Off the Blacklist: The Films of Jan Němec
Jan Němec’s first three features—made in a creative flurry between 1964 and 1967—are pared-down, taut, fatless movies. Taken together, they can be seen as a central source text for the Czech New Wave, of which Němec is one of the founding fathers. The films have, among other things, the same brand of slapdash anarchism as Věra Chytilová’s Daisies; the same clipped, elliptical approach to storytelling as František Vláčil’s The White Dove; and—at least in the case of Martyrs of Love—the same sensitivity to the pangs and pitfalls of first-blush romance as Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains. But where his New Wave colleagues (Vláčil and Chytilová in particular) tended to aspire to a kind of filmed poetry, in which each image feels as if it’s always wrestling out of its narrative context, Němec seems most at home making the cinematic equivalent of novellas. The longest of these features runs for 71 minutes. Two mostly forgo character names and spoken dialogue. All three take place in worlds that feel closed-off, decontextualized, and hyper-pressurized. In Němec’s cinema, abstract questions—What makes us free? What, if anything, serves as a stable basis for political authority? What makes us unfree: ourselves or others?—are borne concretely out in the movement of bodies: at some moments penned chafingly in, at others set in nervous, unstable motion.
Diamonds of the Night
Diamonds of the Night, Němec’s debut feature, begins in the latter mode. Its opening images—of two nameless young men sprinting desperately through a field, fleeing from a pack of invisible pursuers as gunshots echo in the near distance—waste no time building momentum or laying down exposition. The effect is startling: it’s as if the film has been playing for an hour already and we, its dozing viewers, were just now snapping back into focus. Němec’s handheld camera darts beside the two teenagers like a third, slightly burlier runaway urging them to pick up the pace, threatening to leave them behind. It’s immediately evident that they’re running for their lives—which, it soon becomes clear, means that they’re running primarily for the freedom to keep running.
The boys’ emaciated bodies, the flashback that finds them huddled against the wall of a cattle car surrounded by fellow prisoners, and the “KL” (Konzentrationslager) scrawled in white paint on the backs of their coats place the film unambiguously in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but Diamonds of the Night is too single-minded in its focus and too narrow in its scope to work as a historical evocation. Instead, it’s a string of concrete episodes (treks through the forest, chance run-ins with local farmers, train-car escapes, encounters with childhood sweethearts, the discovery of a swarm of ants crawling on an eye socket or a hand)—some present, some past, some real, some imagined, and some alternate versions of the same events, all given equal weight by Němec’s breathless, associative editing.
On one hand, the film often seems to be playing out inside the heads of its rattled heroes; on the other, the present dangers are clearly, nerve-wrackingly real. Němec would set his characters’ subjectivity almost entirely aside for his second feature, then dive fully into their heads in his third; here, he’s operating in a slippery middle ground between those two extremes. The film’s final passage is one of Němec’s most disturbing (and morbidly funny) screeds on power and its abuses—the boys are taken prisoner by a gang of armed, degenerate old men, who soon burst into a gluttonous sing- and dance-along in the presence of their starved captives—but it also permanently collapses the shaky boundary between these victims’ inner and outer lives. The film ends more or less where it began, only now the forest has been transformed from a site of literal, life-or-death struggle to a kind of shadowy mental theater: there’s no struggle, no momentum, only inconclusive drift. Forget “historical context,” Němec seems to say, forget even the distinction between reality and dream, and eventually you’ll arrive at a kind of distilled emotional truth.
A Report on the Party and the Guests
A Report on the Party and the Guests, made in 1966 but released two years later, is widely considered Němec’s most politically charged film—partly thanks to its expanded, bureaucratic-sounding English title (the original, as Michael Brooke has pointed out, would translate to something like “About a Celebration and Guests”) and partly because it had the dubious honor of being “banned forever” by the Czech communist regime in 1973. Indeed, the movie works spectacularly well as a allegory for the dark side of political utopianism: a handful of upper-middle-class picnickers are accosted by a band of jovial, bullying goons, then “rescued” by a well-spoken, white-suited man and welcomed to his outdoor birthday party—which, it soon becomes clear, they’d be well advised not to leave. Němec has a sharp ear for the kind of psychological manipulation practiced by regimes in his day: the appeal to social mores, peer pressure, and politesse to keep subjects in line; the presentation of the ruler as a kind of benevolent host figure; the widely proclaimed fiction that life under the state is a party and we all ought to be its grateful guests.
And yet it would be a mistake to read the film as a direct, one-to-one allegory. Allegories are always nudging their audience suggestively, as if to say, “You know what I really mean, don’t you?” The scary thing about Němec’s film is that it doesn’t seem to mean much beyond what it says; if it does correspond to some deeper truth, it’s not one that simply can’t be spoken aloud for fear of retribution, but one that can’t possibly be thought. In its terrible literalness, its strict commitment to the logic of absurd situations, and its abundance of memorable, stand-alone details, A Report on the Party and the Guests is arguably closer to parable than allegory: ultimately, it has less to do with this or that authoritarian regime than it does with the fragile nature of human freedom, and the capacity of people to let themselves be corralled within a certain prescribed system of thought, a certain pattern of etiquette, or even a simple traced-out line in the earth. Accordingly, with this film Němec traded Diamonds of the Night’s handheld, on-the-move shooting style for something at once more composed and more claustrophobic. The movie’s compositions are often almost imperceptibly off-balance, its cuts unpredictable, its tone a weird mixture of laconic humor and heavy dread. Němec has often cited Kafka as a formative influence, and Party can be seen as one of his most direct attempts to find a cinematic analogue for his literary hero’s deadpan, slightly stiff, disarmingly blunt prose style. With its unexplained-imprisonment scenario, the film echoes The Trial, but it’s arguably closer in spirit to one of Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms: “a cage went in search of a bird.”
Between January and August 1968, the Prague Spring gave Czech artists a brief window of relative freedom, and A Report on the Party and the Guests finally received a domestic release. In the interval, Němec had already finished Martyrs of Love: a triptych of stories concerning the misadventures of three clumsy, inexperienced young romantics. Němec gives each protagonist a show-stopping signature gesture: the stiff, virginal, buttoned-up clerk of the first episode attempting to dance with a much less inhibited partner, losing his grip on her for a second, then standing by helplessly as she keeps moving to her own beat; the second episode’s young housemaid downing glass after glass of wine from her own drink tray as she listens to her aristocratic love interest give a singing recital; the awkward, unfashionable hero of the final segment being subjected to a forced wardrobe change by a gang of mysterious strangers (a twist that echoes both A Report on the Party and the Guests and Diamonds of the Night), and then, in the movie’s climactic scene, flapping madly around a young woman’s room in a bravura mating dance.
Martyrs of Love
The movie is packed with authoritarian imagery, from the just-mentioned fashion police (three balding middle-aged men and two cackling old crones) to the firing squad our heroine surreally encounters midway through the second episode. But whereas the conflicts in Němec’s first two films boiled down, at least on one level, to bodies having their freedom of movement physically constrained by outside forces, Martyrs of Love takes place in something closer to a prolonged dream state, where external conflicts tend to act as surrogates for inner ones. In the first story, Němec cuts repeatedly back and forth between his bowler-hatted, dandyish hero and a succession of nameless long-legged women until the young man seems hemmed in by his fantasies; in the second and third stories, the protagonists find stand-ins for their own inhibitions, anxieties and unrealistic expectations in the form of menacing authority figures. These tongue-tied romantics are more than martyrs of love; they’ve become, as James Brown put it, prisoners of love. I’m not sure whether it’s scary or comforting that, after making two furious fables of political oppression, Němec chose to recast his heroes as their own oppressors. The upshot is that, for the first time, they can also be their own liberators.
Sadly, the same wouldn’t be true for Němec himself: shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 (which he filmed for the documentary short Oratorio for Prague), he was blacklisted from Barrandov Studios and forced into a prolonged artistic exile. That knowledge gives the last-act dance scene in Martyrs of Love a bittersweet aftertaste. Looking back, it seems to stand for a kind of artistic freedom that Němec spent decades struggling to find again (and which he would finally recover, at least in part, with a string of features this past decade): a loose, uninhibited combined movement of body and soul.