INTIMATE LIGHTING THE CREMATOR
DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT
B&W, 1964, 64m.
Directed by Jan Němec
Starring Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera, Irma Bischofova
B&W, 1965, 72m.
Directed by Ivan Passer
Starring Zdeněk Blažek, Karel Blazek, Miroslav Cvrk, Vera Kresadlová, Jan Vost
B&W, 1968, 96m.
Directed by Juraj Herz
Starring Rudolf Hrusínský, Vlasta Chramostová, Jana Stehnová, Milos Vognic
Second Run (DVD)
Hot on the heels of the excellent Polish Cinema Classics set from Second Run comes a more modest but worthwhile collection of three prime films from their catalog of '60s Czech cinema milestones, only one of which has received a significant English-subtitled DVD release outside the UK. That one is The Cremator, a wonderfully macabre slice of social commentary you can read about in more detail here and which is included in the same configuration as its standalone Second Run release.
The earliest of the set, and indeed one of the first official Czech New Wave films, is the virtually wordless Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci), the striking debut feature from director Jan Němec who went on to helm A Report on the Party and Guests. The stripped-down look at the brutal consequences of war revolves around the journey of two nameless adolescents (Jánsky and Kumbera) who, while in transit between concentration camps, escape from their train and go on the run through the countryside. Along the way they encounter some peasants, wind up in hot water for alleviating their starvation by pilfering some bread, and try to outrun some gun-toting locals.
Stark and often surreal in its sense of relentless panic, this film was shot largely with handheld cameras and manages to combine urgency and a sense of dreamlike dislocation at the same time. The actors are convincingly haggard and sympathetic while the locals could have easily been pulled off of any village street, and at barely over an hour the film never overstays its welcome or descends into overt sermonizing. For some reason this film hasn't quite reached the level of acclaim as some of its successors, but it's just as worthwhile and also feels like something of a stylistic influence on the later Polish films by Andrzej Zulawski, especially The Third Part of Night. The Second Run disc is the roughest-looking of the three, which may be due to the scarcity of elements for such an early title. It often has a blown out, gritty appearance that suits the subject matter, but don't expect anything close to a pristine or pretty presentation.
Initially released in 2010, the disc comes with a very useful set of liner notes by Michael Brooke (from the BFI National Archive), covering the historical context of the film (including an explanation of the boys' jackets) and pointing out the influence of Robert Bresson while also offering a thorough director bio. You also get a photo gallery and a video appreciation of the film by film programmer Peter Hames, who spends 20 minutes covering some of the visual themes of the film, discussing its place in the Czech New Wave, and pointing out some nice director trademarks. As of this writing, this appears to still be the only English-friendly DVD of this film anywhere in the world.
Next up is the substantially lighter Intimate Lighting, the first film by filmmaker Ivan Passer. One of the few among his peers to venture widely outside his native country, Passer went on to write Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde and Fireman's Ball before moving to America and directing such films as Cutter's Way, Creator, and Haunted Summer. This one is probably closest to Fireman's Ball as it examines the return of successful Prague musician Petr (Blažek) and his wife (Kresadlová) to the village where he grew up and a reconnection with friend Bambas (Blazek), who runs the local music school and hasn't had a chance to bask in the same kind of limelight. The bulk of the film is spent examining their lives and situations in the quaint settings, with a focus on the contrast between ambitions and reality and the demands of different generations of families.
It's a simple and beautiful film, with a cast largely comprised of amateurs creating a convincing snapshot of a specific time and place that would change as the government began to evolve even the same year this was shot. The focus on music (including an indelible opening sequence involving Dvorak) also gives it a unique, classical flavor that makes it feel oddly timeless now. Freed from any overt political statements, it's simply a sweet and moving look at basic human dreams and would probably fit well with some of the later films of Bill Forsyth.
Also available as of this writing only in English from Second Run, Intimate Lighting first appeared on DVD in 2006 and makes for a logical part of this set as the most lighthearted of the trio. The transfer for this one is excellent throughout; there's a very slightly bit of yellowish tinting on the left side (probably obscured on most TVs anyway), but otherwise it's virtually immaculate and makes for a very pleasing viewing experience. The mono audio and optional English subtitles are done with the label's usual loving care as well. This time the liner notes are much more modest but just as worthwhile, written by Phillip Bergson, and Passer himself appears for a good 18-minute interview in which he discusses his first directorial project, his career as a screenwriter, and his politically-motivated reasons for leaving his native country and moving to Hollywood. Considering the tremendous merits of all three films included, any fan of world cinema should consider this one essential.