Many a film fan may have gone through life thus far without lavishing an abundance of attention on the cinema of Czechoslovakia – or even, for that matter, being aware of the Czech New Wave. This movement saw films of previously unseen quality coming from the country in the 1960s, including highly regarded work from directors such as the acclaimed Miloš Forman. Now, esteemed UK world cinema distributors Second Run are releasing a collection of three titles from this period: Diamonds of the Night (1964) directed by Jan Němec; Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting (1965); and The Cremator (1969) by Juraj Herz.
Němec’s Diamonds of the Night is a gruelling and incredibly tense look at two Jewish boys who escape a train bound for a concentration camp but are hunted by both German soldiers, and an elderly troop of home guards. Remaining largely wordless throughout, the film does explore the horrors of war and of Nazism, but is primarily concerned with humanity. This is seen through the boys attempts to survive, to preserve their dignity, and the reactions that they inspire in the people of the countryside through which they flee.
Passer’s Intimate Lighting is the fluffiest of the three films, painting a picture of a friendship between two musicians whose lives have taken opposite paths. They come together for one day in one of their homes and we experience the comical familial relationships, the underlying tensions of the disparity in the friend’s success and the presence of a younger, more attractive woman in the house. There are nice moments of humour, but without a better wider understanding of Czech society in this period, it is hard to read the satire that is doubtless just below the surface of this comedy.
The strangest, and the best, of these three releases is Herz’s The Cremator. A darkly bizarre trip through the late 1930’s where an employee at a Crematorium, Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky), attempts to reconcile his Nazi allegiance and his Buddhist leanings. When it is suggested that his half-Jewish wife is holding back his advancement, Kopfrkingl begins a twisted descent into madness and murder. Full of unsettling atmosphere and a wonderfully creepy lead performance, this is an absorbing and terrifying ride.
Although Passer’s Intimate Lighting feels like a minor note in the middle, this is a collection of impressive films – especially those concerned with Czechoslovakia’s time intertwined with Nazi Germany. With dozens of filmmakers attributed to this movement, this release will at the very least pique people’s interest and bring these atmospheric offerings to wider attention.