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Czech Film Review: Diamonds of the Night

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Kai-Ming Chow reviews Jan Němec’s film Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) released in 1964. Some insight into one of the films of old.

Based on Arnošt Lustig’s novel Darkness Has No Shadow, Jan Němec’s first full-length feature, Diamonds of the Night, is a visceral experience that shouldn’t be missed. Right from the jump, the film hooks you with an incredible sequence that follows two young boys escaping a train heading towards a concentration camp. The whole scene is shot in one continuous take as the camera closes in to capture the desperation on their faces. By this point, it’s clear that the goal is to put the viewer in the state of mind of these characters as they struggle to survive.

This is one of those films that focuses more on providing an immersive experience for the viewers, rather than telling a straightforward narrative. And that’s apparent in its presentation. Once the boys make their way into the woods, the film intercuts between their current situation and visions of life before the war. These memories belong to Ladislav Jánsky’s character, whose perspective is the one we follow throughout the film. The scenes are made up of simple moments that seem like distant memories compared to the situation he currently finds himself in. We see images of kids sledging down a hill while laughing, mundane details of people going about their day, and the relationship he shared with his girlfriend. Now, he just wants to survive and return to the life he once knew…

It’s amazing just how much is communicated through the visuals alone. The first line of dialogue isn’t even uttered until the 15-minute mark, which makes sense given the context of the opening scene. There’s just so much thought put into the entire presentation of the film, like the idea of not having a score to accompany the visuals. There’s no music to manipulate the viewer into feeling some sort of emotion. Instead, we’re presented with natural sounds that help increase the immersion that much more.

I was struck by how suspenseful some of the scenes actually were. One scene, in particular, finds the boys running from a group of old hunters. The lack of music mixed with the overwhelming sound of gunfire makes for a harrowing experience that holds up remarkably well. Unlike the continuous shot in the film’s opening, this time the camera cuts between both parties to create even more tension as we see the old men shoot and are left to wonder if they actually hit their targets every time we cut back to the boys.

Another scene features a ticking clock as the boys try to avoid another trip to the concentration camp. This a clever way of adding tension to the scene, and it’s hard to believe that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk wasn’t influenced by it in some way, seeing as how that film featured a ticking sound in the music as well. Either way, the ripple effects of this film can be seen in other films that immerse the viewers into the gritty realities of war.

The decision to keep the boys nameless is an interesting detail that adds to the overall message — these people could be anyone. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the black experience throughout history as the boys found themselves helplessly facing a wall with their hands up while the old men bask in their privilege as they eat, drink, and dance. This is a microcosm of the worst of humanity: the atrocities it’s capable of, the freedom it takes away, and the desperation it can bring to people. Film has the incredible ability to immerse the viewer in an experience outside of their own, and this is one that should never be forgotten.

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