There’s a hallucinatory weirdness to Jan Němec’s debut feature, Diamonds of the Night, which is matched only by Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, the cinema’s flagship entry for “hallucinatory weirdness.” Němec doesn’t pile the surrealism on quite as heavily (how could he?), but he sees no issue with putting flashbacks, hallucinations, reality, and fantasy altogether, one shot giving way to the next level of reality with no aesthetic tip-off aside from shot exposure and only an immense desire to penetrate the mindset of the film’s protagonist serving as motivation. It may appear at first that overexposed, sunny exteriors are the “breaks” from reality, but after some time, this seems not to be the case. If anything, overexposure relays the sun’s intensity and gives us a naturalistic explanation for *why* these visions occur.
This film, like Němec’s similarly-themed thesis film A Loaf of Bread, is an adaptation of an Arnošt Lustig story about the Holocaust. The film follows two men who have escaped a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and their journey to a nearby town for sustenance, as well as their escape, their detainment (whether this is their first detainment before the escape that begins the film or one by their pursuers is intentionally unclear), and possibly their end. In Lustig’s work, the subjectivity of the escapees was a minimal plot point; Němec, in a move that would make Buñuel proud, would shape the entire film around that element.
Where exactly are these two nameless men running? To freedom, in all its abstract glory, if they can find it. Their hallucinations, then, are the awful reminders that they will never be free. For as long as they can imagine, they will be pursued. Thanks to Němec’s daring style and his extremely focused story, that threat is existential in nature, representing death and loss of freedom on a conceptual level instead of just imprisonment. As such, they are doomed to repeat their escape over and over in their heads, wondering what, if anything, they escaped, and when it will stop chasing them.
These doubts seem to hover just over the characters. It sucks the speech out of them—they can’t have more than 10 lines of dialogue between the two of them—and it makes the loneliest and open of places feel crowded. When they escape at the film’s beginning, the camera keeps up in a spectacular, quivering tracking shot. When they trek through the forest or look around the city, the camera stays very close to them, focusing on their breathless, hopeless faces when they move and examining the Buñuelian ant colonies that take over hands and faces. On the rare occasion we are torn away from the two men, it’s to watch the sun beating down on them, or to share their paranoia as they look around a staggeringly bright town in which everyone seems to be watching them.
Diamonds of the Night proves to be a bit over-audacious, as the second half of their journey, complete with Nazi officers singing and drinking as the two Czech’s helplessly face the wall, loses the grounding of reality that was plainly there for the film’s first half. Suddenly, comprehensibility comes into question, and the question of chronology arguably overwhelms the question of reality. In any case, the density of the final reel would make André Breton proud: the editing and the camerawork suggest a reality defined not by concrete laws of physics but shaped by the subconscious. Whatever comes about in the final minutes of the film is certainly the surreality that Breton talks about, a distillation of dream and reality that serves to heighten thought and expose the artifice present in concepts like freedom. This haunting film does this as well as any other.