In Memoriam        JAN NEMEC

 

Jan Němec (1936-2016):
Half a Century of Innovation in Film



Jan Nemec

Jan Němec died in March this year and would have been 80 this month, so it is therefore not untimely to acknowledge his career and contribution to world cinema which has lasted over 50 years. Although he originally planned to pursue his first love, jazz, his father persuaded him that film offered better career prospects, and so he enrolled at FAMU, the Prague film school, where he became particularly close friends with Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová and Ewald Schorm (whose The End of a Priest (1968) would also be 'banned forever'). While at FAMU, Němec discovered and became absorbed with the work of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais, all of whom would have a major influence on his own subsequent career.

However, Němec also had his own singular artistic vision. For his graduation film, A Loaf of Bread (Sousto, 1960), he adapted a short story by Arnošt Lustig and also collaborated directly with Lustig for his feature debut Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964), stripping the novella Darkness Casts No Shadow down to its bare essentials. Two young teenagers, fleeing a presumably Holocaust-connected train ride, find themselves hunted down by old men, whose advanced years don't make them any less lethal. The originality of Němec's filmmaking was in attempting to convey the mental state of two boys, the state of their inner world on the run from death, rather than simply a story. Němec explained Diamonds of the Night as being an examination of the subconscious and dreams, themes that he would carry throughout most of his films. This film, almost devoid of dialogue and using visual imagery and sound to depict psychological truth and physical sensation, was welcomed by European film critics as the beginning of a new style which achieved its peak in his next film.

Although he originally planned to pursue his first love, jazz, his father persuaded him that film offered better career prospects, and so he enrolled at FAMU, the Prague film school, where he became particularly close friends with Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová and Ewald Schorm (whose The End of a Priest (1968) would also be 'banned forever'). While at FAMU, Němec discovered and became absorbed with the work of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais, all of whom would have a major influence on his own subsequent career.

By 1966, in his thirtieth year, Němec was already established as one of the most promising of the new Czech directors, and therefore encountered (at the time) surprisingly little problems in making his second feature. The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, aka A Report on the Party and the Guests, 1966) was co-written and designed by Němec's then wife Ester Krumbachová. Probably his most famous film, it is a brilliantly conceived and directed surrealist allegory which alludes to the corruption of absolute power. The cast was mainly made up of non-professional friends (including cousin Jiří) amongst a group of people coercively 'persuaded' to join in a lavish woodland celebration. Although Němec was named as the best director of the year for 1966 by London-based Films and Filming Magazine and one of five best directors of the year by the International Film Guide, his repugnance for social evils, visually emphasized by Krumbachova, resulted in a film which was considered to be an attack on the political system and was banned by the Czechoslovak government. Ultimately, the film was shelved for two years until its eventual release following the abolition of censorship during the Prague Spring of 1968.

Therefore, this was likely causal in the approach and subject matter for Němec next project; another collaboration with Krumbochova called Martyrs of Love (Mučedníci lásky, 1967). Consisting of three stories linked by the theme of inhibited love, his defence of timid and unsuccessful people, it was the result of a break from socially significant film making. Whereas in The Diamonds of the Night Němec filmed nightmares, in Martyrs of Love he shot day dreams creating a film which emphasizes emotion and mood, aiming for the viewer's soul. By doing so he followed the great tradition of Czech art which lyricises reality, particularly the Czech Poetism movement. However, further inspiration can be found in its homage to 1920s silent comedy and contemporary 1960s use of popular song in lieu of spoken dialogue.

The following year, 1968, Němec footage covering the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – of which he was a first-hand witness, filming some of the most vivid footage of the tanks rolling in – was used by world television and became a key part of the award-winning documentary Czechoslovakia '68. Blacklisted following the Soviet invasion and his standing against it,

Němec turned to television and began collaborating with his second wife, the singer Marta Kubišová, on musical items. However, Němec didn't lose his muse, making a documentary in collaboration with his novelist friend Josef Škvorecký (who had also appeared briefly in The Party and the Guests). Titled Oratorio for Prague, Němec began shooting in the first half of 1968 as a celebration of his native city, only for it to turn into a despairing elegy later on.

Although now impossible to broadcast at home, the footage was successfully smuggled out of the country. This historically fascinating and now famous footage was used many years later in the Phillip Kaufman film The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987), based on the novel by Milan Kundera and for which Němec was special creative consultant.

Němec himself was now prohibited from working and forced to leave the country, but despite his battles with the authorities, he elected not to join his contemporaries and compatriots Milos Forman and Ivan Passer in Hollywood. He was to regret it almost immediately as he was forced to surrender his passport in 1969. In that same year he co-wrote a script titled Heart Beat, in collaboration with one Václav Havel. A black comedy about a gangland racket and involving heart transplants (coincidentally prophetic as it would turn out), the script didn't see the light of day until 2004, when parts resurfaced in his autobiographical video feature Landscape of My Heart. He eventually filmed it as Heart Beat 3D which was released in 2010.

In an interview in 1970, Němec said: "The director must create his own world, a world independent of reality, as it appears at the time. The painters have created their worlds, the composers too. But only a few film directors have achieved this aim: certainly Chaplin, certainly Bresson, and certainly Bunuel... If I try to make my films resemble the surface of reality, I'll waste much energy and lead the attention of the audience away from the heart of the matter. They will necessarily ask whether the film does not distort reality, whether things are exactly so in real life, or whether they are slightly different, etc. But if, from the first scene, it is apparent that any superficial resemblance to reality is not important at all, the audience will give up their favourite comparisons and concentrate on what the director really tries to convey." ~ Jan Němec in interview with Josef Skvorecky, 1970.

During his exile from Czechoslovakia, Němec was based in Germany and then in the USA where he worked on documentaries and films for American, German and British television, including a film about Nobel Prize winner Czeslav Milosz, nominated for the San Francisco Emmy Award. He taught film making at Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley. The 1989 November revolution enabled him to return to Czechoslovakia for his adaptation of Ladislav Klíma's fantastical novel The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch (in which a prince falls hopelessly in love with a wayward and impulsive young woman) titled In the Flames of Royal Love (V žáru královské lásky, 1990). The film was badly received by the critics, not least for relocating the palace of its royal protagonist (played by rock star Vilém Čok) to a television transmitter in Prague, though it still retains its central narrative.

Code Name Ruby (Jméno kódu Rubín, 1996) was no better received by critics, with less distribution, though it does draw parallels with Němec's earlier work. Part science fiction, part documentary, part found-footage collage with archive footage of poignant historical events and part Surrealist enquiry on Prague's alchemical history, it also pivotally foretells a new approach in his formal style which he would carry through for the rest of his career.

At the dawn of the new millennium Němec produced his most autobiographical features which seemed to reflect his twilight years and his impending mortality. The shot-on-video, premiered-online Late Night Talks with Mother (Noční hovory s matkou, 2001) refers to an imaginary conversation between Němec and his late mother, which constantly departs into the director's memories and sentiments. Ester Krumbochova features regularly too. Its innovation comes from being shot through a fisheye lens so extreme that the entire image is framed by a circle. Both this film and Landscape of My Heart (Krajina mého srdce, 2004) combine elliptical voiceover reminiscences of historical footage and stark surgical close-ups, though in the second film it is more artistic than gratuitous, as Němec juxtaposes shots of his major heart surgery with a recollection of the aborted 1969 project with Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, politician and last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992).

In promotion of The Fruits of Paradise film season at the Institut Francais in London in May 2001, just prior to the release of Late Night Talks with Mother, in what was a brief introduction to his (particularly early) career, the season screened three of Němec films (Diamonds of the Night, The Party and the Guests, Martyrs of Love) and the director was also present to talk about his career after the screenings. The season was named after the 1969 film by Věra Chytilova for whom Ester Krumbochova, the Czech art director, screenwriter and costume designer, did production design, along with another Chytilova film, Daisies (1966) and the Němec films shown in the season.

At the same time he was in London Jan Němec chatted online for an hour about his career for an award-winning film magazine website called FilmWorld. The on-line chat took place at the Czech Centre in central London. Here are the main excerpts of what people asked him and his responses (NOTE: Bad grammar and misspellings are retained for authenticity).

In an interview in 1970, Němec said: "The director must create his own world, a world independent of reality, as it appears at the time. The painters have created their worlds, the composers too. But only a few film directors have achieved this aim: certainly Chaplin, certainly Bresson, and certainly Bunuel... If I try to make my films resemble the surface of reality, I'll waste much energy and lead the attention of the audience away from the heart of the matter. They will necessarily ask whether the film does not distort reality, whether things are exactly so in real life, or whether they are slightly different, etc. But if, from the first scene, it is apparent that any superficial resemblance to reality is not important at all, the audience will give up their favourite comparisons and concentrate on what the director really tries to convey." ~ Jan Němec in interview with Josef Skvorecky, 1970.

 

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