Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Diamonds of the Night (1964)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

Yet another overlooked, scintillating film from the Czech New Wave presents itself in its 63 minutes glory in the form of Jan Nemec's debut feature "Diamonds of the Night" (1964). This virtually plotless but brave film chronicles an unspecified period of time, presumably a few days, in the journey of two young Jewish boys on the run from a train transporting them to the concentration camps.

The film kicks off abruptly with an opening sequence that shows the two boys running for their lives through boggy lands, into dense woods. It is one long take that showcases the boys fleeing, running incessantly and then finally trudging along, fatigued, as they reach the thick of the forest. They slow down, for the machine gun firing hot on their pursuit seems to have stopped or distanced itself. The escape is successful, at least for now! We hear their breathing, the snapping of the twigs beneath their feet, but not a single word is uttered from either mouth until we reach the 13 minute mark when one of the boys finally speaks out one brief line!

Indeed, Nemec's film is almost silent, with about 4-5 lines of dialog uttered in the entire 63 minutes duration. What remains then, is a narrative rich with realistic images of the boys covering a seemingly endless journey through the woods and farm lands, juxtaposed against surrealistic images that fuse flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, fears and desires, fuelled by the craving in their stomachs and their tired physique and mind! But do the flashbacks provide backstories? Not necessarily. In a very clever move, and some ingenious editing by Miroslav Hajek, we see repetitive images that reflect the boys' memories or simply, their train of thought.

No story chronicling how they got put on the train is presented. That is not the intention. The intention of these flashbacks remains to give us a fragmented depiction of the boys' thoughts, and memories, harking back to when times were perhaps relatively better, in a comfortable setting, despite having the "KL" (Konzentration Lager/Concentration Camp) coats on their backs. These memories are mixed with recollections of recent events, like how one of them exchanged some food for a shoe! The images are mostly random, sometimes even out of context. Very ordinary, everyday flashes of  memory; of women in the neighbourhood, of food, of beds and pillows. Just some sights that make them feel at ease compared to their present situation. The vague, fractured nature of these memories is enhanced by the use of only diegetic sound and muted spoken words.

Juxtaposed against memories are hallucinations and dream sequences, all interspersed with the real time walking ordeal of the boys. Hungry and exhausted, both mentally and physically by their long walk, collapsing and drifting in and out of sleep, one of the boys imagines he is dead or unconscious with ants all over his face. It is impossible to miss a nod to Luis Bunuel's classic surrealist short, "Un Chien Andalou" (1929) in a shot of a hand covered with ants! In a particularly notable sequence of a replayed hallucination/fantasy, which is either hunger or lust induced, one of the boys stumbles upon a farmer's house. He enters inside to find the farmer's wife standing in front of him. Realizing that he is a hungry vagabond, she cuts some slices of bread for him. As the boy stands there, he first imagines the woman sitting on the couch in an inviting position and then plays out repeatedly in his mind, a scene of him attacking and killing her! He slightly alters the scene and imagines various ways of doing it, but eventually takes what she has to offer and moves on! This fantastic piece of writing is a testament to Nemec's screenwriting brilliance and its realization to the screen.

In another startling sequence, the boys are seemingly chased by a group of aged old men, presumably farmers, with shooting rifles! It appears they are out hunting and are chasing some target in the woods, but we also cut to the boys running for their lives yet again, from fear of being hunted down by these visibly harmless old men. We never see the boys and the old men in a single frame, hence a strange kind of ambiguity is maintained due to the spatial incoherency in the scene. Are the old men just shooting some birds, or are they after the boys? One of the longest sequences in the film, it also makes the most of Jaroslav Kucera's shaky handheld camerawork, giving it a sense of urgency.

Credit must also be especially given to the sound effects crew, Bohumir Brunclik and Frantisek Cerny, for their fantastic work in the sound design. Some random chatter and mundane sounds accompany the flashback scenes with their stark black and white images, which are sometimes distant and sometimes in close-up giving it a true feel of a hazy memory interpolated with sound that may be unconnected to the image in question! And then again, later as our starving boys witness the old men munching away on their meat and drinking their beer, amidst the silence we hear crystal clear sounds of the gulping, the chomping and the chewing. The noises the old men make while eating, seem more enhanced, more grating, more salt-in-the-wound for our boys who can't help but look on with their stomachs growling!

Merely via powerful images and sound, with almost no spoken dialog, (that the film, in fact, could've done without, but was included, probably to relieve the audience from a possible monotony that they may assume about the film) Nemec has made a unique, radically different film set against the holocaust backdrop. Rather than concentrate on the war and its atrocities on the victims, it focuses on the mental processes of those affected by the resulting chaos. "Diamonds of the Night" is a hypnotic ride through hell; a deeply personal and sensory film experience that is more of an aural delight, best enjoyed with the headphones on. Perhaps this is what they refer to as "pure cinema"! Waste no more time in discovering this dazzling diamond in the rough.

Score: 9/10

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