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Occupation and Survival: Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964)

Michael Haneke once described Schindler’s List (1993) as “unspeakable.” His disgust came from a scene in which women are forced into a gas chamber, and the suspense of whether or not gas or water is to come from the shower heads. As a critic, I share Haneke’s disgust for Spielberg’s depictions of suffering with noticeable bad taste.  La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) are just as repugnant. Both utilize the concentration camp in ways that do a disservice to those who died. Whether it’s Roberto Benigni giving an over the top performance, or the son of a camp commandant naïvely walking into a gas chamber with a young prisoner, both scenarios attempt to pluck the heartstrings. The end results are despicable. Most recently, Luca Guadagnino’s abysmal remake of Suspiria (2018) shamelessly utilized the Theresienstadt concentration camp as a cheap plot device.

During the Holocaust, hope was virtually nonexistent. At the same time, there were shining examples of defiance and perseverance. Survival was of utmost importance for those who endured unimaginable suffering. Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964), Jan Němec’s feature length debut, is an exploration of survival set against the backdrop of a cold, unforgiving wilderness. Němec weaves a complex spell over his audience, engrossing them in an experience that’s bleak, hypnotic, and thought provoking. One isn’t the same after experiencing the imagery presented before them. By removing the typical sights typically associated with the Holocaust, focus is firmly placed on the personal experience in the face of tragedy. The occupation of a foreign power and the roles it places upon its citizens lies at the heart of the film. 

Two young boys escaping from bondage. Their names and backgrounds are unknown. They could be any of the children who were swept up in the nightmare. This omission places emphasis on their situation. Right from the beginning, we’re placed into terror and panic. As the two run across a field, removing the jackets which identify them as camp inmates, audible cries of “stop!” and gunfire are heard. The wardrobe will come to play a key part in the film, and here it’s an indication of the attempt to remove the role of prisoner placed upon them by oppression. As the two struggle to get up a hill, their plight is conveyed with vivid closeups that make one feel uncomfortable. The camera shakes violently, and our perspective becomes disoriented as fear and panic take control. Our protagonists enter the forest. An unknown world lies before them, and into the abyss they go. 

We don’t know whether or not Oedipus or Orpheus brush their teeth or clean their rooms. We don’t really care. What we care about is the journey they’re on and how it touches us…In the beginning of Weaveworld, there’s a boy who collects pigeons, the pigeon escapes, the adventure begins.” – Clive Barker, The Art of Horror 

The forest where much of the film takes place ultimately becomes symbolic of occupation. The unpredictable circumstances force the pair to adapt to a scenario completely beyond their control. In a flashback scene, the pair are shown sitting among fellow inmates. Isolated and far from safety, this juxtaposition with the forest illustrates the severity of their situation. Much like someone facing an unknown future in captivity, the two boys are at the mercy of nature and its elements. Reality and escapism become intertwined as one of the boys imagines himself back in the city where he once lived. The streets which once contained the hustle and bustle of daily life are empty. The boy wears the uniform of a prisoner. Even in his own imagination, he cannot escape the identity of a prisoner forced upon him. In its first appearance, we see him boarding a deserted train car. This will ultimately come to represent the occupation of Czechoslovakia as the film progresses.

With survival being top priority, thought process strays from normal behavior. The inmate in captivity will do whatever it takes to make it to the next day. Desperation and primal instinct take over rational thought and virtue. The duo come across a farmer tending his fields as his wife brings him food. This sets up one of Němec’s most provocative sequences within the film. One of the pair sneaks into the Farmer’s house, where he finds his wife cooking. What follows are three scenarios, playing out in rapid fire succession. Watching them allows the audience a glimpse into desperation. Images of the wife being attacked, falling to the floor unconscious, and then resting in a position that could possibly be hinting at a sexual encounter. Taking pity on the boys’ plight, she gives him bread, and our protagonist doesn’t degenerate to vice for survival. Ambiguity is the strongest aspect Diamonds of the Night possesses. With fantasy and reality constantly intertwining with one another, we’re given both experience and perspective, similar to Ива́ново де́тство (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962) or Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

As the events of the film take place during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the occupying powers are depicted in a way that defies normal expectations. Much can be said about the years of oppression. This is where Reinhard Heidrich, architect of Hitler’s final solution, earned his nickname ‘The Hangman of Prague.’ The barbarism that occurred there and elsewhere is more terrifying and unnerving than any fictional imagery captured on celluloid. The most disturbing aspect of genocide is that they’re the actions of ordinary people. These ordinary people are shown as a hunting party, made up of decrepit old men. A subversive move on Němec’s part, it illustrates the holocaust in very simple terms. The hunters begin to assemble their weapons and capture their quarry consisting of the two boys. The perspective of the occupying power is brought before the audience. Our protagonists are thought of us animals to be hunted down, and not human beings. 

While the pursuit sums up the perspective of the oppressor, Němec once again takes us into the mind of the protagonists. Revisiting the empty train car from earlier, a perfect representation of occupation is presented. The car, containing ordinary citizens and a Nazi officer depicts the foreign power living amongst the citizens of an occupied territory. The car itself, broken down and lacking any forward movement is Czechoslovakia. Departing the car and returning to the town in which he once lived again reinforces the role placed upon him under oppression. Talking with a young girl, assumedly his sweetheart, he still wears a prisoner’s uniform. While much of theses sequences are ambiguous and interpretation is left up to the spectator, one moment in particular illustrates a withdrawal into one’s own mind. Entering an empty house, one of the boys slowly journeys up a staircase, emptiness and isolation with oneself are depicted in complete silence. A la Maya Daren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1946).

The third and final act of the film is just as subversive and ambiguous as everything Němec has presented before it.  As the hunters capture their precious game, they’re firmly linked to the Nazi party. The hunters celebrate their victory in a beer hall, the same location which saw the birth of the party. The celebration degenerates into drunken revelry, which could also be interpreted as the complacency that some citizens have during an occupation regarding an occupation. If any one moment seems to illustrate the intent of a fascist regime, it’s where a cooked chicken is pulled apart violently by the group, who feast upon the pieces with vigor. This is eerily similar to Hitler’s military campaigns of the early 1940, in which much of Western Europe was devoured by the hungry dictator. 

The fate of our protagonists, who we’ve journeyed with to the ends of suffering and beyond, is ambiguous and cloaked in mystery. Film, as with any art form, is subjective and open to interpretation. Diamonds of the Night is certainly no exception to this. As the two boys leave the hall, we’re assaulted with a barge of flashbacks to earlier moments within the film, at one point the two of them laying in the middle of a road, dead. The final moments, that include a juxtaposition of wandering in a city and them reentering the woods is puzzling in nature. For a moment we question if there exist alternate realities within the linear narrative we’ve just witnessed. Perhaps it isn’t a physical world they’re entering, but an afterlife. 

As narratives related to the Holocaust are concerned, Diamonds of the Night might be one of the most perplexing. Němec created something went against the grain of typical expectations. He was faithful to the struggles many of his countrymen went through, and subversive enough to depict former enemies in their true form. A few years later, Němec would turn his attention to the shortcomings of his own country’s government with O slavnosti a hostech (A Report on the Party and the Guests, 1966). In doing so, he would prove the importance with objectivity when depicting the world we live in.

About Jerome Reuter

One comment

  1. Regarding your opening point about ‘Schindler’s List’ – have you seen Juraj Herz’s ‘The Night Overtake Me’? There’s a very similar scene in that with the showers. The exact same ‘trick’, if you like, on the audience. Herz saw ‘Schindler’s List’ and later said he might have sued Spielberg if he’d been able to afford it. I mention it because Herz’s scene in the shower is one of several pretty bold (even irreverent) stylistic decisions in that film, and Herz was himself a Holocaust survivor (Ravensbruck and Auschwitz) who had an unusual attitude towards its portrayal on film. For years he had been pitching an autobiographical film based on his childhood experience, but as a black comedy. Nobody would fund it.

    ‘The Night Overtake Me’ isn’t a completely successful film but if Spielberg’s scene is to be cited as an insulting Hollywoodization, it should be noted that an actual Holocaust survivor had already done it. In an admittedly very different film.

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