Friday, August 23, 2013

Démanty noci / Diamonds of the Night, preceded by a reading of Arnošt Lustig by Laura Laitinen, followed by a lecture "The Short Story and Cutting" by Jan Forsström

Yön timantit / Nattens diamanter. CZ 1964. PC: Filmové studio Barrandov. D: Jan Němec. SC: Arnošt Lustig, Jan Němec – based on Démanty noci by Arnošt Lustig. DP: Jaroslav Kučera. Second camera operator: Miroslav Ondříček. PD+AD: Oldrich Bosák. Cost: Ester Krumbachová, Zdena Snajdarová. ED: Miroslav Hájek. S: Frantisek Cerný. C: Ladislav Janský (1. boy), Antonín Kumbera (2. boy), Ilse Bischofová (woman), Jan Říha, Ivan Aič, August Bischof, Josef Koggel, Oskar Miller, Anton Schich, Rudolf Stolle. Helsinki premiere: 11.11.1966 Sininen Kuu, distributed by Suomi Filmi – VET 74276 - K12 - 64 min - the Finnish release version was 1840 m / 67 min (withdrawn from circulation after the crushing of the Prague Spring).
    A NFA Prague print with English subtitles by the Barrandov Studios viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (The Short Story and the Cinema seminar arranged by the Novelli palaa! project of Nuoren Voiman Liitto), 23 August 2013

Before the screening Laura Laitinen read the opening of Arnošt Lustig's novel version of the story, Tma nemá stín / Darkness Casts No Shadow (1991), translated by Nina Saikkonen as Pimeydellä ei ole varjoa (Like, 2008).

A stark, atavistic survival story, a chase story reduced to bare essentials. Fleeing from a train to Auschwitz, the fugitive Jewish boys run for their lives. The story is about utter exhaustion, about a reality which is like a nightmare. The energy is drained, the force is vanishing, the spirit is disappearing. Hunger, exhaustion, mortal danger, barking dogs, extreme states of consciousness. The shoe is too tight, the foot rag is bloody, the mouth so dry that bread tears wounds in the mouth. Old rangers hunt the boys methodically and catch them. The darkness of the forest is waiting. The boys manage to escape, but is it a death dream?

A visually powerful experience based on subjective camera, amplified by dream-like flashbacks, and spiced by alternative realities. The high contrast look is intentional.

A great NFA Prague print.

Jan Forsström gave a splendid lecture focusing on three topics: 1) the golden age of Czech cinema in the 1960s, 2) the short story and cutting, and 3) literary adaptation.

In a short period, in 1963-1969, many great directors such as Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilova, Evald Schorm, Jan Nemec, etc., produced an amazing number of inspired films. Even some of the older guard, such as Frantisek Vlacil and Karel Kachyna, found a new inspiration. A significant number of the new talent graduated from the FAMU film school in 1961-1963. (FAMU = Filmová a televizní fakulta Akademie múzických umění).

The Czech New Wave ended with the occupation of the Warsaw Pact tanks which crushed the Prague Spring of 1968.

Josef Skvorecky has detailed four factors which made the Czech New Wave.

The good sides of socialism included: no budget problems, long production periods, the FAMU experience with the best teachers. The period of "socialist realism" really was restricted to the early 1950s only. The audiences rejected those idealistic stories. The thaw made rebellion possible.

The contribution of the writers was great. There was a renaissance of literature (Kundera, Skvorecky, Hrabal, Lustig), and there was also a solid literary tradition (Jan Neruda, Kafka, Capek, Hasek). There was also a long tradition of mutual influence between literature and cinema. All writers participated in film adaptations. An interesting case is Perlicke na dne / Pearls from the Deep, based on five stories by Hrabal. The best talents worked together.

Jan Nemec was un enfant terrible of the new wave. The Party and the Guests and Martyrs of Love were among his other main works. His approach was the opposite of Forman and Menzel. He wanted to distance himself from verisimilitude. He pursued a pure cinema, his models were Chaplin, Bresson, Buñuel, Fellini, and Bergman.

Nemec's wife was Ester Krumbachová, a mother figure of the Czech new wave, 13 years older, 40 years of age, a costume designer, art director and screenwriter, and unofficial dramatist and production designer.

When Nemec was forced to emigrate he did not adapt to US production culture. He branched to directing wedding videos with ambition. Back in Czechoslovakia after the fall of the wall he made extremely experimental, subjective, essayistic documentaries.

Krumbachová stayed and went on as a costume designer in theatres.

The books of Arnost Lustig were based on his own experiences, how he lost his family in the Holocaust. His own favourite was Diamonds of the Night (1958), a collection of short stories. The tale on which the film is based was first a short story of 50-60 pages in that collection.

In his U.S. emigration Lustig expanded the short story to a novella, a short novel. I personally prefer the original story. It is expressive, painted with a large brush, psychologically laconic, the dialogue is concrete, there is an aspect of litany, with an odd mental state, a strange childish innocence, expressive of an emptiness after a state of shock, a feeling of a state of zero, with a loss of depth, feelings of hunger and thirst highlighted. The feelings are not deep, there are only hunches of the concentration camp experience. There is an affinity with Beckett and Keaton in the sense of banality and absurdity.

In the novel there are changes inspired by the film adaptation, but the tale works better without dialogue. The original tension disappears. The more full background information and the expanded room for self-reflection expel the sense of an after-shock, the sense of what it is to be a human in an extreme state of being.

A human being in such an extreme state is volatile and dangerous.

Understatement is a major stylistic means of expression, based on authentic psychological observation.

In the film adaptation the plot is the same. The film starts after the prologue of the novel version which we just heard as read by Laura Laitinen. The dialogue has been stripped away. The vaudeville duo of the boys has been omitted. The actors resemble Bressonian models.

The absurdity, the repetitiveness remains, including the extended, grotesque and absurd section with the old men.

There is nothing ennobling in either the book or the film.

The concentration camp memories have been omitted. The only remaining detail is the shoe which has been exchanged with a bit of bread, the shoe that starts to chafe.

The movie focuses more on the dark-haired, younger boy. The goal is universal, to go deep into one mind. The goal is already evident in Lustig. There are few period details.

The boys do not look Jewish. The movie is a generalized vision about escape, about man in an extreme situation.

The emphasis is on physical aspects: - rain - thirst - hunger - fatigue. There is a Bressonian affinity, but spirituality is missing, the approach is more humanistic. It is more carnal, more sexual, more Buñuelian. The explicit element is the image of the ants on the hand.

It is about the experience inside the mind, and outside, a cruel and absurd experience, of flesh, dirt, of sanctification, sometimes close to Tarkovsky, also in the imagery of water and mud.

About the characters we know nothing. They lie, they do not admit they are Jewish.

The flashbacks offer no information. They are mere emotion, mere associations.

The film is a cinematic stream of consciousness. It also resembles Fellini's 8½ and Polanski's Repulsion as an account of a mind falling apart.

The cinematography is bold and expressive, by Jaroslav Kučera, the husband of Věra Chytilová, assisted by the hand-held camera of the second camera operator Miroslav Ondříček.

The soundscape is Bressonian, based on concrete sounds, enlarged - tight and focused. Everyday sound is emphasized. There is no composed music, only diegetic music. There are no actual sound effects.

The performances are understated, quasi amateurish, resembling Bressonian models, non-acting. The physical presence of the persons is emphasized, and the physical presence is in a way documented.

There are rough edges in the film wich was made in a hurry before it would be banned. There is a sense of generalization, of being based on types. The security of fiction is missing. An unpredictable world is on display.

There are affinities with Bresson, Buñuel, and Resnais in the editing. The time layers are mixed. The editor Miroslav Hájek has edited 178 films.

There are inexplicable images. There are flashbacks, memories, fantasies, mind games, and associations.

In the beginning the film is objective. Then it gets tighter. It turns Expressionistic. The number of extreme close-ups keeps growing.

We are plunged into a physical experience. At times the cut does not take place, and the situation just goes on and on. The boys are just plain exhausted.

The first memory is a fantasy. The notion of death is present. There is an alteration of sound and silence. During the forest trek the scene of covering oneselves with tree branches may be just a mind image. At the woman's house three- four times the boy goes through the thought process of whether the woman should be killed. The woman puts on a scarf, goes out and perhaps betrays the refugees. The home security patrol is alerted. There is also a memory of a tram ride in the city. There is a scarcity of information. Certain images are just images of memories.

There are two endings: of dying and not dying. As for me, they do not die, and the "execution" is just a black joke. The youngsters escape into the depth of the forest.

Like in Albert Camus's L'Hôte / Yövieras the conclusion is symbolic. There is no exit. It is a Sisyphus variation. Like in Primo Levi, there is no escape, it does no really happen. The act transforms the one who experiences it. He will always remain in the eternal forest.

The editing was profoundly influenced by Resnais, and there are affinities with Hiroshima, Marienbad, and films that the makers had not yet seen such as Muriel, and La Guerre est finie. The editing is a revolution. It is a mental truth. It did not emerge out of nowhere. There were predecessors such as - Soviet montage - Buñuel and Dali - Deren and Hammid (Meshes of the Afternoon) - with later reverberations in Lynch. Hammid was a Czech, and he had been the art director of Ekstase, famous for its nature mysticism.

The meta-filmic editing is based on memory, as in Toute la mémoire du monde, Nuit et brouillard, and Hiroshima, mon amour. The woman sees her lover's hand, there is a memory of the hand, and memories condensed, a compilation of memories.

There is a cinematic conditional tense: "maybe thus", as later in La Guerre est finie.

In literature, such devices had been developed in le nouveau roman, in works by Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Nathalie Sarraute's daughter was the editor of Hiroshima, mon amour.

The account is not of the objective world, but of states of mind, memories, everything is approached via the consciousness.

In Modernistic literature (Joyce, Woolf, Proust) the mind is more important than external events. Démanty noci is an exercise is a cinematic stream of consciousness, based on psychological editing, phenomenological editing, editing as an expression of experience

"Kill your darlings" is the first commandment of an editor, and thus the opening of the story has been cut. The film is created from a memory bank, and in the sound bank there is a continuity from the soundscape of the previous image.

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