The Fugitive Kind
By Neil Young
media res, hitting the ground running: two teenage boys hurtle down an embankment as the Nazi cattle train from which they have just fled screeches to a stop in the middle distance amid cries of “Halt,” bursts of gunfire. Running for their lives, the lads have no time to think, barely time to breathe: they flee across rising ground to the supposed safety of a forest. The camera keeps up with them all the way, for just over two minutes.
The most expensive shot in Czechoslovakian screen history at that point, reportedly consuming one-third of the film’s budget, this is a sensational, swaggering display of cinematic craft and confidence—all the more remarkable for being the opening of a director’s first professional picture.
Born in Prague in 1936, son of an engineer and a doctor, Jan Němec dreamed of becoming a jazz musician before the talented clarinetist enrolled to study film at the city’s FAMU—the school from which nearly every leading light of the Czechoslovakian New Wave would emerge: Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juráček, Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš, Vojtěch Jasný...
Němec’s 1960 graduation project was the 11-minute The Loaf of Bread, in which he adapted one of the autobiographical stories in Jewish writer Arnošt Lustig’s 1958 collection Diamonds of the Night. Lustig’s tales were drawn from his own harrowing wartime experiences: The Loaf of Bread is a suspenseful vignette in which a trio of young Jewish Czechoslovakians, about to be train-transferred between camps, plot their escape.
Diamonds of the Night (1964) shares its title with the collection but is based on just one story, Darkness Casts No Shadow. It is a logical continuation of A Loaf of Bread, although there is no overt connection between the two: the later film begins with the escape of two teenagers (not three), then chronicles its aftermath with intimate intensity. They are never named: Antonín Kumbera plays the younger and shorter of the pair, with medium-length black locks; Ladislav Jánský, another non-pro newcomer, has close-cropped fair hair.
They make their way through the forest and across various types of taxing terrain. Hunger forces them to take chances: they seek food in a farmhouse and are later captured by a band of geriatric hunters. They are informed by the local mayor that a military tribunal will decide their fate. Execution seems likely.
The most expensive shot in Czechoslovakian screen history at that point, reportedly consuming one-third of the film’s budget, this is a sensational, swaggering display of cinematic craft and confidence.
Diamonds of the Night takes its basic premise from Darkness Casts No Shadow, but the scriptwriters—Němec and Lustig—make several changes. The most crucial: a drastic reduction in dialogue (the story’s escapees are much more chatty) and the ambiguous note upon which the film concludes. In the story the hunters stage a “mock” execution before letting the boys go. In the film, this is presented as just one among several possible denouements, the artful culmination of a deliberately disorienting editing technique.
Removing so much dialogue—the first proper line isn’t spoken until the 14th minute—renders the story more universal, as does Němec’s decision to fill the two main roles with non-Jewish-looking actors. The paucity of speech places a greater emphasis on František Černý’s sound design and the film’s visual elements (cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera’s 4:3 images are wonders of inky, gritty chiaroscuro).
Instead of dialogue, the film “speaks” via dozens of brief interpolations, which break into the straight chronological presentation of the boys’ grim adventures and successfully extend short-film material into a midlength work. Mainly between two and seven seconds, these urban interpolations can be interpreted as memories, hallucinations, or hopeful anticipations of an imagined future. They also function as a fractured kind of Prague city symphony, one subtly signed with the monikers of its makers: “Němec” and “Kučera” are crumblingly legible as wall-painted business names in consecutive shots.
These flashes are evidently taking place in the mind of Kumbera’s character: he is visible in several of them, including the very first, when he boards a crowded tram at the landmark Powder Tower, one of the city’s historic gates. The fact that he is shown wearing a prison-camp greatcoat emblazoned with “KL” (Konzentrationslager), which would mark him out an escapee and render him liable to arrest, immediately indicates that this vignette should not necessarily be interpreted as objective realism.
The Prague inserts, which hint at the nascent sexuality of the “dreamer” (many seem to take place in the Red Light district, and involve nerve-racking preparations for a visit to what may be a bordello) are scattered through the film’s first two-thirds, leading to a six-minute sequence which recaps and expands them into what is effectively a self-contained short.
Given the story and film’s autobiographical bases, it is surprising to learn that the inspiration for these fragmented visions was not the writings of Lustig but rather those of a fellow escapee. As Němec said: “One of them was very sick and died two weeks after... During the film’s preparation Lustig gave me this boy’s diary. It captured the boy’s ‘hallucinations,’ which opened the door for the film’s style.”
The interpolation of these hallucinations enabled Němec to achieve a looser, unconventional structure for his screenplay and film. At this early point in his career Němec—who studied A Man Escaped (1956) with forensic passion—was drawn to non-linear narratives: William Faulkner novels (Absalom, Absalom!; The Sound and the Fury; Light in August) and the first two films of Alain Resnais, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
Just as newcomer Resnais benefited from working with a significantly more experienced editor in Henri Colpi (who cut the films with Jasmine Chasney), Miroslav Hájek deserves major credit for Diamonds of the Night’s startling impact. Whereas most of the leading lights in the Czechoslovak New Wave were born in the 1930s, Hájek (b.1919) was very much a senior figure. He is best known for his work on early classics by Forman, who in his autobiography made a point of calling the editor a master of his field, an “exceptional expert” from whom he learned his craft.
“In Diamonds,” said Němec, “you can see his extremely firm hand. He had printed every frame we shot, so we were completely surrounded by material.” Their cutting took nearly five months; Hájek, who prided himself on his speed, bragged of being able to complete a normal feature-length film in as little as four days. The editor maintained a Stakhanovite work rate until his retirement in 1989; Diamonds of the Night was one of more than a dozen 1964 releases to bear his mark, along with Oldřich Lipský’s smash-hit western spoof Lemonade Joe and Forman’s debut, Black Peter.
In retrospect, it seems fair to describe Hájek as one of two hidden geniuses in a movement which, like every other New Wave in cinema history, is routinely discussed primarily in terms of directors. The other is the multi-hyphenate Ester Krumbachová, whose contribution to Diamonds of the Night considerably exceeded her official designation of “costume designer.”
The film introduced her to Němec, to whom she would be married from 1963 to 1968. When he was fired from his job at Barrandov Studios, thus preventing him from making Killing the Devil (1970), Krumbachová stepped in as director. Hájek, of course, did the editing, as he had done on Němec’s first film of conventional feature length, A Report on the Party and Guests (1966), which was based on Krumbachová’s novella.
A Report on the Party and the Guests runs, at 71 minutes, only eight minutes longer than Diamonds of the Night. Indeed, very few of Hájek’s most renowned films clock in longer than 90 minutes: brisk brevity is a hallmark of Forman’s Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967), of Chytilová’s Something Different (1963) and Daisies (1966). Indeed, the Czechoslovakian New Wave as a whole was largely a thing of short, sharp bursts, as epitomized by that explosive opening shot of Diamonds of the Night.
The film generally regarded as the Wave’s first example, Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net, premiered in February 1963; three months later Jasný’s The Cassandra Cat shared the runner-up prize (behind Visconti’s The Leopard) at Cannes. The following year, Jireš’s debut The Cry competed on the Croisette; that July, Black Peter won Locarno. Diamonds of the Night premiered at the same festival, but Němec would not land the Swiss event’s top honor until 2001’s Late Night Talks with Mother.
Effectively expelled by the Czechoslovakian authorities amid the crackdowns that followed the Soviet-ordered Eastern Bloc invasions which crushed the Prague Spring of 1968, Němec wandered the world in search of work. His filmography is thus as sparse as Hájek’s is crowded; he would return home only in the last days of 1989, around the time that his playwright second cousin Václav Havel—with whom he wrote a script about organ trafficking, Heart Beat, just before his expulsion—was being sworn in as Czechoslovakia’s (final) president.
Němec was an equally bad fit for Soviet-style communism as he was for the capitalist free market (he taught in the US but could never get a project off the ground there), and so he only fleetingly enjoyed the international renown of his contemporaries Forman, Menzel, and Chytilová. His star blazed most strongly in the mid-1960s thanks to the energetically raw Diamonds of the Night and the slickly measured A Report on the Party and the Guests, two films that have little in common in terms of overall style and structure.
Hájek, of course, edited both. Ironic that Diamonds of the Night, which eventually boils down to a grotesque confrontation between youth and old age as the two lads are haltingly pursued by a motley brigade of senior citizens, should itself stand as the fruit of such a harmonious and respectful cross-generational collaboration.
Neil Young is a Vienna-based film-critic/curator (and occasional filmmaker) from Sunderland, north-east England. His writings appear regularly in Screen International and Sight and Sound.
With thanks to Michal Hogenauer for his assistance in the researching of this article.