Director-scribe Jan Nemec, a co-founder of the Czech New Wave which was banned for work exposing communist brutality, died Friday after an illness, according to Prague media. Nemec was 79.
Having chosen to study at Prague’s prestigious FAMU film school over pursuing a career in jazz, the young Nemec was uniquely focused and soon put together his debut feature in 1964, “Diamonds in the Night,” based on the true-life escape from a Nazi transport by co-writer Arnost Lustig.
The film’s haunting, surreal imagery and minimal dialogue unfolds as two young boys who, despite being marked for death, wander through forests, decrepit city streets and perplexing encounters with characters both familiar and strange.
“A Report on the Party and the Guests” followed in 1966, recounting a bizarre kidnapping that menaces a social gathering of dandies in the forest, a metaphor that would highly concern state censors not long after its release.
Nemec managed to film his third feature, “Martyrs of Love,” a collection of awkward young romance encounters, in 1967 before the authorities stripped him of access to Prague’s Barrandov Studios, relegating him to work on television shooting music videos.
The final straw in his internal exile was his documentary “Oratorio for Prague,” including footage of Warsaw Pact tanks rolling into the capital to put down the Prague Spring civil rights reforms in 1968 – a film that was smuggled abroad by a young Italian stranger, later forming the subject of his 2009 pic “Ferrari Dino Girl.”
Unlike other principles of the Czech New Wave, which included Oscar winners Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel and iconoclast Vera Chytilova, Nemec found himself relatively little known in his own land.
In fact, “Diamonds in the Night” was only screened briefly in what was then Czechoslovakia before state authorities sold it for export in order to buy episodes of a popular western series of the era, “Winnetou.”
Nemec confessed after returning to the Czech Republic following the 1989 Velvet Revolution and attempting a revival with limited success that his prickly outspokenness may not have advanced his career. He recounted to Czech journalist Ivana Kosulicova in 2001 that after he moved abroad in 1974 friends had once introduced him to Shirley MacLaine in the hopes that she might work with him to energize his abortive U.S. film career. Nemec instead found himself quickly shooting down her praises of Fidel Castro’s administration, turning the meeting into “a catastrophe.”
His work after 1989, although steady, never again reached his previous critical heights as the Prague native continued to explore themes of freedom, repression and a visual style he taught a generation of new filmmakers at FAMU, dubbed “pure film,” which he defined as cinema that transcends obvious plotlines and has more in common with musical forms than conventional screen fare.
Nemec’s final work, a Czech-Slovak-French comedy based on the director’s life, “The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street,” is slated for release later this year.