ArtsATL > Film > Review: Film Love presents three classic and rare movies by Czech filmmaker Jan Němec

Review: Film Love presents three classic and rare movies by Czech filmmaker Jan Němec

Němec's haunting "Diamonds of the Night." (Courtesy of National Film Archive, Prague)
Němec's haunting "Diamonds of the Night." (Courtesy of National Film Archive, Prague)
Němec’s haunting Diamonds of the Night. (Courtesy of National Film Archive, Prague)

These days, we take for granted that, with just a few keystrokes, we can stream every single movie ever made. Here’s a reminder, starting this weekend, that assumption is very wrong indeed. Serious movie fans still have to seek out some of the really good stuff.

Case in point: Film Love curator Andy Ditzler presents The 1960s Films of Jan Němec. “Jan who?” you may be thinking. Yeah, exactly. The answer to that question is worth finding out.

Němec, still alive and now residing in the United States, was a leading film figure in Czechoslovakia’s New Wave. But the three features he made in the 1960s — including one that was permanently banned from screening in his homeland — are hard to come by in the States. They’re the ones being shown Friday, Saturday and Tuesday in Emory University’s White Hall.

Diamonds of the Night (1964) is the centerpiece, screening on Friday in a new 35mm print. Barely more than an hour long, it’s a dark astonishment.

Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera play two nameless young men we meet in midflight, running from a train that was transporting them to a World War II concentration camp. We follow as they try to survive a march through the woods, their journey constantly, fluidly interrupted by memories of village life before war began.

Nearly dialogue-free, the film is a propulsive pastoral with the fleeting spookiness of the 1962 French short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. There’s a hallucinatory specificity to the images: the roots of trees passing by underfoot, a cameo swinging from a man’s vest chain, the Mona Lisa–like face of a farm woman whose features recur in unexpected places. Some of the images border on early Buñuelian surrealism (dig those swarming ants!). Watching the film is like being trapped in an agonized, waking dream state, the equivalent of watching another man’s life pass before our eyes as he trudges in exhaustion toward death, release or (as Němec has it in his ambiguous ending) both.

The movie’s final act offers an indelible portrait of casual, bone-deep corruption (political and physical) in a long scene populated by old, collaborating villagers. After capturing the young men for the Nazis, they hold the youths hostage in their town hall, while they stuff their own faces and get drunk.

The act of eating is made to look matter-of-factly grotesque in both Diamonds and Saturday’s film, A Report on the Party and the Guests.

In that 1966 film, screening Saturday, a flavor of Buñuel returns, plus heapings of 1960s-style comedy of the absurd. A band of middle-class married friends picnic by a sylvan brook, en route to the outdoor birthday party of a friend who owns this wooded estate. Before they can reach their destination, though, they’re halted by an amiably smiling fellow named Rudolf (Jan Klusák) and a handful of thuggish pals. Claiming to be the host’s newly adopted son, Rudolf coerces the guests into playing increasingly unsettling “games” — like remaining behind a line he digs around them in the gravel with the heel of his shoe.

His antics are less disturbing than the party guests’ compliance, as they gossip and chide each other for not playing along with Rudolf’s odd demands. Its eerie, daylit satire of repression and collaboration got Report banned by government officials, and ultimately led to Němec’s departure from his own country.

Also little more than an hour long, the film is like an al fresco version of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962), as the guests come up with rationales for staying at a party they would rather leave. German auteur Michael Haneke’s gleefully brutal Funny Games (both versions) feels like a natural descendant, and so does Danish writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Closer to home, the shuddery gulf that opens between the grinning Rudolf and the clueless bourgeois guests kept reminding me of the collision of the vacationing Southern family and the murderous Misfit they meet on the road in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

As for the third film in the series, Martyrs of Love (1967), you’ll have to discover that one on your own. The digital file available for preview wouldn’t work on any of my devices. (See what I mean about the difficulties of seeing these movies?) Based on the other two Němec films, it’s bound to be unmissable as well.

The 1960s Films of Jan Němec. Presented by Film Love, cosponsored by Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies, the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, the Department of History and the Center for Creativity and the Arts. Diamonds of the Night (1964) and the short A Loaf of Bread (1960), Friday, White Hall room 208. A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), Saturday, White Hall room 205. Martyrs of Love (1967), Tuesday, March 4, White Hall room 208. All screenings are at 8 p.m. Free and open to the public. In Czech, with subtitles.

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