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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.37:1 Standard
  • Czech PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Interview from 2009 with director Jan Nemec
  • A Loaf of Bread, N?mec’s 1960 student thesis film, based on a short story by Arnošt Lustig
  • Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan N?mec, a short documentary on Lustig from 1993
  • New interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova
  • New video essay on the film’s stylistic influences by scholar James Quandt
  • An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson

Diamonds of the Night

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Jan Nemec
1964 | 67 Minutes | Licensor: Janus Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #969
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: April 16, 2019
Review Date: May 30, 2019

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SYNOPSIS

With this simultaneously harrowing and lyrical debut feature, Jan N?mec established himself as the most uncompromising visionary among the radical filmmakers who made up the Czechoslovak New Wave. Adapted from a novel by Arnošt Lustig, Diamonds of the Night closely tracks two boys who escape from a concentration-camp transport and flee into the surrounding woods, a hostile terrain where the brute realities of survival coexist with dreams, memories, and fragments of visual poetry. Along with visceral camera work by Jaroslav Ku?era and Miroslav Ond?í?ek—two of Czechoslovak cinema’s most influential cinematographers—N?mec makes inventive use of fractured editing, elliptical storytelling, and flights of surrealism as he strips context away from this bare-bones tale, evoking the dizzying plight of consciousness lost in night and fog.


PICTURE

Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night enters the Criterion Collection with this new Blu-ray edition, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a 4K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative.

The end result is a remarkable site to behold and I really doubt this film could come off looking any better than it does here. An opening note on the restoration states that the goal of the restoration was to present the film here as it would have been at the time of its original release, leaving in “various features” that would have been caused during filming or during the development process. I’m not sure exactly what they mean as nothing really stood out; some scenes can look really dark, others maybe a little over-exposed, but outside of that nothing glaring ever stands out, the restoration work really giving this film a solid once-over, with next to nothing in regards to what I would consider a print flaw remaining.

Most striking, other than that lack of serious print damage, is just how sharp this film looks. Although the film was meticulously planned (at least that’s what I take away from the fact an extensive and long dolly track was created for the opening sequence) it does have an off-the-cuff feel to it with its rough camera work, yet the image maintains an incredible level of detail in both long shots and close-ups; the finer textures on the clothing of the protagonists really leap off of the screen. Grain is also managed wonderfully, staying natural and clean, never noisy. Black levels are also rich without crushing out the shadow details.

Ultimately, just about everything about this picture looks stunning. The restoration work and the final digital presentation go well and beyond anything I could have predicted.

9/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The film’s soundtrack, presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono, is a surprisingly intense one. The mix is very elaborate, enhancing some sounds, dulling out others, and throwing in some unexpected surprises. There’s a lot going on throughout, and the design aims to be especially unpleasant at times. For an older monaural presentation, I was surprised by how dynamic it ultimately is, with a lot of range between the lows and highs, even allowing for some solid fidelity. Still, even then, it can sound a bit flat and tinny, but a lot of the time this seems to be intentional to the design. A couple of scenes also come off edgy and distorted, but this appears to be intentional as well: there’s a scene near the end which presents several people eating and the sounds they are making are enhanced and distorted to an obnoxious degree, making the scene that much more disgusting, and it’s obvious this is what N?mec was going for.

It’s an elaborate soundtrack and some of it can sound rough, awful even, but it’s all intentional and the presentation delivers it all incredibly well here.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion starts things off with a 2009 interview featuring director Jan N?mec. This interview, running a brisk 26-minutes, features the director talking about his schooling, living under a totalitarian regime, and how he got into film. He talks about his film schooling and his desire to adapt one short story by Arnošt Lustig for his thesis film, but the school’s officials talked him out of it because of the subject matter, and he ended up going on to adapt Lustig’s A Loaf of Bread instead (the film appears as an extra on this disc). He would then work in other areas of the industry, learning as he went, before finally going on to do his debut feature, Diamonds of the Night. As an overview of the filmmaker’s career it’s a great introduction, but this is one of the more entertaining interviews of its nature thanks to some entertaining stories he has to share.

Criterion then includes a couple of scholarly features, starting with a 16-minute one with film programmer Irena Kovarova, who talks about the Czech film industry, the New Wave, and the various directors (including N?mec of course) involved. Kovarova also talks about Diamonds of the Night, its production, and the impact it had, while also touching on other films by N?mec. James Quandt then follows this up with a discussion on the Five Influences on the film, which range from directors Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson (Last Year in Marienbad and A Man Escaped in particular) to surrealism and photography, offering a lot of detail and examples during the 22-minute program.

Next up is N?mec’s student film, A Loaf of Bread. The 12-minute film shows some of the experimental impulses that show up in Diamonds of the Night, particularly in its sound design, though its narrative far more straight-forward in the end. It focuses on three prisoners in a concentration camp looking to steal a loaf of bread from a train car being guarded by a single soldier. For a student film it’s very assured and a central moment (the actual attempt to steal said loaf) is an incredibly nail-biting bit of filmmaking.

The best feature on here, though, is an interview with writer Arnošt Lustig—author of both A Loaf of Bread and Diamonds of the Night—performed by N?mec in 1993 for a Czech television program. While revisiting places he hasn’t been in decades (even admitting he is only doing so because N?mec asked and he would never have done so otherwise) shares a number of stories from his youth and living under Nazi occupation. I won’t ruin them, because it’s so much better hearing them from him, but even the humourous ones (like one around his experience with a prostitute) end up having a darker undertone to them. This is a really wonderful inclusion, easily my favourite feature here.

The release also features an insert with a short essay by Michael Atkinson, covering the film and its fractured style, Nemec, and the Czech New Wave.

In the end Criterion has put together a comprehensive and satisfying package, covering the director and the Czech New Wave, the film’s structure and style, and even the author of the source material. A satisfying set of features.

9/10

CLOSING

Criterion has put together a great edition for the film, offering an incredible audio/video presentation and a satisfying slew of special features. Highly recommended and an easy contender for one of Criterion’s best editions this year.


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