I was around 18 when I first saw Jiří Menzel’s Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) at a film festival. At the time, though I enjoyed the film as a collection of little vignettes, it left me unsatisfied on the whole. Looking back, there may have been a problem of preconceived notions: I was heavily into magic realism then, in the afterglow of having read Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and the tiny scraps of information I had on Closely Watched Trains (this being the pre-Internet age) led me to believe that it was similar in style; that the narrative would include strange and wondrous happenings as exaggerated metaphors for life in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. Some of the film’s early scenes were whimsical enough to support this theory, so I was rather taken aback by the downbeat ending and the sudden shift from the personal to the political, the reminder of the larger picture.
Closely Watched Trains is set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in the early 1940s. The film’s central character, Milos Herma – a very likeable young man who manages somehow to be droopy-eyed and wide-eyed all at once – can be seen as a symbol for a country trying to find its place in the world, perhaps even assert itself in a small way; but Milos is also a developed character in his own right, someone we can sympathise with at a human level. The film opens with a wonderfully quirky little scene as young Milos prepares for the first day of his new job at the local railway station. Putting on his uniform, he looks around at portraits of various family members as a voiceover informs us of their achievements, usually laced with farce, e.g., a hypnotist grandfather who tried to halt the Germans by standing in front of their tanks and sticking his arm out. (There is a brief promise of magic realism here: the Germans really do stop for a while, perplexed; but then cold reality takes over, the tanks roll on and granddaddy loses his head.)
Back to the present. At the station, Milos comes under the affectionately patronising guidance of the train dispatcher Hubicka (who, physical resemblance apart, has a smugness that reminded me of Peter Sellers playing Quilty in Kubrick’s version of Lolita). Hubicka turns out to be a train dispatcher in more senses than one; he’s planning to blow up one of the trains carrying ammunition to a Nazi base. The plot moves slowly towards the consummation of this plan, but young Milos is preoccupied with consummation of a different kind; a case of premature ejaculation prevents him from satisfying his girlfriend in bed, and he worries that this prevents him from “being a man”. Extremely depressed, he attempts suicide, survives, and is advised to find an experienced older woman who can ease him into the act - but his insecurities may have bigger repercussions. As if all this weren’t enough, the station attracts controversy because Hubicka has seduced a young typist and (in a bizarre, incongruously good-natured little scene) rubber-stamped her legs and buttocks.
As this summary might indicate, Closely Watched Trains is an immensely entertaining movie (note to friends who fear subtitles in general and the unpronounceable names in central European cinema in particular), full of beguiling little scenes. My favourites include Milos diffidently approaching an old woman and getting distracted by the goose-neck she’s holding between her legs, the encounter with his girlfriend’s puckish photographer-uncle, and the scene with the itinerant Nazi soldiers and the nurses. And of course, the final epiphanic explosion, which makes perfect sense to me now.
Since my first viewing, I’ve been able to see Closely Watched Trains on its own terms: to appreciate how gentle Menzel's direction is and how he places a wry sense of humour at the service of a basically poignant story. Czechoslovakia’s position in the scheme of things had not changed very much in 1966 (when the film was made) from the WWII years – it was still being swept along by much larger forces and events, events that its people couldn’t wholly understand, relate to or do much about. Working in a medium that wasn’t very well established in his country, and faced with continuous restrictions on artistic freedom, Menzel found a way to convey something of this predicament - using methods that were more complex and layered than magic realism. Equally importantly, he also told an engrossing personal story in the process.
[Some previous posts on old films: Yojimbo, 8 1/2, Fearless Vampire Killers, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Badlands, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fiddler on the Roof, Twelve Angry Men, Peeping Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Strangers on a Train, Eraserhead, Paths of Glory, Deewaar, Junoon]