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Peter Hames: JAN NĚMEC: Enfant Terrible

When Jan Němec, one of the leading directors of the Czech New Wave, died last year, he was viewed very much as a historical figure. He was noted primarily for films such as Diamonds of the Night (1964), rated by Agnieszka Holland in Sight and Sound as the best film made about the Holocaust, and The Party and the Guests (1966), a metaphorical and absurdist account of bureaucratic power, which was seen as one of the most subversive accounts of the Communist era. Yet he made many more films than that as Jan Bernard’s recent two volume account (in Czech) has pointed out.

Němec, who always believed in an auteur cinema and the concept of what he termed ‘pure film’, was an admirer of directors such as Bresson and Buñuel (the ant-covered hand in Diamonds of the Night is an obvious reference). His least known film of the 1960s, Martyrs of Love (1966) which, he said, could be subtitled ‘from the reminiscences of a filmgoer’, was an extraordinary mix of surrealist imagery, romantic fiction, and contemporary popular music photographed by Miroslav Ondříček (who later photographed Lindsay Anderson’s If,,,, and Miloš Forman’s Amadeus). While making an ‘idyllic’ documentary on the Prague Spring in 1968, Němec suddenly found himself photographing the invasion of his country by Soviet tanks. The footage was smuggled out of Prague and later included in his Oratorio for Prague (1968), juxtaposing the two ‘realities’  It also formed the basis for his more recent The Ferrari Dino Girl (2009).

Forced into exile in 1974, Němec was taken off the plane by the police and had several screenplays confiscated,  but he soon completed his planned film version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1975, for German television).  Filmed by regular Herzog collaborator Thomas Mauch, the action was seen entirely through the subjective perspective of Gregor Samsa.  Like Forman, Němec moved to the USA but found himself unable to adapt his approach to the needs of the commercial industry. He had hoped to direct the film version of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1987) but ended up as technical advisor and actor. The film included material from his invasion footage. His final English language films were a documentary on the Polish poet and Nobel prizewinner, Czesław Miłosz (The Poet Remembers, 1989) and a Channel Four documentary on the Munich crisis, Peace in Our Time? (1988, which he co-directed with Otto Olejar).

His return to Czechoslovakia was marked by the completion of a long prepared adaptation of The Flames of Royal Love (1990), adapted from Ladislav Klíma’s proto-surrealist novel and Codename Ruby (1996), in which contemporary history is merged with a quest for the philosopher’s stone. Neither reached either national or international audiences. Finding himself once again at odds with the commercial system, he opted for the personal and experimental with his semi-autobiographical Late Night Talks with Mother, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2001. It was undoubtedly a case of ‘le caméra stylo’ and provided a successful formula for a further five films.

Following up the theme of Heartbeat, a script he had prepared with Václav Havel in the late 60s (which he eventually filmed in 3D), Landscape of My Heart (2004) focused on his own brush with death and serious heart operation. Much of the film emphasises the mental images conjured up under anaesthetic or in a state of semi-consciousness. In Toyen (2005), he examined the relationship between the surrealist painter Toyen (real name Marie Čermínová) and the poet and philosopher, Jindřich Heisler. It focuses on their life in wartime Prague, when Toyen hid the Jewish-born Heisler in her flat, and follows them to Paris where they joined Breton’s group after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Němec makes it clear in the film’s subtitle, Splinters of Dreams, a quotation from Toyen, that it will be no ordinary work. It fits neither the category of feature or documentary. Němec works by association, forging links between the real world and that of the imagination, which emerges as a higher form of reality. If the visual track is a composition of disparate but evolving elements, the soundtrack presents a complementary reality of silence, sound, poetry, and reminiscence. Avoiding art historical categorisation, the film searches for creative sources and inner meaning.

While both The Ferrari Dino Girl and Heartbeat 3D  (2010) follow in the elliptical and subjective style of his later films, his final film The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street (2016), based on a published collection of his stories, is more of a mainstream account of some of the themes in Late Night Talks with Mother. Here the actor Jiří Madl plays the Němec double, John Jan, in a number of dramatised sequences. Particularly good are those in which the dissident director is removed from his plane into exile and interviewed by a secret police chief who believes Kafka to be a leader of the counter revolution. Another scene with an imaginary Ivana Trump (the mother not the daughter) sees Jan searching for backing for one of his films only to receive The Art of the Deal in exchange. In another scene, Jean-Luc Godard is assassinated. Not only did he close down the 1968 Cannes Festival when three Czech films were in the main competition but subsequently attacked the ‘bourgeois’ revolution known as the Prague Spring. Němec’s disjunctive collage provides an interesting commentary on the travails of a film maker intent on his own vision and one suspects that history will perceive his later films as some of the most lasting in the post-Communist era.

Peter Hames