Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Closely 1During the late 1960's a sudden wave of Czechoslovakian films suddenly burst into the West, catching many film-goers off-guard. Most of the films were very small in scale, and its stories focused mostly on ordinary, regular people, who were regarded with a tender and sweet human affection. These type of films were completely different in tone from past film movements such as Italian neorealism, or the French New Wave. There was an absurd wryness about them, coming from a fresh new generation of filmmakers, completely comic and sly in tone, giving a subtly refreshing commentary on the warrior mentality from a small geopolitical unfavored nation, offering what they could in the way of resisting their surrounding bullies. These attitudes and subtle comic absurdities mostly derived and formed during the Nazi Occupation of World War II, with these ideas sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period. This portrait of Czechoslovakia was pieced together from a place where private problems always took precedence over public issues, as these stories seemed delightfully casual about their comic themes, as most of these films were loosely structured, and often shot in the streets and on provincial back-roads, acted frequently by amateurs. Their lack of formality seemed all the more remarkable since they were, after all, the products of an Iron Curtain country, as the chief figures of this sudden renaissance included such directors as Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jiri Menzel, and all the other graduates of FAMU, the famous state film school, in which their objectives were to make films to "make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all." Many many critics and fans were extremely grateful for these spontaneous and lovable films which most famously included Milos Forman's Loves of a Blond, The Fireman's Ball, Ján Kadar and Elmar Klos's The Shop on Main Street, and last but not least Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains, which was equally loved by film-watchers and critics, as the film won the Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film of 1967.

The film tells the simple story about a young bumbling train dispatcher apprentice who longs to liberate himself from his virginity. Completely oblivious to the war and the resistance that surrounds him, this naive young man embarks on a journey of self-discovery and sexual wakening, encountering a world of eroticism and sexual frustration. And yet what makes Menzel's Closely Watched Trains even more extraordinary and poignant than on first viewing, is how integral and inevitable the tragic ending of the film is. What's extremely clever about the film is how brilliantly Menzel deceives its audience into believing that the film is nothing more than a sly and subtle sexual comedy. And despite the fact that the film is ultimately short in length, it is highly rich in character's and comic situations, including an iconic sequence which involves a rubber-stamp and a bare woman's buttocks, which makes for one of the most original and slightly erotic moments in all of film history.

 

PLOT/NOTES

The film opens to a young Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) preparing for his first day working in a railroad station as he gladly narrates and recounts to the audience his families history, which involves his father laying on a couch all day collecting a pension from his grandfather the hypnotist who died when attempting to stop the German troops through a form of hypnosis:

"My name is Milos Hrma. They often laughed at my name. But otherwise were a happy family. Our great grandfather Lukas as a tambour fought on the Charles Bridge of Prague and when the students threw cobblestones at the soldiers they hit great grandfather with such aim that he was getting a pension ever since. One gulden per day. He didn't do anything after that except buy a bottle of rum and a pack of tobacco every day. My grandfather was a hypnotist and the whole town believed his hypnotism was prompted by a desire to go through life without any effort. My father, an engine driver, has been retired since the age of forty eight and people are mad with envy since dad is healthy and will draw his pension for twenty, maybe thirty years without doing a job. Great grandfather Lukas bought a bottle of rum and two packs of tobacco every day. Instead of staying home he went to see the workers and made fun of the hard-working men. So every year grandpa Lukas would get beaten somewhere. And in 1930 great grandfather boasted in front of stone cutters whose quarry had just been closed and they beat him so badly he died. And when the German's crossed the frontiers in March and proceeded towards Prague, grandfather decided to face the Germans on his own with hypnosis and stop the advancing tanks. by the force of his thoughts. With outstretched hands and eyes glued to the Germans, he tried to get back to turn around and go back. Actually the first tank stopped and the entire army stopped, but then the tank started forward again and grandfather wouldn't move so the tank went right over him, cutting off his head and nothing more stood in the way of the Reich's army. And I went through a preparation course and I'm going to be a dispatcher and the entire town knows I want to be a train-dispatcher or the simple reason that I don't want to do anything just like my ancestors expect to stand on the platform with a single disc to avoid hard work while others have to drudge and toil."

Milos heads off for his job as a train-dispatcher as he hopes to do as little as possible. When arriving for his first day at work Milos meets the stationmaster. The stationmaster hopes in time he will be promoted inspector of the railway as he and his wife own a farm out in back and devote most of their energy in raising pigeons, geese and rabbits. When meeting Milos he says to him, "Your dad was the best engine driver in the district. He once threw out the stoker once the train was in motion."

The train station's dispatcher and the station's personal Casanova is named Hubicka who goes into explicit detail on what exactly Milos job entails which involves simply to stand on the station platform with a signal disc and opening and closing the double gates for arrivals and departures.

Very little work is done at the station and the workers  have lots of periods of just sitting and watching as Milos finds himself immediately attracted to a young conductor named Masa. She teases him by calling out to him saying, "Hiyi Milos. You look sharp." She then leans forward to offer Milos a kiss but the train takes off before their lips meet. Hubicka asks Milos what kind of woman he thinks Masa is and Milos naively says, "A nice one." Hubicka smiles and says, "Nice, nice, they all are, but what else?"

The imperious local countess arrives the next morning riding down to the train station on her horse, and even Hubicka is seduced by her legs as he leans over and says to Milos, "If she bent over me the whole world would become dim."  The countess tells the station master that she will need two freight cars to take her cattle to the slaughterhouse. She adds that she will have to sell a few heifers  so she can buy more fodder for the cattle saying that the morale in her district is worsening.  She leans down from her horse to tell the station master that the church in Kostelni has to be consecrated all over again saying, "There was fornication behind the altar." The station master tells the boys after she leaves, "Woman, that's nature's jewel."

In one of the station rooms, a tailor works on making the station manager a railroad inspector's uniform.  Milos knocks on the  door and asks the station manager if the cars for the Countess should be put on track five. The station manager tells him yes, and informs Milos that he must polish his shoes and lastly not to talk with the conductor on the platform.  He warns Milos not to be like Hubicka, who will not be getting a promotion for the next ten years, which is because the man is obsessed with women.

Quisling, Councilor Zednicek later arrives to go over the stragestics of war, opening a map and eagerly demonstrates the brilliance of the latest German retreat, as he is in charge of making the trains (especially the 'closely watched ones') run on time. He is, of course, treated with contempt from the gang at the station as Zednicek says: "The situation of our armies fighting for the welfare of all the nations of Europe, whether willing or unwilling is favorable." He describes how the army has had to tactically withdraw in the areas around them. Hubicka asks why and Councilor Zednicek says because the enemy is going to fall into their  trap. They will surround the Soviet and American forces in the area. He has all the station employees sign that they will do their duties  faithfully or will be subject to an assortment of nasty punishments, including  the possibility of a death sentence. While Zednicek explains all of this Hubicka and the other men are distracted by their telegraphist Zedena who is unknowingly putting her pen up and down her blouse.

Hubick's attractive cousin arrives one evening and the stationmaster is highly attracted to her while she eyes Milos who is sitting inside having his lunch. The stationmaster's wife calls for her husband to have lunch, as the stationmaster flirts with Hubick's cousin saying, "A necklace would look real nice on this beautiful neck." Unfortunately he immediately is interrupted again by his wife calling him upstairs to eat his dinner before it gets cold.

While upstairs the stationmaster hears Hubicka downstairs flirting with his cousin as the stationmaster is forced to sit beside his wife and help her yarn and knit a sweater for the Countess. The stationmaster has a kind wife but is extremely envious of Hubicka's success with the women he brings to the train-station and angrily vents his anger by shouting, "Such terrible morals these days. The Countess told me in secret that they will have to consecrate the church in Kostein Lhtota all over again. But that's what you get when there is no power over people. I'd be better if God called the Last judgment and put an end to everything. Armageddon."

Milos says to Hubicka before Hubicka excuses himself in the guestroom to spend the night with his cousin, "Mr. dispatcher...I don't know how to tell you. But did you always get along so well with women the way you do now with the cousin?" Hubicka says, "Oh God no. I was no good with women at all."  He comes out to tell Milos to keep close watch while he's in the next room alone with his cousin. Milos mills around for a bit, but then he looks through the keyhole to see what's going on in the next room. Hubicka comes bursting out of the room without his coat on and tells Milos that he's doing well, but he forgot to check on the telegraph.

Now Masa comes into the station house.  She tells Milos that she is just stopping by to talk with him.  Masa sits next to him, but just as she  is about to kiss him, the sound of something being torn is heard from the guest room, and Milos turns his head to see.  This discourages Masa and she says she will be on  her way and leaves.

The stationmaster is furious the next morning when he sees a tore in his Austrian sofa. The stationmaster yells, "Whatever he does with those bitches in the hall, he can't do it on his boss's sofa!" Hubicka asks Milos how Masa is in bed, and Milos finally reveals the truth to Hubicka that he is a virgin, (Just as his words are drowned out by the passing of a train).

During the morning some Nazi soldiers arrive and are intent on conquering a carload of nurses whose train has been sidetracked near the station. Milos nosily peeps inside one of the nurses car. He pulls back a curtain and sees the nurses in the arms of the soldiers, but is quickly told to leave.

During the work day Masa invites Milos after work to tag along with her while to stops by to visit her crude uncle. Milos agrees to come right before the train pulls out and Milos chases after it waving goodbye to Masa.

Masa's uncle owns a photography studio, and Masa arrives with Milos to help her uncle take pictures. Masa's uncle keeps touching the pretty young customers getting their photos taken, but the young women laugh about it because it's so brazen. Masa takes Milos into the darkroom and kisses him telling Milos that her uncle is crude, but he's kind.  They kiss again as Masa's uncle sneaks over to the dark room and begins to bang on the door and it opens as everyone laughs to see the couple kissing.

At night the couple lay in bed in the small airplane model used in the  photos by Masa's uncle. They renew their kissing but Milos is worried about being overheard by Masa's uncle, but Masa doesn't seem to care.  Milos looks out trying to see if her uncle is watching them and Masa gets frustrated and takes her blanket and pillow and goes to another room to sleep.

The next morning Masa and Milos are both dressed for work.  An air raid siren goes off and a bomb drops near the studio, destroying the front of the shop as Masa's uncle wakes up and starts laughing at the sight of his destroyed studio.

Milos goes into a bordello and a young woman asks him,  "For God's  sake...you really don't have a girl with you?" Milo says no and the woman says, "And do you want one?"  Milo says no and the woman gives him an hour to take a quick bath.

Milos starts running the bath and he gets into the tub and decides to cut his right wrist open with a straight razor.  A worker is banging a  hole through a wall and sees Milos in the tub full of blood and quickly runs to the rescue knocking open the door to the room, grabbing the unconscious Milos.

In the meantime Hubicka comes into the station house and sits in a chair rocking himself to sleep.  The young telegraphist Zedena is there reading a book and she turns around in her chair and when Hubicka rocks back toward her chair, she grabs the top of the back of the chair and pulls the chair and Hubicka down to the floor. Hubicka tells her, "Youll get me really mad and I'll spank you." He playfully chases Zedena around the office, and gently lays her on the table. "I told you I'd spank you," he says as he takes several different stamps and marks her legs, thigh's and eventually pulls down her underwear marking her buttcheeks.

Milos is at the doctor's bandaged up as he tells the doctor, "So you see, doctor, I am not a real man." The doctor tells Milo, "You are healthy as can be, maybe too healthy. When a young person is too healthy he can suffer from premature ejaculation. That has happened to me too, you're just overly sensitive."

When the Zedena's mother finds the stamp marks all over her daughters behind she is furrious and takes her daughter to the work to complain to her supeiors. She demands that they write a protocol on the matter while the superiors takes a look and one of them says, "This color is produced by the Pelikan Company and won't wash off for a week. Mother, this will go to the District court."

Zedena's mother takes her to see a three judge panel. She shows them her daughter's rear and one of the judges asks Zedena if this is some new kind of social game.  Zedena smiles and nods yes. The judge tells her mother this is not a matter for the court and if she wants to, can go complain about it to the railroad management; and that their disciplinary commission will take care of the matter.

Milos now goes to see the railroad manager Counselor Zednicek. Zednicek at first orders him out of his office and to compose himself by knocking before entering his office, and to salute him. Zednicek apologizes for shouting at Milos, but the young fellow must learn how to make a proper report. Milos shows his wrists to Zednicek and says the doctor told him that he has is just a case of premature ejaculation.

Zednicek points to a map and tells Milos that the young people of the Hitler Youth are fighting and dying for a better Europe  ". . . and what is your  family doing for Europe?"  He looks through his files of the family and says Milos father just chooses to loaf around, while he could have been serving the Reich.  His grandfather tried to hypnotize the German occupation force saying, "The youth of Germany is shedding blood on the battlegrounds and hooky player Milos Hrma sheds it in the bathtub of a bordello." He goes on to warn Milos that he could charge the fellow with self-mutilation in order to avoid service to the Reich but it could be seen as "an act of sabotage". Zednicek asks Milos what should he do with him and Milos whispers if he could get an older woman for him to have sex with in the bordello. Zednicek patiently says he has other, more important, duties to perform than procuring prostitutes and orders Milos to leave.

When Milos goes to work the station-master tells him that he has made their station infamous because of his apparent suicide attempt which isn't good for the station manager. Milo asks the station-master, Hubicka and even a priest if they know of any older woman who could help Milo with his sexual problems, but they all tell him (except for the priest) that he will have to find a woman on his own.

A locomotive driver runs to tell Hubicka that the partisans blew a closely watched train and the train and the bridge were both destroyed. Now trains are blocked from getting to the front, so more military traffic will be coming through this small station as the password is 'Viktoria Freie.'

Somebody yells, "Run, run.  The SS train stopped."  The partisans removed a section of the rails as the SS sprays the railway station there with machine-gun bullets. When the train pulls in everyone else is gone except Milos as he stands there saluting the train. Two SS officers surround him with their pistols pointed at him. They order Milos to get on board in the engine room as the commanding officer sees the cuts on the young fellow's wrists and indicates to his two SS officers to put their pistols away. The train stops and Milos is allowed to dismount from the locomotive as Milo runs back to his station.

Hubicka is very pleased to see Milos and says he will be eternally grateful for taking over his duty when the SS train came through saying, "Milos, you took over for me. I'll be grateful until death." Hubicka informs Milos of the resistance fighter's plans. "Look Milo. Tomorrow a freight train will pass through our station. We'll blow up the train. Do you get it, twenty eight carloads of ammunition in boxes blowing up behind our station right into space." Milos says, "Now we'll follow our closely watched train again."  Hubicka says, "The best thing would be to stand on the platform and throw it at the middle car. But then somebody can see us." Hubicka gets an idea of climbing one of the towers and when the moment is just right Milo's will slow down the train and Hubicka will toss down the explosive.

Masa arrives when a train comes in and she tells Milos she is not angry with him. She says she understands everything and invites Milos out again before leaving back to work.

Closely 2Knowing of his upcoming date with Masa, Milos decides to go and approach the stationmaster's wife on the topics of sex, hopefully she can help shed some light on the subject. He interrupts her while she seems to be force feeding one of her goose's and fatting it up to cook for later, (which is a clear sexual metaphore for a penis). She doesn't seem to understand what Milos is getting at when he tries to bring up the topic of sex and he awkwardly leaves asking her not to bring this conversation up with her husband.

A older woman named Viktoria Freie who is obviously a resistance fighter arrives with a package for Hubicka which are the explosives for tomorrows mission. She says to him, "In the morning, 28 ammunition carloads will pass the station." Viktoria sees the fresh cuts on Milo's arm, and Hubicka's whispers to Viktoria propositioning her to sleep with young Milos and teach him a thing or two about sex. She agrees and she asks Milos if she can take a  nap somewhere.

Milos shows her to the guestroom and when he starts to leave, she tells him she wants him to stay.  He bows out, but Hubicka pushes him back inside the room and closes the door. Viktoria introduces herself as a German circus artist before the war. Milo bluntly says, "I'm Milos Hrma, I've tried to commit suicide because apparently I'm suffering from premature ejaculation, but that's really not so, even though all the time I just can't do a thing, but I'm a real man." Viktoria starts to brush Milo's hair and she asks him what he is thinking about. Milo says, "Of football. Doctor Brabec told me to think of football." Viktoria covers his mouth to quite him and tells Milo to shut off the light.

In the morning, the station-master is sure that it was Hubicka that ripped the guestroom couch again. He looks at the man outside who has his back turned to him, as it is this time revealed to be Milos who is out there whistling and looking contented. Hubicka tells Milos that the train will be coming through their station in about a half hour and Milos feels like a new man saying to Hubicka, "I've never been so calm as I am today. I cut myself off from the past entirely. Just like that."

But suddenly Councilor Zednicek arrives with the disciplinary commission including Zedena and her furious mother. Suddenly the station master comes into the room as he is covered with bird feathers and poop.  One of the members of the commission asks him if he is the guy who really wants to be the railroad inspector. Councilor Zednicek is upset that he has to preside over a ridiculous hearing as this and he vents his disgust with this inqury by saying, "Czechs are nothing more than laughing animals."

Suddenly the enemy train is arriving and Hubicka cannot attend to it because of the committee hearing. Milos, now a new and confident man, decides to take matters in his own hands since Hubicka can no longer do so. As the train is arriving Milos takes the explosive and climbs up to be on top of  the signaling device. As the train passes through, Milos tosses the bomb onto the tarp of a flat bed car rolling by, as a guard on the train sees Milos up on the signal device and shoots him with his automatic weapon. Milos is instantly killed and falls on top one of the train cars.

When Masa starts looking for Milos a sudden blast goes off and ignites other blasts. Masa is blown back a few steps as the wind and concussion hit her and Hubicka laughs hystrically at the explosion as a huge black cloud descends over the station.

 

CZECHOSLAVAK NEW WAVE

The Czechoslovak New Wave (also incorrectly Czech New Wave) is a term used for the early films of 1960s Czech directors Miloš Forman, Vira Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Jirí Menzel,and Slovak directors Ján Kadar and many others. The quality and openness of the films led the genre to be called the Czechoslovak film miracle.

The Czechoslovak New Wave was an artistic movement in cinema which evolved out of the earlier Devetsil movement of the thirties. Disgruntled with the communist regime that had taken over in Czechoslovakia in 1948, students of the Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (also known as FAMU) became the dissenters of their time. Their objective in making films was "to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all."

Trademarks of the movement are long unscripted dialogues, dark and absurd humour, and the casting of non-professional actors. The films touched on themes which for earlier film makers in the communist countries had rarely managed to avoid the objections of the censor, such as the misguided youths of Czechoslovak society portrayed in Miloš Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965).

The Czechoslovak New Wave differed from the French New Wave in that it usually held stronger narratives, and as these directors were the children of a nationalized film industry, they had greater access to studios and state funding. They also tended to present films taken from Czech literature. At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers Union in 1967, Milan Kundera himself described this wave of national cinema as an important part of the history of Czechoslovak literature. Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1967), another major film of the era, remains a cult film more than four decades after its release.

As Alexander Dubcek came to power over the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia with plans to present "socialism with a human face" through reform and liberalization (a brief period known as the Prague Spring), the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies invaded to snuff out reform. The movement came to an abrupt end and Miloš Forman and Jan N?mec fled the country, while those who remained faced censorship of their work.

The majority of films shot during the New Wave were Czech-language as opposed to Slovak. Many directors came from the prestigious FAMU, located in Prague, while the state-run Barrandov Studios were located just on the outskirts of Prague. Some prominent Czech directors included Miloš Forman, who directed The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde during this time, Vera Chytilová who is best known for her film Daisies, and Jirí Menzel, whose film Closely Watched Trains (1966) won an academy award for best foreign language film.

The Shop on Main Street (1965) directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos won the academy award for best foreign language film in 1966. It takes place in Slovakia during World War II and tells the story of a poor Slovak man named Anton "Tono" Brtko who is given a job by the local fascist regime to be the "Aryan owner" of a button shop run by an elderly Jewish woman.

 

ANALYZE

In the late Sixties, when Czechoslovakian films burst upon the West, they seemed something of a miracle. They were small in scale. They were typically about ordinary, unglamorous people, who were generally regarded with a humorous and humane eye. They were also different in tone from other national cinemas that had earlier caught our attention—Italian Neo-Realism, for example, or the French New Wave.  There was a wryness about them, a gently stated sense of the absurd, that reminded us that the Czech national epic was—uniquely—a comic one, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk.

We were frequently told that Svejk’s sly subversions of the warrior mentality represented the best that a small, geopolitically unfavored nation could offer in the way of resistance to its surrounding bullies, and we were glad to see that the work of a new generation of filmmakers—their attitudes formed during the Nazi Occupation of World War II, sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period—confirmed the novel’s continuing relevance. The portrait of Czechoslovakia we pieced together from its films of the 1960s was of what we might now call a slacker nirvana, a place where private problems always took precedence over public issues, where ideological pomp was ever subverted by the imp of the perverse.

There was something delightfully casual about the manner of these films, too. Loosely structured, often shot in the streets and on provincial back roads, frequently acted by amateurs, their lack of formality seemed all the more remarkable since they were, after all, the products of an Iron Curtain country. Perhaps its rulers were not as sternly censorious as those of the other Middle European Stalinist regimes, but still…Prague Spring or not, Dubcek or not, we wondered how the chief figures of this renaissance—Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jirí Menzel, all the other graduates of FAMU, the famous state film school—got away with it. Mostly, though, we were simply grateful and welcoming when, at roughly the same historical moment, Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, Passer’s Intimate Lighting, and Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains struck us with gentle, insinuating force.

None was more successful in the United States than Menzel’s marvelous film. Even cranky John Simon thought it was “unique, indebted ultimately only to [Menzel’s] individual genius”—and his opinion was echoed by every major American reviewer. It went on to gain the fond regard of sophisticated audiences, such modest, but meaningful, commercial success as their patronage could grant an “art house” movie, and the Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film of 1967.

We always return to such widely hailed and greatly beloved films with trepidation, so often is our initial enthusiasm betrayed by the passing years. We wonder, especially with films that are so immediately adorable, if we were taken prisoner by people carrying false papers, whispering too-sweet nothings in our ears. That’s not the case with Closely Watched Trains.  If anything, it seems to me more powerful—certainly more poignant—now than it did when it first appeared some 34 years ago.

I think we were all somewhat misled by the film back then. A lot of us, Simon included, treated the end of the film as no more than a coup de theatre, a sudden lurch toward seriousness that the director and the writer (novelist Bohumil Hrabal) somehow pull off without spoiling the film’s overall sense of absurdist fun.

There’s some truth in that argument. But what most powerfully struck me when I returned to the movie was how integral to the movie that ending is, how carefully it all along prepares us for its conclusion. Yes, it is a surprise at first glance. But on second thought it appears to be utterly inevitable. And utterly right. What’s most clever about the movie is the canny way Menzel and Hrabal deceive us, lead us into believing, right up to the end, that their aim is nothing more than a sort of chucklesome and off-hand geniality.

An apt alternative title for the movie might be Closely Packed Frames; despite its relatively short running time, and despite the fact that it rarely strays beyond a sleepy, small-town railway station, it is rich in character and comic incident. Given the modest volume of its traffic, each and every member of the station’s staff has plenty of time to pursue his or her interests, all of them irrelevant to the great drama—World War II—that is proceeding just up the tracks from them. The stationmaster and his wife devote most of their energy to raising pigeons, geese and rabbits in the back yard. Hubicka, the train dispatcher, has a feckless air about him, which belies his success as a womanizer (his rubber-stamping seduction method makes for one of the most original sequences in all of movie history). Passing through from time to time are the imperious local countess, the outraged mother of the seduced telegrapher, and some Nazi soldiers intent on conquering a carload of nurses whose train has been sidetracked near the station.  The most significant of the station’s visitors is the clueless Quisling, Councilor Zednicek (played with a sort of weary menace by Vlastimil Brodsky), who is in charge of making the trains—especially the “closely watched” ones (those carrying supplies to the German army) run on time. He always has a map with him, and uses it to eagerly demonstrate the strategic brilliance of the latest German retreat. He is, of course, treated with contempt from the gang at the station. Passionate ideologues are, for them, figures not of fun, but of puzzled bemusement.

The film’s central figure, Trainee Milos Herma (Vaclav Neckar), is primarily the passive observer of their little symphony of self-absorption, searching it for the clues that might help him to become a successful adult. This is not a status that we, watching him watching them, have much confidence that he will attain. If the film can be said to have a through line, it derives from Milos’ battle with impotence, which takes the form, in his case, of premature ejaculation, and drives him to a typically inept suicide attempt. He is made a man, in more ways than one by dispatcher Hubicka, who is not as feckless as he pretends to be. He conspires with Victoria Freie (Nada Urbankov) to (A) have explosives delivered to the station so a “closely watched” train can be blown up and to (B) have the mature, pretty Freie make a man of the tremulous Milos. After so many years of vulnerability, he achieves, overnight, a new sense of invulnerability. Which leads him to heroic martyrdom, which Menzel shoots in an almost casual manner—which, as a result, is all the more powerful in its impact.

Just before that final burst of well-staged action occurs, Councilor Zednicek appears trackside to vent his disgust with the ridiculous hearing over which he has just presided. He’s a busy man. And these Czechs are, he says, nothing more than “laughing animals.” Well, Hubicka does laugh. But it is a laugh of triumph, of unlikely victory. It’s a reminder that any kind of animal, especially the human animal, can be dangerous when tormented or wronged or simply not taken seriously enough.  Most important, this concluding sequence turns the entire movie into a metaphor for Czechoslovakia itself. It says that pleasant, pleasure-loving little country, so often occupied, so often preoccupied by its own survivor’s Svejk-ishness, is more dangerous than it looks. It is, after all, the country that assassinated Heydrich in World War II and endured the reprisal for that act at Lidice. It is also the country that, not a year after Closely Watched Trains was released, endured a terrible punishment for its cheekiness, its ironic-satiric spirit—Soviet tanks in Wenceslas Square, the re-imposition of the Iron Curtain mentality on its free and easy spirit.

Of the great figures of the Czech movie renaissance, only Menzel stayed on in Prague. He continued working as an actor and director on the Prague stage, but was obliged to denounce the “errors” of the Czech New Wave before being allowed to return to the cinema. Of the many features that he made after Closely Watched Trains, only a handful achieved (very limited) distribution in the West—some only after long delays imposed by the Stalinoid cultural bureaucracy.

It seems that Menzel is one of the many victims of 20th Century megapolitics, yet another artist on whose art the difficult business of surviving in a totalitarian society imposed too much of a distorting strain. The descriptions one reads of his many unseen works sound so graceful, so original. We can only hope for the opportunity to one day see those films, to be in touch with the full career of this most insinuating and ingratiating filmmaker. In the meantime, we are lucky to have Closely Watched Trains, a film that remains as fresh and potent as it was when we first saw it so many years ago, a film that continues to reward many a close re-watching.

-Richard Schickel

Throughout the world of Closely Watched Trains director Jiri Menzel portrays a Czechoslovakia obsessed with sex. Even war which brings itself right to their front door, is only a minor inconvenience to its character's and their sexual objectives and conquests. There is even a moment in the film where a bomb destroys a photography studio building and the owner wakes up and laughs hysterically to it, as it surprisingly has little impact on any of its characters who were involved in the blast. Right after that sequence, the story continues as if nothing major has happened and moves right into Milos suicide attempt. In the comic absurdity of Closely Watched Trains the Czechoslovakian town is portrayed as a remote and boring railroad where nothing really much happens besides for the passings of trains, and so the horror of not being able to sexually satisfy your partner probably is much more troubling than the horrors of war. And yet, the character's don't act completely oblivious to the whole thing, because when the resistance does asks for their help, they will quickly agree to it, even if that means blowing up one of their own closely watched trains.

Closely Watched Trains is simply a movie about masculine innocence, as it is less about the war that the characters are surrounded by, and more about the main character of Milos finally becoming a man. Milos is a naive, timid and sexually inexperienced boy who seems completely terrified, or naively oblivious to the people and the world around him. Milos is no Hamlet, nor was he meant to be; as he quickly summarizes his families history right in the beginning of the film, explaining how his grandfather was killed while trying to hypnotize the German army into retreating, and his father retired at the age of 46 and sleeps on the sofa all day. Milos happily takes the trainman's job, since all he will have to do is stand on the platform and kill time. And yet Milos so desperately wants to become a man and when he fails on his first sexual attempt, he automatically believes it is the end of the world and so decides to head to a bordello, not to employ a prostitute but to attempt suicide. His doctor informs him that he had premature ejaculation which is a symptom that occurs when being 'too healthy'. He is then told to practice with older women and in the mean time think of other things like football. After asking almost everyone he encounters, (including a priest) he finally is given a woman, and when the next morning arrives, Milos emerges as a new man, self-confident, assured, and ready to tackle any obstacle that is asked of him.

Closely 3And yet it isn't necessarily Milos who only thinks of sex, as it seems as most of the cast virtually does. You have Hubicka who is the train-station Casonova, a womanizer who seems to make it a normal ritual to routinely bring a new girl back into the train-station guest room continuously making fresh new tears into the station master's precious Austrian sofa. His sexual conquests eventually get him in trouble with Zedena the stations telegraphist, (In one of the greatest moments in the film he delightfully rubber stamps her all over her legs, thighs, and her buttocks). After her mother discovers the stamp markings all over her daughter's body she furiously decides to take the matter to the superiors. The stationmaster has a kind wife but is extremely envious of Hubicka's sexual conquests and seems to continuously vent his jealous outbursts by shouting out biblical plagues and of Armageddons. The station master for the most part seems to be a friendly and lovable individual whose only exciting moments in his dull life are him and his wives devotion in raising pigeons, geese and rabbits, and of him hoping he will one day be promoted Chief Inspector of the railway. Passing through the story from time to time are the imperious local countess who even entrances the young Hubicka, some Nazi soldiers intent on conquering a carload of nurses whose train has been sidetracked near the station, the lively and spontaneous Masa who takes a great interest in Milos, her crude and somewhat creepy uncle who owns a photography studio, and Viktoria Freie who not only reveals to be a resistance fighter against the Nazi's, but is understanding enough to help assist young Milos into losing his virginity. The most fascinating character in the story is the clueless Quisling, Councilor Zednicek who believes in obedience, tradition, and honor, all the while being in charge of making the trains especially the “closely watched” ones run on time. When Closely Watched Trains was released it became a commercial success and the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as critics praised the film with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling Closely Watched Trains "as expert and moving in its way as was Jan Kadar's and Elmar Klos's The Shop on Main Street or Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde, two other recent films from Czechoslovakia." Crowther wrote: "What it appears Mr. Menzel is aiming at all through his film is just a wonderfully sly, sardonic picture of the embarrassments of a youth coming of age in a peculiarly innocent yet worldly provincial environment...The charm of his film is in the quietness and slyness of his earthy comedy, the wonderful finesse of understatements, the wise and humorous understanding of primal sex. And it is in the brilliance with which he counterpoints the casual affairs of his country characters with the realness, the urgency and significance of those passing trains." Variety's reviewer wrote: "The 28-year-old Jiri Menzel registers a remarkable directorial debut. His sense for witty situations is as impressive as his adroit handling of the players. A special word of praise must go to Bohumi Hrabal, the creator of the literary original; the many amusing gags and imaginative situations are primarily his. The cast is composed of wonderful types down the line." What makes Menzel's Closely Watched Trains even more extraordinary and poignant than on first viewing, is how integral and inevitable the tragic ending of the film is. What's extremely clever about the film is how brilliantly Menzel deceives its audience into believing that the film is nothing more than a sly and subtle sexual comedy. The losing of Milo's virginity is what ultimately will seal Milos fate for the rest of the story. His sudden rise of confidence and new sense of invulnerability will ultimately make him feel much more masculine and invincible, which will have the youngster believe he can take on any obstacle that is asked of him. Closely Watched Trains is a often funny, dramatic, and tragic portrayal on youth, and the coming of age sex story. The sly wry charm of its humor, continues right down to the films tragic last frame, as its ironic ending will turn Milos into a hero of his own people and a courageous martyr; even if he'll never know what he initially had died for.

 

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