Diamonds of the Night (Jan Nemec, 1964)

**I suppose lots of what you might call “spoilers” follow, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the concept of “spoilers” was so irrelevant.  Nothing I describe could do justice to what you actually see, so you’re probably safe.**

            The beginning is absolutely thrilling.  One continuous shot, shaky-cam style, as two dirty, haggard young men run for their lives through a field, gunshots and screaming Germans in the background.  Put 2 and 2 together, they’re Jews escaping the Concentration Camp Express.  The camera starts out in front of the boys; they gradually catch up, practically bump into the camera, and move past, the ever-shaky camera in tow, with the chaotic sounds behind them gradually fading away.  Seriously, this is just like the centerpiece one-shot action sequence in “Children of Men,” only without the special effects tricks.  This director Nemec ain’t wasting any time, thrusting us right into the pure terror and chaos of a daring escape.  We’re in for a tense on-the-run thriller.

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            …No we’re not.  Good god, no we’re not.  It’s been about 5-10 minutes now (in a movie that’s only an hour long, so I’m getting antsy and nervous that this’ll be a dud), and the boys have just been trekking through the woods.  That’s it.  Man vs. wild to the extreme, eh?  Intriguing, and you really are convinced that these boys are exhausted, and hungry, and desperate…but Nemec’s starting to wear out his welcome.  This is just starting to go on too long.  For god’s sake, have the boys run into a deranged Nazi headhunter, or a kindly grandmother and her gingerbread house, or just SOMETHING besides boys walking in…was that a trolley on a busy city street?  Was that one of the boys boarding said trolley?  …and back to famished boys up against the elements in the forest.  What the fuck?  Did I just imagine that?  There was no extra sound or anything, just a second or two of the image of a completely different time and place.  Oh, now there’s more of ‘em, intermittent shots of the boy walking down back alleys, ringing doorbells, the two boys in a shitty train car, trading a piece of food for a pair of shoes.  Flashbacks.  Cute touch, trying to convey the whole desperate point-of-view thing, add some spice to an otherwise uneventful march through the woods.  OK, I think I’ve got a grasp on what to expect after that fooled-you intro: an extremely rough experiment in subjectivity, emphasized by the silent, unexplained flashback here and there, said silence meant to convey weight.  Meh.

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            …Wrong again.  Yeah, this is experimental (that’s putting it lightly), yeah it’s subjective, yeah there’s silent, unexplained flashbacks…but we’re on the cusp of something special here.  Boy oh boy, look at these match cuts.  Match cut after match cut after match cut.  It’s common shapes, common walking directions, common thought processes that link the boys’ unexplained snippets of past with their blunt and terrible present.  I think back to that fleeting image of the boys in the train car, that ear-splitting crunch as one boy eats the food from the other’s jacket, and in exchange the other boy takes the shoes.  Cut back to the taller boy, wounded and limping, but feet safely ensconced in the other boy’s shoes.  The shorter boy in back of him looks at those shoes – the shoes that were once his – practically licking his lips out of instinctual jealousy and lust for those shoes.  Suddenly the flashback to the train makes more sense – not plot-wise, because we still have no idea how they got on that train in the first place, or if they even knew each other before sitting together on that train – but subjectively.  The shorter boy has a completely one-track mind right now, and it’s focused squarely on a pair of shoes.  The crunch of leaves and beams of sunlight peeking through the thick foliage that is the tangible world disappear – right now his world consists solely of that one moment in the past, and those shoes.

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            They have to stop and rest more often now.  There’s still the obligatory trudge-through-the-woods shots, but their desperation is becoming more palpable now.  They look up – cut to a shot of the sun, bright as can be, and then cut to – a city street and back alley, as the shorter boy traverses the streets relatively care-free, conceivably some time in the past (?).  The same sun, the same sense of hope and dignity that shines on the grimy, pathetic faces of these two runaway prisoners shines on a cleaner, more secure boy in a better time, better place.  The past and the present have become enmeshed – time is no longer linear, or relevant for that matter.  Happy in the city or woeful in the woods, it’s still the same boy, no longer even separated by the threads of time.  And all Jan Nemec needed to shatter the bonds of time was some clever editing.  Go figure.

            But the clever match cuts don’t stop there.  Shot after shot of movement from right to left (an off-kilter direction by cinema standards).  Boys hobbling through the forest or trolley rides in the snow, it’s all the same – we’ve already established that time matters not.  Forest walk, trolley ride through the sunshine, forest walk, ride through the snow as kids sled down the hill.  And then cut to the boys in the forest again, sticking their tongues out and lapping up rainwater as if it’s the nectar of the gods.  The shot before, of kids sledding down the hill in a winter wonderland, gives this shot of dehydrated runaway prisoners drinking the rain an extra air of glee and joy.  This is a more philosophical cut than your traditional, technical match cut, because it establishes mood.  Time matters not – satisfaction and joy are eternal.  Could the drinking of the rain be…a fantasy?  It just felt so…orgasmic, so joyful for the boys when they get some much-needed water that even the present feels mystical and dream-like now.  You add to that the shorter boy’s imagined (?) assault-times-three on the kind lady who slices him bread, and we’re completely entrenched in the realm of the subjective mind now.

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            The “flashbacks” are getting more frequent now, now that we’ve been introduced to the group of crotchety old men who’re hunting down the two boys (*gasp* a major plot development?  Didn’t think it was possible in a movie like this…).  A pretty young woman pushing a baby carriage attracts the eye of the shorter boy in what in this movie has become “typical silent flashbacks.”  He follows her onto the trolley (hey, that’s the same flashback from the beginning!), the camera following him as he hops from car to car (juxtaposed, of course, with the two boys shuffling their way through the woods), only to reach the end of the car and encounter…the same men who are hunting them down in the present?  What the fuck?  …Or is it even them?  I don’t know, maybe all Germans just look the same to me, but I’d like it to be them, just to have something else to complain about, or marvel at.  Man, this is getting fucked up.  The wheels are really coming off now (that’s a pun only those who watch this movie will understand).

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            The action’s picking up.  Shots are fired.  Boys are panting, crawling up the hill, gunshots permeating the air every few seconds (hey, this seems familiar…).

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            Have you ever noticed how disgusting the act of eating really is?  How disgusting…and how intimate?  Probably not…it is a way of life for you and me, after all.  But when you’re a starving runaway, forced to face the wall like at the end of The Blair Witch Project?  That chewing noise may just be a little louder…and music and other sounds of revelry may just be a little softer, if not entirely drowned out by the chewing – that disgusting and glorious chewing.

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            This is going on too long.  Like that initial trek through the forest, this is going on too long.  You’re killing me, Nemec.  But then again, wouldn’t the constant taunt of obnoxious chomping “go on too long” for a starving youngster?  Cinematic conventions concerning pacing be damned, right?  Isn’t the point here to make cinema’s ultimate subjective experience, put us in their place like no other movie could?  I’ve never been starving to the point of death…but thanks to some extremely exaggerated (and incredible) sound design, I’m starting to get the gist.

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            Flashbacks usually suck in movies, don’t they?  I mean really, do you ever dream up a full-on story, complete with expert cinematography and editing and performances, when you’re reminded of that time you had your appendix removed, or graduated high school, or couldn’t get it up on your third date?  Fuck no!  Memories come in snippets…an image here, a smell there – it’s all sense-based…fleeting memories, disconnected moments in time, soon lost like tears in rain (thank you Roy Batty 😛 ).  I mean shit, after an hour of interlacing a desperate trek through the woods with unexplained images of either the past, the imagination, or both, I’m pretty sure this little gem of a movie came as close as a movie can get to replicating the random zaniness of the human mind (and it manages to squeeze in a compelling portrait of human dignity and overcoming adversity.  Impressive).  Could this bizarre, incomprehensible (like the human mind, no?) exercise in stream-of-consciousness really be the film equivalent of Ulysses?  Dunno, but it’s 12:55 a.m., and now I’m hungry as hell.  Time for those Entenmann’s donuts sitting in the pantry.

9/10 

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2 comments so far

  1. olof on

    fuck you, you didn’t like this at all.

  2. DG on

    Awesome. I love that everyone’s watching this… such a brilliant movie…


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