DIRECTED BY: Jan Nemec
FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera
PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the Czech New Wave. Nemec would deliver better films.
COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”
This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).
The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.
In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.
Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.
Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)