Diamonds of the Night

English Title: Diamonds of the Night

Original Title: Démanty noci

Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia

Studio: Ceskoslovenský Filmexport

Director: Jan Němec

Producer(s): Jan Procházka, Erich Švabík

Screenplay: Jan Němec

Cinematographer: Jaroslav Kučera

Art Director: Oldřich Bosák

Editor: Miroslav Hájek

Runtime: 63 minutes

Genre: Psychological Drama/Art Cinema

Language: Czech

Starring/Cast: Ladislav Janský, Antonín Kumbera, Ilse Bischofová

Year: 1964

Volume: East European

Synopsis:
Two teenage boys escape from a train bound for a concentration camp. They make their way through the countryside, afflicted by visions of the past and becoming increasingly tired and hungry. Eventually they reach a farm and watch as a woman brings lunch to the farmer. At the farmhouse they receive milk and bread. However, a squadron of old men from a hunting party is then charged with tracking them down, and during the chase the boys’ freedom rests on an attempt to hop on the back of a passing truck and thus evade their pursuers.


Critique:

The film’s title, Démanty noci/Diamonds of the Night, comes from the name of Arnošt Lustig’s 1958 collection of short stories, one of which, ‘Tma nemá stín’/‘Darkness Casts No Shadow’, was deemed worthy of cinematic adaptation by the fledgling Czech New Wave film director Jan Němec. This was Němec’s second adaptation of Lustig’s prose. The first, Sousto/A Loaf of Bread (1960), based on another short story from the same collection, received a Silver Rose at the festival of student films in Amsterdam in 1960 and a prize at the Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, in 1961.

 

The ‘night’ of the title refers to World War II (and, more specifically, to the Nazi persecution of Jews), whereas the ‘diamonds’ imply the children who are suffering because of it. Lustig himself was directly affected by the Holocaust as a teenager, and experienced Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. In fact, ‘Tma nemá stín’, describing the escape of two teenage Jewish boys while in transit from one concentration camp to another, is largely autobiographical. In April 1945, Lustig, with several other inmates, fled from a train en route to Dachau from Buchenwald and thus saved his own life. The short story focuses chiefly on the boys’ arduous journey through the woods towards Prague. However, it also contains several scenes that are told in flashback and graphically describe life at the extermination camp. These scenes, as well as the entire Holocaust theme, were left out of the film altogether. In the film, the main characters are even deprived of their names (Dany and Many, short for Daniel and Emanuel). This  may well have increased the universality of the film’s appeal and message (the tribulations of a human being on the run from other human beings, who hunt him like a wild beast) but left Němec with much less to work with dramatically. Living up to his reputation of someone who can turn even a telephone directory into a film (to quote his assistant on Diamonds of the Night, Hynek Bočan), Němec succeeds in avoiding tediousness in a motion picture that, despite its topic, involves hardly any action (although at one point the boys are chased by a hunting party which consists of Sudeten German pensioners), and heavily borrows from the silent film tradition with its sparse dialogue and self-explanatory mode of story-telling.

 

The cameramen Kučera and Ondříček went to considerable lengths to convey the sense of physical  movement that defines the film (technically, Ondříček was the second cameraman but had to assume the role of the principal photographer for a fortnight when Kučera was away in Acapulco). The track laid through a hilly landscape with a forest clearance for the camera dolly to film the opening scene (the boys‘ escape from the train) in one continuous shot was a thousand feet long. To follow the boys progress through the dense woods, Kučera had to be carried on his assistants’ shoulders. Even the Prague scenes, partly recalled and partly imagined by one of the fugitives, were often shown in motion, e.g. from a moving tram, or featuring snow sledges that are going downhill. In 1966, at the VII Congress of the International Association of Film Technicians (UNIATEC), the film’s camerawork received a citation for an extraodinary long camera movement in a difficult natural terrain.

 

In his painstaking search for a final cut, Němec made three different versions of the film (altering an editor in the process, which raised a few eyebrows at Barrandov Film Studios, unaccustomed to such a behaviour from a first-time director). Miroslav Hájek, Němec’s ultimate choice as editor, should largely be credited with Diamonds of the Night‘s memorable look boldly combining the Italian neorealist style (such as employing non-professional actors with a background in manual labour) and pronounced surrealist components (such as shots of ants crawling over one of the boys’ arm, reminiscent of similar frames in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou [1929]). Most importantly,  Hájek's seemingly irrational editing, revolving around the recurrent memories, dreams and visions of one of the two exhausted fugutives, rather than establishing a firm chronological order, makes it unclear whether the boys manage to survive their ordeal, and thus contributes to the film‘s lasting enigma (in the short story, the boys are apparently saved by divine intervention, represented by a mysterious woman with almond-shaped eyes, who interceds on their behalf when they are ap

Author of this review: Andrei Rogatchevski