Saturday, 22 October 2016

Diamonds of the Night (Jan Nemec, 1964)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)

Applauding themselves for their day’s work, a group of rheumy, toothless old men suck at their bread and sausage, gum the tearings from a cooked chicken into submission, and wash their food down with beer and song, while to the sound of a tinny piano in an echoing hall, a man calls up the shade of an imaginary partner for a hobbled dance. He finishes his halting twirls and the other men applaud, while the starving boys they have captured are set free to walk the path away from their guns. Fire the men are commanded, and perhaps they don’t, sending the boys off into the darkness of the woods once more to the sound of their mocking laughter and song.

Diamonds of the Night begins with two boys jumping from the train that is transporting them to a wartime concentration camp. It is a film that takes place in the time between. Between the squeal of brakes on iron rails and the silence that follows the command to fire, between the shouted command to halt and the dull sound of rifle shots thudding the earth. It is a film that takes place in the the distance between the shot and its intended target. The two boys carry their deaths inside of them, but just for now, they are alive, their bodies steaming in the cold air, their chests tight with running, hearing but beyond reacting to the puff of the engine pulling away, leaving them to their fate.

To be in dark spruce woods is to hide without hope of refuge. There is neither home nor comfort to be found on its ground, littered with the branches of uprooted trees. Its earth is thin and fungal, hollow-sounding beneath its browned needles. It is impossible to be quiet in such woods with its rifle snap of twigs and underfoot crunch of debris. Its spikes and broken branch shards threaten to take out an eye, jab at a soft cheek. Its light is old, grey-green and stagnant. It is woodland that must be passed through and endured; this is why we follow the boys from behind as they walk into the darkness that we share.

Their trudge through woodland calls up other journeys. Sunlight through treetops is the light that floods through a tram as it travels across an occupied city; the light that fills the back streets walked through to a rendezvous or uncertain promise. It is while lying in the snagging, prickly brush that footsteps and voices echo off the walls from the cobbled streets. Flaking signs and glimpses of physical intimacy invade the mind – bedclothes airing through a window, a woman leaning out of a window, waiting, while another squats in the shadows. There is a girl in sunlight and a white dog running past passageways, while inside a doorway a woman is stuck in the act of pulling a dress over her head, a broken automaton, or a sea anemone writhed by underwater currents.

Church bells toll the boys’ walk, as does the cuckoo’s broken honk of late spring. The suck and squelch of marshy ground softens the skin that rubs against too-tight leather boots, hardening into the shape of another owner’s feet. A desperate laugh born of this pain sends trees crashing down like hopes of an end to the boys’ journey.

There are few words here, and those that are spoken are necessary. As the boys cross steep rocky scree, deep hunger gnaws. The boy with the boots is hobbling badly now, the boy without trails behind and lies down. He says three phrases: sit down next to me, go by yourself, wait for me, words that shift his thoughts through wilfulness, independence, bloody-mindedness, hate, fear, need and companionship in less than a minute – the time it takes for ants to cover his hands and an eye.

A crust of bread is a rind of plough-turned earth, the hair of a boy’s head as he waits for this bread is woodland moss running with water. He unties the bloodied rags from his heel. Diamonds of the Night takes place between the bark of a guard dog and the opening of a stranger’s door, between the deal made to exchange boots for a half-eaten root vegetable, between the bread that bloodies the gums and the inedible woody clutter of a mouthful of pine cone, between the walk that begins again and the memory of grasped pine branches and heather in sandy earth, as a train wails into the distance.

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