The films of Jan Němec (b. 1936) occupy a special place in the cinema of the Czechoslovak New Wave, the film movement that began in the early 1960s during a period of new freedom in the State-controlled Czechoslovak film industry. Central to the movement, Němec’s films have a toughness all their own. More clear-eyed, less wistful, and weirder than the films of his compatriots, their sense of freedom amid repression and hope within darkness now appears to have sealed Němec’s fate as much as any overt political provocation did. Poised between the anarchic confrontations of Věra Chytilová and the humanist whimsies of Miloš Forman, Němec’s films are terse and absurd, snatched from real life in a country that no longer exists but whose problems Němec presented as universal. Recent events in Ukraine show they are timely today.
Němec graduated from FAMU, the State film school, after making the remarkable short A Loaf of Bread in 1960, a precursor in theme and subject to his debut feature, Diamonds of the Night, filmed a year later. The Czechoslovak New Wave coalesced around him, along with Jiří Menzel, who directed Closely Watched Trains (1967), Miloš Forman, who quickly made a series films including Black Peter (1964) and Loves of a Blonde (1965), and Ester Krumbachová, a costume designer, screenwriter, and muse figure to the entire movement, who Němec married. Their films, produced at the Barrandov Studios in Prague, won awards at European festivals, including Venice, and were championed in France. They played in the US and won foreign film Oscars in Hollywood, where several key figures, including Němec, eventually relocated after the Soviet crackdown following the Prague Spring in 1968.
Němec’s body of work from the “Golden Sixties” consists of two shorts, a sketch for an omnibus film, three short features, and a newsreel smuggled out of Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion. Their total running time is not much longer than Andrei Rublev but they reveal a talent as distinct as any that emerged from Eastern Europe in the 1960s. After Diamonds of the Night established Němec at the forefront of the New Wave, his follow-up feature, A Report on the Party and the Guests, was banned “forever” by the State, one of a handful of Czechoslovak films accorded that honor. Němec and Krumbachová made Martyrs of Love the same year, a surreal depiction of thwarted love under bureaucratic control, but the ban on their previous film and the Soviet invasion effectively ended Němec’s career as a Czechoslovak filmmaker, cutting him short in his early thirties.
He left Czechoslovakia soon after, and continued to make films in Europe, mostly outside official film industries. Unlike Forman, Němec was not able to gain a foothold in Hollywood. He worked in the US and elsewhere as a professional wedding videographer, and since the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, has made features and documentaries in the Czech Republic. Němec’s enforced silence and marginalization under both communism and capitalism highlight the problems of an artist caught between two worlds, a situation that mirrors his country’s at the time of the New Wave he created and shaped into being. – A. S. Hamrah, film editor and film critic, N1FR, n+1’s film review
The screenings presented by Harvard Film Archive are part of a touring retrospective of Jan Němec films INDEPENDENT OF REALITY: The Films of Jan Němec in North America, premiered by BAMcinématek in New York. The retrospective is produced by Comeback Company, curated by Irena Kovarova, and organized in partnership with the National Film Archive, Prague, Aerofilms and Jan Němec-Film.
Directed by Jan Němec. With Ivan Vyskočil, Jan Klusák, Evald Schorm
Czechoslovakia 1966, 35mm, b/w, 70 min. Czech with English subtitles
The film the Czechoslovak authorities banned forever combines the pressure of authority with a picnic on the grass. A group of day-trippers are confronted by a smug man in tweed knickerbockers who begins to casually harass them. When they resist, the man calls on a phalanx of thugs to rough them up. Another man appears, reveals himself as their leader, and stops the beating, politely insisting the picnickers accompany him to a banquet in the woods. The story echoes Němec’s previous feature, but in reverse. Instead of running through the woods from their captors, these prisoners are politely led to a party in their honor. Soon they begin to jockey for position and favor. When it was released in the US, Renata Adler called A Report on the Party and the Guests one of the ten best films of the year, noting its “peculiar combination of humor and a chill."
Directed by Jan Němec
Czechoslovakia 1968, digital video, b/w, 29 min. In English
Němec shot this newsreel during the Prague Spring of mid-1968 and captured on film the Soviet invasion that August. Smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and shown to the world, this is the primary filmed record of those events. French filmmaker Claude Berri produced this version, narrated in the Bronx-accented tones of Gene Moskowitz, Variety’s Paris correspondent. What begins as a hopeful report on the flower children of Prague as they peacefully demonstrate in public squares, paint their faces and gather in churches and synagogues to hold vigils and speak to the People, turns bloody when Soviet troops arrive to occupy Prague and shut down Alexander Dubček’s government. The film ends in death and funerals. Before that, Němec takes us to a mod fashion show and a dance party, as Czechoslovakia freely participates in the swinging ‘60s for the first and last time.
Directed by Jan Němec. With Antonín Kumbera, Ladislav Jánsky, Irma Bischofova
Czechoslovakia 1964, 35mm, b/w, 64 min. Czech with English subtitles
A driving forward motion propels Němec’s debut feature, an almost wordless film that jumps between silence and bursts of gunfire, close-ups and long shots, the present and a time that may be past or future, real or dreamed. As in A Loaf of Bread, two young men flee a train taking them to a prison camp. They search for food in the countryside while trying to remain unseen, resorting to violence in their desperation. Caught by a militia made up of doddering old men, they face a firing squad, where perhaps freedom and youth are the actual targets. Diamonds in the Night is a startling, accomplished debut, unconcerned with exposition, favoring raw depictions over plot, with glimpses of city life and surreal vignettes that imitate and equal early Buñuel and Vigo.
Directed by Jan Němec
Czechoslovakia 1960, 35mm, b/w, 11 min. Czech with English subtitles
In this swift short made as his FAMU graduation film, Němec encapsulated what was to become his first feature. Based on a story by Arnošt Lustig, a writer who had escaped from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, this tense film studies a pair of starving young prisoners as they attempt to steal food from a Nazi supply train. Němec has noted the influence Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) had on his early work—revealed here in his precise framing as well as the concentration on details of hands and faces. Němec’s mastery of form and his close attention to the desperation brought on by war previewed the haphazard barbarity he would reveal in Diamonds of the Night.
Directed by Jan Nemec. With Marta Kubišová, Hana Kuberova,
Czechoslovakia 1967, 35mm, b/w, 71 min. Czech with English subtitles
Three stories examine the search for love in a society ruled by schedules and teased along to a jazz beat. Reminiscent of the work of Pierre Étaix in France during the same period, this near wordless sketch retreats from the intensity of Němec’s previous two features. Allegorizing sexual frustration under an authoritarian regime, he and Krumbachová emphasize a Magritte-like surrealism within a documentary style, or what Němec called his “dream realism.” Glimpses of city life underscore loneliness and lack of connection: grates slam down, manholes are covered, a too-big hose sprays water. With a cameo appearance by the two Maries from Chytilová’s Daisies, Martyrs of Love seems on the brink of breaking into true anarchy, but something holds it back. Figures walk alone through empty parks as party guests sleep off revels they may have only dreamed.
Directed by Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm. With Milos Ctrnacty, František Havel
Czechoslovakia 1966, 35mm, color & b/w, 107 min. Czech with English subtitles
Němec and Jiří Menzel convinced the Barrandov Studios that a film made up of stories by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, an underground novelist who had recently been allowed to publish after years of censorship and neglect, would be a commercial enterprise. They enlisted five other filmmakers to participate in what became a calling card of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Evald Schorm, Menzel and Němec each chose a story and directed a segment. Němec’s, “The Imposters,” set in a hospital room inhabited by two sick old men, is even quicker and more to-the-point than his other work, concentrating on the stories the men tell each other about their younger selves. While their stories are revealed to be Hrabalian fabulations, Němec shuffles them off the stage with such dispatch that their fibs become poignant for the brief moment before oblivion swallows them up.