Jan Němec: Mystifying the Real
Evgeny Gusyatinskiy & Irena Kovarova
This programme was initiated two years ago. Back then, we were expecting Jan Němec’s new film to be completed. But not only the production of The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street was prolonged, finishing only in 2016, this autobiographical work suddenly became Němec’s final film. He passed away four months before the film’s world premiere in Karlovy Vary. An unexpected, unbelievable turn of events – like another spontaneous cut for which his style is famous.
A nearly complete retrospective presumes a certain canonisation – a process that Němec’s unsettling films, and perhaps also his non-conformist personality, strongly resisted. A retrospective of someone who recently passed away is even more at risk of becoming an obituary and act of consecration. Luckily, that could never be possible in the case of Jan Němec.
The enfant terrible of the Czechoslovak New Wave (a moniker for the director coined by film critic Peter Hames), Němec was actually never part of any legitimate film tradition. Even though his body of work is routinely associated with surrealism, absurdism and existentialism, his singular films do not necessarily fall within the traditional lines of European modernism. There is always something that strikingly detaches Němec, preventing him from fitting into those categories completely. A hardly definable ‘shift’, be it super-sharp editing, an extreme point of view or a sudden convergence of polarised images, undermines even the conventions of modernism in his films. An experimentalist by nature, Němec constantly challenged his own aesthetic principles as well, aiming to extract the essence of what he called ‘pure film’.
In Diamonds of the Night, there is a striking repetitive close-up of ants covering the palm of a human hand. In one respect, and Němec admits this, it is a direct replica of Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. However, it is positioned within the film in such a way that it looks more real than surreal, as well as more mundane than abstract. If a film like that were made today, perhaps nobody would see it as surrealistic. Long subtle shots, sensitive handheld camera, inexplicable elliptic narrative as well as minimalist sound and a minimum of dialogue are so in tune with today’s auteur filmmaking that you could consider Diamonds of the Night as a contemporary film in the tradition of ‘new realism’. However, it was Němec’s feature debut. This impression suggests that Němec’s works not only exist in time, but also have the potential to change with time – exactly like the world they capture.
Belonging to Oneself
The rebellious nature of Němec’s cinema is also related to the difficulties he experienced as a dissident artist. However, those obstacles never stopped him from making films and only stimulated his will to express himself, regardless of the means of expression. He was passionate about every film medium and format, ranging from 35mm to digital to 3D, from features to music films to shorts, and last but not least from fiction to non-fiction to metafiction.
After making three features, one of which had been shelved by the Communist authorities (The Party and the Guests), Němec was not allowed to work in Czechoslovakia any more. Under the threat of imprisonment, he was forced into exile, moving first to Germany and then to the United States, where he stayed for almost 13 years. But unlike Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, Němec could not integrate into the American film system either. Perhaps he was just too independent and individualistic for that.
In his experimental collage film The Czech Connection, he vividly deconstructs his own identity by imagining, without a sense of self-pity, different versions of his own death. Presented as an ironic response to the political and economic pressure he experienced in exile, it was also an act of self-appropriation. A call for ultimate freedom from all kinds of objectification, including a thing such as death, which in the playful world of Němec can be sabotaged too.
Němec came back to Prague only after the Velvet Revolution and gradually turned to subtle intimate issues in the late 1990s and 2000s. This is another shift that confirms the contemporaneity of his work and his feeling of time too. After returning from political exile, Němec – with the help of small digital cameras – went into exile in his inner self, making extremely personal diary films (Late Night Talks with Mother), documenting the physical life of his body (Landscape of My Heart) and reinterpreting his own past (The Ferrari Dino Girl).
The punk energy of his new work The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street, a re-enactment of Němec’s misadventures in Czechoslovakia, at Cannes Film Festival and in the United States, never suggests that it was made by an aging classic of European cinema. Even as a memoir about the past and passing time, it never falls into sentimentality or nostalgia, which are so common for the genre. On the contrary, Němec prefers to be endlessly ironic, self-mocking and distanced. Once again he freely deconstructs and reconstructs his own life and plays with his own identity as if they are just imagined or even fabricated by someone else.
Playing a Game
As a close witness to the twentieth century, who survived the Second World War, Communist oppression, forced exile and the pressures of capitalism, Němec always confronted the notion of a man as a stable predetermined human being, as well as questioning reality as something evident and steady.
According to Němec’s films, reality is never the same and is always in a process of transition and transformation, sometimes elusive, undetectable. As time is reversible, the medieval past can easily enter and break the neoliberal present (Flames of Royal Love). As it is also unpredictable and destructive, a rural idyll can quickly be turned into a totalitarian spectacle (The Party and the Guests). In a similar way, the free-spirited Prague Spring abruptly ended with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Oratorio for Prague).
Despite their disastrous nature, such radical changes are seen by Němec as elements of almost metaphysical play. The world he presents is a grotesque game with flexible rules, where each person plays a multiple role that varies depending on unsteady circumstances. It is certainly a very tragic experience formed by the horrendous reality of the twentieth century and exposes us to all kinds of nightmares. On the other hand, and that’s the case with Němec, it provides a chance to become a genius player and win; or rather survive the game by constituting your own pure freedom.
The Jan Němec retrospective was organised in partnership with the Czech Film Center. Many thanks to Robert de Rek, Ilse van der Spoel, Iva Ruszeláková and Markéta Šantrochová for their enormous help.