Ride Nemec’s New Wave

“Enfant Terrible,” Jan Nemec, Subject of Comeback Company’s North American Retrospective Tour

by Nathan Roberts

“Diamonds of the Night” begins with breathtaking swiftness. Sharp gunshots echo in the distance as two unidentified young men scramble, half-running, half-crawling, up a hillside. We hear nothing but gunshots and breathless panting as they head into the woods for shelter.

Two unnamed protagonists of “Diamonds of the Night” flee from gunfire.Photo courtesy of www.bam.org

Two unnamed protagonists of “Diamonds of the Night” flee from gunfire.
Photo courtesy of http://www.bam.org

In this 1964 feature-length debut by 1960s Czech New Wave auteur Jan Nemec, the young men are never given names or significant dialogue. Their forest escape meshes with intercut surrealistic visions: walks through a concentration camp wearing cloaks labeled “KL,” a tram speeding through the streets of Prague, ants crawling into an eye socket, laughing children tobogganing down snowy slopes, grain bags, slinking cats, rising elevators. No framing devices contextualize these images, leaving us the weighty task of determining whether we’re witnessing flashbacks, hallucinations or merely images that Nemec fancies.

Interpretation and discernment will be the reward for those attending the first-ever North American Jan Nemec retrospective. Initially touring eight cities in the U.S. and Canada, “Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Nemec” features a stunning breadth of material from Nemec’s 50-year career, from his 2005 postmodern biopic “Toyen” to a brand new 35 millimeter print of “Diamonds of the Night.”

The retrospective explores Nemec’s reputation as the Czech New Wave’s enfant terrible. Indeed, Nemec’s films fly in the face of mainstream cinematic convention, flummoxing even experienced avant-garde fans with their minimal narratives and dreamlike images.

“Nemec had a very special place because he was really trying to find his own way, in his own way,” explained Czech film professor Ivana Dolezalova in an interview. “He was of course a big rebel of the times, a heavy drinker, making scandals. He was very sharp with people, not a terribly polite person. He could have fights on an everyday basis. So he was an enfant terrible of Czech cinema not only in his films but in his life.”

This confrontational spirit certainly made its way into “Diamonds of the Night,” which seems to intentionally defy viewer expectations. In one respect, with its focus on rhythm and image association, “Diamonds” wears the influence of early twentieth century non-narrative experimental cinema—Vertov’s “Man With The Movie Camera,” Eisenstein’s “Intellectual Montage” theory, Buñel and Dalí’s dada film “Un Chien Andalou”—on its sleeve. On the other hand, these strategies are applied to the specific, vividly conceived scenario of young concentration camp escapees fighting for their lives.

“Nemec had a very special place because he was really trying to find his own way, in his own way.”

When the boys stand in the pounding storm, giddily downing water as if spewed from a heavenly shower-head, the physicality of the event is grounded and striking. And yet, soon after this scene, Nemec abstracts and refracts images of Prague with carefree cuts, slicing and dicing the city spaces into an incongruous mix of windows, alleyways, corners, doorframes and doorknobs.

While “Diamonds” lovers praise the film’s visual portrayal of stress, claustrophobia, hunger and exhaustion, others might think that Nemec is trying a little too hard. They may find that his deliberate obscurity seems to yell “VISUAL ARTISTRY! PURE CINEMA!” just a decibel too loud.

Due to its opacity, “Diamonds of the Night” wasn’t even popular in Prague upon release, much less the United States, but there are some who insist it is a masterpiece. After seeing “Diamonds of the Night” at age 16 in an art club in Prague upon its 1964 release, Ms. Dolezalova has revisited the film many times. “At 16, I wasn’t even quite sure I had fully understood it, but it left a great impression on me,” she explained. “And I must say I consider ‘Diamonds of the Night’ his best film, which he might not want to hear since it was his first film,” she said, laughing. “Milos Forman said to him once: ‘Why do you keep shooting? You’ll never make anything as good as ‘Diamonds of the Night.’ Which is insulting, but since these two studied together since the FAMU  [Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague] years, they can talk very openly.”

Yet Nemec did continue shooting with his second feature “Of Celebration and the Guests,” which Dolezalova said was a more accurate translation than its common English title “A Report on the Party and the Guests.” This 1966 film is no easier to digest than “Diamonds of the Night,” albeit for different reasons. In his second feature, co-written with his then-wife Ester Krumbachova, Nemec pared back the complex image weaving that defined “Diamonds,” substituting rudimentary shots of six carefree picnickers lounging in the bucolic Bohemian countryside instead. These central unnamed picnickers find themselves accosted by a gang of thugs as a “joke,” and then, after receiving the apology of a white-suit wearing, Lenin-looking benefactor, are invited to a party that it’s clear they ought not to leave.

The boyish joker manipulates his captured picnickers in “Celebration.” Photo courtesy of www.bam.org.

The boyish joker manipulates his captured picnickers in “Celebration.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.bam.org

The film is bizarre because of its consistently superfluous, disconnected lines of dialogue. Even before picnickers run into the strange “Joker,” as they sprawl out on their picnic blanket, drinking and resting, a typical exchange runs: “I couldn’t be alone. Some prefer solitude. I couldn’t.” “I like solitude.” “I like to have pretty, well-cared-for things.” “So do I.” “If I had a large house—if I had at last got it, that is… you could all come there and…”

When the thugs arrive, their sheepishly grinning, boyish-looking leader uses similar triviality to charm the group and establish authority with frightening ease. In a particularly memorable scene, the picnickers are grouped into “prisons” designated by lines in the dirt with “doors” designated by the small gaps between two rocks. Told they can only leave through the doors, they quickly begin obeying the “prison’s” imaginary physical construction. This absurdity demonstrates how quickly powerful parties can bend logic to their will.

The most trenchant aspect of this film is Nemec and Krumbachova’s insight into how humanity responds to external power. The picnickers exude a full range of responses. One woman doesn’t care that she can’t leave the celebration as long as she’s sitting in her proper place at the banquet. One man speaks out against the system that’s containing them but—after an early scuffle with the joke-playing goons—stays nonetheless. The most verbose and friendly man is sucked into a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome Lite,” even becoming a full-on collaborator by the film’s conclusion. Only one dissident refuses to engage with the celebration in any way, leaving without a trace, much to his wife’s embarrassment.

When it was released in 1966, this parable of power and response was immediately associated with the political situation of Czechoslovakia and promptly banned. It was finally released in 1968, only to be banned again before the year’s end. Yet the film is far from simplistic political propaganda.

“Celebration” addresses “any power that tries to manipulate people,” explained Dolezalova. “For Nemec, it was never a completely type of political cinema at all. In fact, he wasn’t really interested in that. The political situation is read into the books and plays of those days so much that it became almost too much.”  For Dolezova, the deliberate universality of Nemec’s work even separates him from other “timeless” Czech auteurs like Milos Forman.  “I don’t think in fact he’s very Czech,” she said, pausing. “Maybe Forman and Forman’s films from the sixties were more Czech than Nemec… If you watch ‘Of Celebration and the Guests’ it can even be applied to a capitalist system if you’re talking to people who are more leftist and want to criticize the establishment… It is not purely and clearly a political film by intention.”

Expressly political or not, Communist Czechoslovakia would eventually crack down on Nemec’s experimental exploits entirely, and the filmmaker knew it. “While making all my films so far,” Nemec said to Antonín Liehm in July of 1968, “I have been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to finish them, that someone would call a halt before they were done. All that mattered was rush, rush! So that my work would be all mine. I couldn’t let myself be delayed, couldn’t stop for an instant.” When reading this quote, one cannot help but think of the “Diamonds” opening and how, as Nemec’s camera runs beside the escaping boys, Nemec is “running” from the authorities himself, pouring his immense, particular creative energy into slapdash projects before they could be stifled and perverted by imagination-bereft agenda of the Socialist State.

Read in 2013, Nemec’s July 1968 interview cultivates a sense of wistful mourning for the creative projects that could have been. One can only dream what it would’ve looked like if he and Vaclav Havel were actually able to produce their “political gangster story about an international organization—a corporation, to be precise—concerned with political murders.” And yet, less than a month after this interview, tanks would file into Wenceslas Square and squelch the creative liberty allowed during the Prague Spring, forcing Nemec into exile for—as film historian Peter Hames estimates—the political implication in “Celebration,” the general incomprehensibility of his films, and “Oratorio for Prague,” a documentary film about the Soviet invasion.

One of the final reasons Nemec remains fairly unknown in the United States is that, unlike Forman, he had no mainstream success after moving into exile there. Nemec’s filmmaking style was never as well received as Forman’s and he had no desire to compromise his craft for public accessibility. And while there was room for such a filmmaker to produce in the centralized Barrandov Studios, such stubborn integrity rarely finds its way through American film studios intact.

The Lenin-looking benefactor leads guests to his celebration.Photo courtesy of www.bam.org

The Lenin-looking benefactor leads guests to his celebration.
Photo courtesy of http://www.bam.org

This stubborn insistence on personal integrity left him particularly opposed to the politically correct networking required to gain producer and actor support. Nemec complained to Ivana Kosullcova in 2001: “You have about twenty meetings a day [when you’re trying to make a feature film] and you have to listen to all the stupid things that they tell you and you have to know everything about the producer or agent….  You have to pretend you are a different person and I just couldn’t do it. I thought that keeping my own integrity and freedom is better than to have money and serve somebody as a buffoon.”

Also, even though Nemec’s films don’t necessarily encapsulate a particularly Czech sensibility, artistic creativity in a different country was hard for Nemec nonetheless. “He was the type for whom losing his country meant losing a certain capacity,” Dolezalova said. “It does happen to lot of directors when they immigrate. For anybody who left the country during the totalitarian system, it was very harsh for them to lose their roots. He was one of those.”

Therefore, it is a melancholy irony that when Nemec triumphantly returned to the Czech Republic soon after 1989, he was faced with the same sort of financial process that he found so distasteful in America. When the film industry was denationalized, Nemec was faced with the post-communist hurdle of appeasing backers for fundraising. So while Nemec has made a series of features since returning to the Czech Republic, his on-the-fly barrage of 1960s creativity has never been replicated. As some critics have acidly noted, some films of the communist era were so interesting because directors were often given money to make whatever film they wanted–as long as it wasn’t critical of the regime. But during freer times, artistic heroes during the communist era had no desire or ability to become successful when commercial appeal was essential to the film’s production.

Fortunately, this lack of creative projects allows Nemec to teach at FAMU, the Czech film academy for university students, where the qualities that define his filmmaking—an admirable mixture of creative exploration and elusive, unpredictable, anarchic rebellion—can now filter into his teaching style. “I know students at FAMU and they do like his way of teaching them and opening their horizons,” said Dolezalova. “They seem to quite admire him. But one does have to understand that he can get back to his rebellious years any minute, so he’s not always easy to talk to. So if you ask him questions like ‘What do you think of the ending of ‘Diamonds of The Night?’ he’d say something like ‘Well, give me a break. Fuck it. You make your own decision, don’t bother me.’”

Nathan Roberts is in the NYU Gallatin Class of 2015. For more of his writing, go to nathandroberts.com. His hometown is San Antonio, Texas.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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