers upon whom we can attach ourselves equally as virtual participants and voyeurs. It matters little whether you want to be there because the reality is that you are, cinematically. Rarely has such a large and wide open expanse felt so claustrophobic as what we see in this film.
Němec's first feature is one that absolutely never feels like a debut. It's told with utter confidence and an assured sense of purpose. His follow-up The Party and the Guests (also available on DVD from Second Run) touches an entirely different nerve but still retains a similar sense of provocation and purpose. Diamonds of the Night feels more immediate, though, and free from the need for context. It's one of the more unnerving forays into cinema I've seen and, subsequently, one of the best in Second Run's increasingly impressive catalog of films. You can't shake it away cleanly. The images and various noises on the meticulously composed soundtrack linger and enter the subconscious. This is a disturbing film told without flinching or placating. Long after viewing, the ants will remain and so will many of the other repetitive and surreal flourishes Němec conjures. It's far more important than it may sometimes feel and I can't imagine another quality label delivering the kind of care that Second Run has invested in this release. We're all indebted to such commitment.
The print for Diamonds of the Night contains a few tramline scratches and various bits of dirt and debris but still looks excellent. Sharpness and contrast are generally good to strong on this single-layered DVD. The progressive transfer lets the intended bright whites remain in flashback sequences and otherwise maintains a healthy contrast between black and white. Overall, I found the full frame 1.33:1 image to be more than acceptable and worthy of no serious complaint. It's region-free and PAL.
The restored mono audio, presented in Czech with optional English subtitles, ideally needs to express all of the little noises and effects that fill in the gaps between dialogue. The track does just that, and is a strong enough effort in conveying the heightened sense of tension that comes with non-verbal sounds.
There isn't a feature-length commentary included or a plethora of extra features, but, given the strength of Peter Hames' video appreciation (20:21), there really needn't be. Hames' piece is every bit as good as having a full commentary or collection of interviews, and he gets the job done in just twenty minutes. It's an outstanding, enlightening supplement that answers nearly all of the questions you might have after viewing. If there are indeed any queries left unresolved, Michael Brooke's excellent booklet essay will probably set you straight. These twin analyses are simply full of insight and greatly enrich the film post-viewing. I was as impressed as I've probably ever been from a set of Second Run special features.
The 16-page booklet also includes a lengthy biography of director Jan Němec. At such a low price point (retailing for £12.99 but often found even lower) this is an absolute bargain of a release, and one of the best I've seen all year.
A nice stills gallery of photos from the feature adds a further bit of icing to the package.