Barely over an hour, this black-and-white jolt of mixed realism and surrealism (drawn, like Bread, from a story by Czech camp survivor Arnost Lustig) announced a major new talent. While its historical indictment of a persecuting foreign power kept it safe from official criticism, the 28-year-old Nemec wasted little time before pushing the envelope much further. A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is an absurdist allegory with unmistakable political overtones. Its protagonists are a group of drunken bourgeoisie picnickers who fall in with other, larger, vaguely sinister parties in the woods, culminating in a vast al fresco banquet in which a good time is had by all — so long as they adhere to the increasingly arbitrary rules of conformity. If not, the fade out suggests, they will be — like Diamonds' Jewish lads — hunted down with rifles and dogs, like game.
This blunt provocation did not go unnoticed by the right wrongdoing people: It was immediately "banned forever" by the Czech government. Fortunately, Nemec had already begun his next film. Martyrs of Love (1967) is a three-part homage to silent comedy in which there's almost no dialogue, plenty of slapstick, and a brief cameo by Daisies' anarchic female duo. Also tipping hat to Jacques Tati, it was a delight whose elements of social satire could offend no one. Yet it did very little to balm the rancor that Party stirred. After his short documentary about the Soviet occupation, 1968's Oratorio for Prague was banned — yet footage from it used by news services around the world — he was persona non grata at home, eventually given the choice of exile or prison.
His work over the next couple decades is scant and elusive; it's represented at the PFA only by a 1975 German TV adaptation of Metamorphosis by Nemec's hero, Kafka. When he resurfaced with a couple post-perestroika features (notably 1990's In the Light of Love, from Czech literary avant-gardist Ladislav Klima's absurdist 1928 novel), they were poorly received and remain hard to find. More recently he's turned toward collage-style video essays like 2001's autobiographical Late Night Talks with Mother and 2005's Toyen (about the Czech surrealist painter). They're complex intellectual and aesthetic explorations — but they still leave you wondering about the filmmaker he might have become if 1968 hadn't come in like a lamb and gone out like a sacrificial one. *
DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT: JAN NEMEC
April 6-23, $5.50-$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2572 Bancroft, Berk.