First Full-career U.S. Retrospective of the Czechoslovak New Wave Director
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From Friday, Nov. 8 through Thursday, Nov. 14, BAMcinématek will present “Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Nemec,” the first full-career U.S. retrospective of Czechoslovak New Wave director Jan Nemec (b. 1936). Over the years, BAMcinématek has hosted a festival of New Czech Films on 12 separate occasions, presented the first U.S. retrospective of Frantisek Vlacil (“Marketa Lazarova”) in 2002, and premiered a new 35mm print of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies for a week-long run last summer.
Though Nemec (pronounced Niemetz) was an instrumental player in the Czechoslovak New Wave alongside Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Chytilova and others, the enfant terrible of the movement is relatively unknown stateside. This long-overdue survey of Nemec's nearly 50 year career of uncompromising work features 12 films and a week-long run of “Diamonds of the Night” (1964) in a new 35mm print. The retrospective premieres at BAMcinématek and then embarks on a North American tour, curated by Irena Kovarova and produced by the Comeback Company in partnership with the National Film Archive, Prague and Aerofilms.
The triumvirate of Nemec, Forman and Menzel became the face of a new cinema rushing out of Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, with Chytilova, Ivan Passer and Juraj Herz following close behind. Though heralded as a new generation of masters abroad, their work did not always garner immediate recognition—Czechoslovak state authorities controlled film distribution to festivals and markets, and it could take two to three years before a film was available internationally.
Nemec’s debut feature “Diamonds of the Night” (1964) follows the escape of two concentration camp prisoners, depicting their existential journey through flashbacks and fantasies. The film premiered to instant acclaim and was invited to screen in Cannes’ Critics’ Week, but did not screen in New York until the Museum of Modern Art’s 1967 festival of Czechoslovak New Wave, followed by a commercial release in the U.S. the next year. Hailed as “a remarkable directorial debut” with a “mood of desperation and paranoia [that] works a grim magic” (Dave Kehr, “Chicago Reader”), Nemec’s surrealist masterpiece screens daily for one week, and will be accompanied by his thesis film “A Loaf of Bread” (1960) on the opening night of the run. Like “Diamonds,” the short film is based on an autobiographical story by renowned Czech author Arnost Lustig.
Comprised of five short films by five directors, “Pearls of the Deep” (1966—Nov. 11) was effectively a Czechoslovak New Wave manifesto, featuring segments by Chytilova, Menzel and Nemec, among others. Based on a book by celebrated writer Bohumil Hrabal, the anthology was featured in the 1966 New York Film Festival. Nemec’s boldly absurdist “A Report on the Party and Guests” (1966—Nov. 9) is a daring work about the mechanics of power. Perhaps his best known work today, the film outraged authorities and was quickly banned. With a range of influences from Robert Bresson to Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel, A Report has been called “one of the best Czechoslovak films ever made” (Renata Adler, The New York Times).
The events of 1968—the democratization process, the hopeful period of the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion that disrupted it—heightened the world’s attention toward Czech filmmaking. The Prague Spring allowed Nemec, Forman and Menzel to be invited to compete at Cannes, but the French strikes and protests of May 1968 caused such turmoil that the festival was canceled before the jury could announce the awards. All three films were then presented in the main slate of the New York Film Festival along with Nemec’s short film “Oratorio for Prague” (1968—Nov. 12), which depicts the Warsaw Pact invasion. The three-part cinephilic fantasy “Martyrs of Love” (1967—Nov. 10) was Nemec’s last film to receive a US theatrical release (in 1969) through then-newcomer New Line Cinema.
Forbidden from working in film after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Nemec was forced into exile in 1974 and left for Germany where he was able to finally realize his long-denied project of filming Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (1975—Nov. 12), which makes its New York premiere in this series. Nemec lived in exile in the United States from 1977 to 1989, but his avant-garde filmmaking style and nonconformist personality made it difficult for him to break through in Hollywood. After several years spent teaching and working as a commercial videographer, Nemec returned to his native country following the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Unlike many of his New Wave peers, Nemec has been even more prolific since 1989 than in his early career. Nemec turned the camera on himself with “Late Night Talks with Mother” (2001—Nov. 13), a masterful nonfiction exploration of himself and his hometown of Prague which won the prestigious Golden Leopard award at Locarno. “Late Night Talks with Mother” and “Toyen” (2005—Nov. 13; featuring an intro by lead actress Zuzana Stivinova), Nemec’s meditative portrait of the surrealist Czech painter, screen in their New York premieres in the series.
Additional highlights include “The Ferrari Dino Girl” (2009—Nov. 14), a look back at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia through staged dramatizations and Nemec’s original footage of the events, and a free screening of “Golden Sixties” (2011—Nov. 10), an illuminating portrait of Nemec from a 27-part television series about masters of the Czechoslovak New Wave.