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Němec's career as a filmmaker in the late 1950s when he attended FAMU, the most prestigious institution for film training in Czechoslovakia. At this time, Czechoslovakia was a communist state subservient to the USSR and artistic and public expression was subject to censorship and government review. However, thanks largely to the failure of purely propagandist cinema in the early 1950s and the presence of important and powerful people within the Czechoslovak film industry, such as Jan Procházka, the 1960s led to an internationally acknowledged creative surge in Czechoslovak film that became known as the Czech New Wave, in which Němec played an instrumental part.
As a graduation film, Němec adapted a short story by Arnošt Lustig based on the author's experience of the Holocaust: A Loaf of Bread (Sousta). Němec would return to Lustig's writing when he directed the influential film, Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, 1964), which was also based on the Holocaust. The film follows the fate of two boys who escape from a transit train to a concentration camp. It is noted for its dramatic subjectivization of the experience of the Holocaust using experimental techniques, including flashbacks, simulated hallucinations and an unusual double ending that leaves the viewer in doubt as to the fate of its protagonists. It was his first major success, and while it passed the censors' reviews, it helped lay the foundation for the political movement that was coming. More importantly, it remains an aesthetic and technical milestone in the exploration of human experience under extreme conditions.
His best known work is A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966). Its plot revolves around a group of friends on a picnic who are invited to a bizarre banquet by a charismatic sadist, played by Ivan Vyskočil, who eventually bullies most of them into blind conformity and brutality while those who resist are hunted down. The film particularly received a bad reception from the authorities as Vyskočil in the film had a remarkable likeness to Lenin, though according to Peter Hames this was accidental. Moreover, the cast consisted of various dissident Czechoslovak intellectuals of the day, including Josef Škvorecký. The film was viewed as being so subversive to the Communist state that Antonín Novotný, the President, was said to "climb the walls" on viewing it and Němec's arrest for subversion was considered.
However, before the political fallout from A Report on the Party and the Guests was able to take effect, he was able to have approved one more feature: Martyrs of Love (Mučedníci lásky, 1966). The film, perhaps in mind of the previous troubles he had suffered, was completely apolitical, but it's surrealist lyrical style did not endear it to the authorities and Němec was forced to work outside the government-approved system, producing the film Mother and Son (Mutter und Sohn, 1967), which won an award at the Oberhausen Film Festival.
His next important feature was a documentary, Oratorio for Prague, of the Soviet-led invasion of Prague in 1968, which ended the liberal Prague Spring. It was banned, but Němec's footage would eventually be used by countless international news organizations as stock footage of the invasion. Němec was also an advisor on Philip Kaufman's film adaption of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) with Němec's original film of the invasion being integrated.
After 1968, he left Czechoslovakia although he did return to the occupied country but was not allowed to make films so he waited and then after some fuss was eventually allowed to leave in 1974 with the warning that if he ever returned they would find an excuse to put him in prison so he was in effect thrown out. He then went on to Germany before eventually moving to the United States. Unable to work in traditional cinema, he was a pioneer in using video cameras to record weddings, including documenting the nuptials of the Swedish royal family.
After the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, he returned to his native country, where he has made several films, including Code Name Ruby (Jmeno kodu: Rubin, 1997) and Late Night Talks with Mother (Nočni hovory s matkou, 2000), which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno.
- "Jan Nemec – Enfant terrible of the New Wave". CE Review. 14 May 2001. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
- "Kinoeye: An Interview with Czech Film Director Jan Nemec". CE Review. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
- Facebook Profile
- Jan Němec at the Internet Movie Database
- Czech Film: Jan Nemec's post-1989 films
- Interview with Němec
- Jan Němec: Interviews 1964–2014 (Rozhovory 1964–2014) (Camera obscura)