Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Němec


“An enfant terrible, dedicated to the concept of a personal style of filmmaking ... Němec made no concessions in his attempt to develop a nonrealist cinema."

“A Czech master rediscovered ... The work of Jan Němec deserves to be seen more widely."

“Independent of Reality: The Films of Jan Němec” is the first full-career retrospective of Czech director Jan Němec (b. 1936) to be presented in North America. Though Němec (pronounced Niemetz) was an instrumental player in the famed Czechoslovak New Wave alongside Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, and others, the enfant terrible of the movement is relatively unknown here. This long-overdue survey of Němec’s nearly 50-year career of uncompromising work is curated by Irena Kovarova and produced by the Comeback Company in partnership with the National Film Archive (Prague), Aerofilms, and Jan Němec-Film. It premiered at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn in November and is now on a North American tour.

The triumvirate of Němec, Forman, and Menzel became the face of a new cinema rushing out of Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, with Chytilová, 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.

Němec’s debut feature, Diamonds of the Night (1964), follows the escape of two concentration camp prisoners, depicting their existential journey through flashbacks and fantasies. Based on an autobiographical story by renowned Czech author Arnošt Lustig, this surrealist masterpiece premiered to instant acclaim and was invited to screen in Cannes’ Critics’ Week.

Pearls of the Deep (1966), based on a book by celebrated writer Bohumil Hrabal and comprised of five short films by five directors, was effectively a Czechoslovak New Wave manifesto, featuring segments by Němec, Chytilová, and Menzel, among others.

Němec’s boldly absurdist second feature, A Report on the Party and Guests (1966), was a daring parable about the mechanics of power, and is perhaps his best-known work today. It outraged the authorities and was quickly banned. With a range of influences from Robert Bresson to Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Luis Buñuel, Report has been called “one of the best Czechoslovak films ever made” (Renata Adler, New York Times). Němec’s third feature was the three-part surrealist cinephilic fantasy Martyrs of Love (1967).

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 Němec’s A Report on the Party and Guests, Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), and Menzel’s Capricious Summer (1968) to be invited to compete at Cannes, but the French strikes and protests of May 1968 caused such turmoil that the festival was cancelled 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 Němec’s short film Oratorio for Prague (1968), which depicts the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Forbidden from working in film after the invasion, Němec was forced into exile in 1974 and left for Germany. He lived 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, Němec returned to his native country following the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Unlike many of his New Wave peers, Němec has been even more prolific since 1989 than in his early career. He turned the camera on himself with Late Night Talks with Mother (2001), a masterful non-fiction exploration of the director and his hometown of Prague. It won the prestigious Golden Leopard award at Locarno. Toyen (2005) is Němec’s meditative portrait of the surrealist Czech painter. The Ferrari Dino Girl (2009) looks back at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia through staged dramatizations and Němec’s original footage of the events. Golden Sixties: Jan Němec (2011) — which screens for free — is an illuminating portrait of Němec from a 27-part television series about masters of the Czechoslovak New Wave.

Many films in this series screen on rare, imported archival 35mm prints.

— adapted from BAMcinématek (Brooklyn)

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Recent Showings

Jan Němec’s debut feature is a surrealist masterpiece; a haunting, hallucinatory tale of two Jewish boys who escape a Nazi death train.
Němec's best-known work is an absurdist satire on power relations, "happiness" under totalitarianism, and the way people adapt to a society's prevailing ideology.
FREE SCREENING! This illuminating documentary portrait of Czech director Jan Němec comes from a 27-part Czech-Slovak television series.
RARELY AVAILABLE! Surrealism, cinema history, and romantic fantasy mix in this poetic feature, the last made in his homeland for decades. Proceeded by the Mother and Son.
A filmic manifesto of the Czechoslovak New Wave, this absurdist omnibus features shorts by Němec, Chytilová, Jireš, Menzel, and Schorm.
VANCOUVER PREMIERE! This strange and striking film renders in dreamlike fashion something of the art and life of Czech Surrealist painter Toyen.
VANCOUVER PREMIERE! Němec won the Golden Leopard for best video at Locarno for this highly-personal, highly-stylized essay and self-portrait. Preceded by Oratorio for Prague.
VANCOUVER PREMIERE! Němec offers another "autodocumentary" with this direct account of one of the century's key events: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.