One of my favorite phrases, the origin of which I can't say I rightly know, is "simple as death." The phrase came to mind quite a few times while watching this entirely extraordinary film in a beautiful DVD release from the ever-crucial U.K. label Second Run. It is the first feature from director Czech director Jan Nemec, who would achieve international fame with his subsequent film The Party and the Guests. Party is an allegory of power and oppression...but there's nothing allegorical about Diamonds of the Night. There's nothing realistic about it either. That is to say, its reality is convincing and brutal and very close—harrowingly close—to the reality of life as we may know it and historical reality and all the rest, but the film is not "realistic." While its premise is as simple as death, its execution and texture is as complicated, and knotty, as life. The film begins with two young men, never named, entering a forest. We see them from the back, as we often do. It's clear they're not in the woods on a pleasure excursion.
One of the young men falls. Or does he lie down? Soon he finds that his hand is covered in ants. This is clearly Nemec's nod to not just the surrealism but the freedom of Buñuel and Dali's Un chien andalou. Clearly. But it is also a communication of a reality—if you are in an environment such as a forest, an environment teeming with all manner of life, you may well end up having a hand covered in ants, no? This layering of cinematic allusion and the depiction of desperate life as it is desperately lived is only the most elemental portion of this film's essential gambit. What we are in store for is not merely—as if "merely" is the right word for such a thing—a historically grounded artistic simulation of the massive psychosis we refer to as "war," but a magnificent and piercing existential riddle.
As the young men suffer deprivation after degradation and more, we discover, through the unstuck-in-time action, who they are—sort of—and how they came to their dire straits. They are Czech teens who managed an escape from a German train bound for a concentration camp and now must stay ever on the run. The Sisyphean nature of their plight is underscored by the fact that the film both begins and ends with their running. In the 65-minute running time of this picture, certain essential questions, including the usual one considered most crucial by conventional movie standards, that is, what finally happens to these kids, are answered...and then the answers are taken back, and the poor fellows are put back on their horrific treadmill.
"And don't it feel like...nothing's real sometimes?" So goes a line in an old favorite song of mine. About what's real or not in this story...midway through the picture the two young men find a farmhouse, and one of the boys stands before a woman. A series of shots suggests that this fellow, with whom we ourselves are desperate to empathize (so to be purified by his suffering—isn't that what movie-watching is for, in a sense?), assaults the woman. Gratuitously. Unforgivably. And then another series of shots suggests he does no such thing, that the violation only took place, or suggested itself as a possibility, in the kid's imagination. Or maybe in the filmmaker's. Or maybe in the novelist's whose work the filmmaker is adapting.
The film's "end," such as it is, find the kids captured by some cretinously near-senile German relics, whose cruel mirth evokes righteous hatred while also making a thoroughly earned joke of Nazi "master race" rhetoric. The formal daring of the film's relative brevity becomes even more impressive on contemplating the fact that one could make a loop of the movie, screen it, say, three times successively from start to finish, and it would not seem redundant or repetitive but would merely ring louder with each successive iteration of its heart-strangling imagery. This is one of the most intensely concentrated films of all time. The novel it was adapted from, a book by Arnost Lustig that was based on his own wartime experiences (so at least one of the protagonists does live, a literal-minded viewer of the film might surmise upon learning this)is dialogue-filled, expository, gives its characters names...provides everything this film withholds. Rather in the way that Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar and David Cronenberg's Spider—both adapted from novels with first-person narratives—jettison their respective protagonists' voices. Certain filmmakers have an inherent understanding of how to transpose literary language to cinematic language. And certain literary practitioners understand why that is not just desirable but necessary. So it's not entirely surprising but very gratifying to learn that Nemec's film was whole-heartedly embraced by Lustig.
The Region 2 PAL DVD features a stunning transfer of beautiful material, and a superb essay by Michael Brooke, as well as a penetrating video interview with Peter Hames. An absolutely essential viewing experience, and one of the DVDs of the year, for sure.