Jan Němec was all of 28 when he made the singular masterpiece of the Czech New Wave: Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci)—except for sound effects, a mostly silent film. A staggering work based on co-scenarist Arnost Luštig’s story “Darkness Has No Shadows,” it is about two Czechs on the run during the Second World War: two teenaged Jewish boys, pursued by authorities and hostile locals, after they escape from a train transporting them to a different concentration camp. (Lustig spent years in various Nazi camps, himself escaping on the way to Dachau.) Fresh, expressionistic and incomparably somber, Diamonds of the Night is a work of brash, youthful genius; who could have known that Němec’s career, and the entire movement to which it belonged, would be crushed four years hence by Soviet tanks rolling in and taking aim at a nation’s independent spirit? After the Soviet invasion, more than twenty years passed before Němec worked again in his homeland. A fusion of nondocumentary and documentary elements, his 1998 Code Name Ruby (Jmeno kodu: Rubin), from the Czech Republic, has testified more recently to his residual gifts. (Němec’s 2001 Late Night Talks with My Mother is not so appealing to me.)

Diamonds of the Night blends objectivity and subjectivity. Its basis is an actual experience that Lustig, unlike the boys in the film, survived; the unnamed boys’ fate reflects that of the unlucky many, which Lustig himself escaped. (He and Němec will not break faith with the Six Million the way that Steven Spielberg did on a dime with the monstrously sentimental, “uplifting” Schindler’s List.) Moreover, the actors in the film are all nonprofessional, and the agitated use of hand-held camera mimics documentary filmmaking in the same way that it did in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Yet for all this foundation in objective reality, or at least the appearances of objective reality, the film proceeds in a subjective manner, its camera attuned to the boys’ desperate flight and attempts to remain alive. The repetitive circular mosaic that constitutes the film’s method, with its flashforwards and shafts of memories and, possibly, dreams, records the boys’ flight as a doomed, fear-fraught standstill. (It is quite possible to read these “deaths” subjectively, as projections of the boys’ fears.) On the other hand, the same method stirs our souls to the imaginative task of keeping the boys alive and out of lethal hands as long as possible. Němec’s distancing techniques permit us to catch our breath, but elsewhere they function not as objective devices but as subjective ones communicating the depth of the boys’ push for every last ounce of life and freedom. The film is thus highly versatile and flexible, allowing us both to empathize with its protagonists and to contemplate the fates that their fates represent. It is, at once, emotionally distanced and emotionally up close.

Diamonds of the Night opens with a stunning passage that predicts the style of the film. It is a single, sustained, continuous shot that picks up the boys in flight, running as fast as they can, one discarding his coat in order to pick up speed, the sound of the train in the background, the sounds of gunshots presumably in their direction: human beings—and boys: kids—as hunted animals. The camera breathlessly keeps apace, moving in closer to the boys’ faces, capturing their labored breathing, one at one point nearly climbing over the other as they mount a hill. The immediacy of the action and of the fearful emotional event: this is the tenor of the film that its opening establishes. The usual application of a continuous moving shot, such as a tracking shot, is to convey spaciousness, expansiveness, freedom. Němec, however, explores another possibility. One of the peculiarities of such a shot as his opening one is that the movement of the camera constantly redefines the limits of the frame, in this case, in effect, newly boxing in the boys repeatedly: perpetual movement as perpetual confinement. Here, form determines content. Surely there is something of an echo, too, of Antoine Doinel’s flight from reform school that resolves itself in an eternally confining freeze frame, at the end of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).

Doinel ends up at the seashore. The flight of the boys in Němec’s film, as if in a fairy tale, takes them to a forest that they must penetrate. When they collapse on the ground before their brisk walk into utter darkness, one behind the other, they are both recouping strength after what has just passed, the flight from gunfire, and steeling themselves for what is to come. One boy’s hand, in a Buñuelian touch, swarms with beetles from the forest’s floor, and it’s a measure of both his exhaustion and his confusion as to which realm he inhabits, the human (thoughtful) or the animal (instinctual), that it takes a while before he wipes off these insects. Our near blindness as the camera, behind, dogs the boys as they go deeper into the woods is correlative to the dissolution of their social moorings, and the interrupting bright flash of one of them, in long shot, boarding a city tram provides an index of the highly defined existence that has since yielded to an oceanic expanse of lost definitions, lost boundaries—this expanse of darkness and silence we watch them enter, their arms, like insects’ antennae, bounding out to navigate through the thicket of branches attacking them. Němec and the magnificently dark and dusky black-and-white cinematography by Jaroslav Kučera have taken us inside the boys’ consciousness. We feel trapped inside their feeling lost, alone, utterly abandoned by everything and everybody in the world that should be defending and protecting them. Not for a moment do we doubt that this is precisely what it must have been like for two such boys on the run—and countless others with no place to hide and no place to run.

The boys keep silently walking all night and into the daylight, their experience interrupted by memories of two conveyances: the city tram; the train transporting them to a death camp. The latter memory, an impossible one of their eating as they sit on the train compartment floor, springs from their current hunger. On the floor of the forest, one eats berries, or whatever food he has found, while the other takes off his boot to examine his damaged foot, the boot laces inevitably reminding us of the shoelaces that a starving Charlie boiled, as substitute spaghetti, in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). A measure of Němec’s brilliance is how this remains a fleeting (and poignant) association, not asserting itself as an allusion.

By now, the briskness of the boys’ pace through the forest has been worn down to a halting pace, even a stumbling one: an antithesis of their youth. Their journey becomes even more hobbled as they mount a hill of rocks, during which one of the boys asks the other to view a colony of beetles whose community contrasts vividly to their own state and status. The boys enjoy a respite in sudden rain. Shattering.

A pivotal scene follows. One of the boys enters the home of a villager, who, wary, gives him bread and, on his return entry, milk. The boys eat and drink. During the first entry, the boy repeatedly imagines killing the woman. This, however, he does not do. His not killing her, ironically, will lead to the boys’ capture. The woman will begin what elderly male villagers complete: the murder of the two boys.

The humaneness of this film perhaps most of all lies in its refusal to submit to the facile conclusion, “Well, the boy should have killed the woman.” Survival isn’t the highest instinct of humanity. If you have seen Amir Bar-Lev’s extraordinary documentary Fighter (2001), in which he is one of the two main characters whom the film follows, you know the delightful degree to which Arnost Lustig has retained his humanity. This is the triumph of Jewry over Nazism and the Holocaust: the heroic survival of Jewish humanism. The balance of the film depicts the methodical hunting down of the two boys.

Some may be appalled that Němec pits the elderly, drunken “posse” against two adolescents in the bloom of their youth. When one adds his own youth into the mix, one can fault Němec, I suppose, for a lack of generosity—for ageism, if you will. I forgive youth almost anything, and, in addition, Němec has found the perfect means to convey the idiocy and meanness of ordinary citizens’ by-rote implementation of the Nazi horror. I applaud his emphasis on the fact that Nazis didn’t “do it all.” Heartrending are the closing seconds that portray the boys walking through the woods after we have already heard the shots that killed them and seen their corpses lying in the dirt.

Vittorio De Sica rejected Cary Grant as the star of Bicycle Thieves (1948) in favor of Lamberto Maggiorani. Similarly, Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera, the two nonprofessionals who play Němec’s “diamonds of the night,” could not have been improved upon.




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