Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

(1966; dir: Jiří Menzel; language: Czech, German; original title: Ostře sledované vlaky – also released in English as Closely Watched Trains)

Closely Observed Trains is based on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel of the same name, and follows the awakening of Miloš (Václav Neckář), a young man who starts work at a provincial railway station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Coming from a family famous for slackers, and more or less proud of it, Miloš starts training as a signalman at the village railway station – his dream job with regard to the minimal effort involved. There he meets the station-master (Vladimír Valenta), a married (and sexually frustrated) pigeon-enthusiast who dreams of promotion, and the womanizing train dispatcher Hubička (Josef Somr). He also has ample chance to exchange longing glances and near kisses with the attractively pant-suited young conductor Máša (Jitka Bendová). While Miloš deals with raging hormones and sexual performance anxiety, the Nazi occupation causes trouble behind the scenes, until a sexy German resistance agent awakens Miloš in more ways than one. As usual, spoilers follow.

I chose Closely Observed Trains as it is probably the most internationally well-known and loved Czech film ever, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Produced in then Czechoslovakia, the film is considered a classic of the Czech New Wave.

On one level the film is simply an amusing coming-of-age comedy with over-the-top male characters and a parade of objectified women (although I did approve of all the women in gorgeous 1940s trousers). But the real substance of the film is the juxtaposition of the parochial and often ridiculous personal obsessions of the main characters with the background Nazi occupation and its associated horrors. The film cleverly draws parallels between the two, often visually, to remind the viewer that there are more devastating forces at work in its protagonist’s lives than premature ejaculation and professional or sexual frustration.

Commentary seems to suggest that this aspect of the film is very Czech; that the very disregard in which the central characters hold the Nazi occupation works as a form of subversion. The subversive strength of this non-response can be seen in a scene where the officious Quisling inspector is effectively deflated by the central characters’ total lack of interest in his enthusiasm for the Nazis. In Richard Schickel’s essay for the Criterion collection, he relates Closely Observed Trains to the Czech national epic – Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk:

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.

And yet, this subtle resistance doesn’t seem to be enough; a scene in the middle of the film where Miloš is held at gunpoint by Nazis inserts a note of seriousness – forcing both Miloš and the viewer to remember the proximity and fatal consequences of the Nazi war machine. This, of course, foreshadows Miloš’s sudden and violent end – a consequence of taking action beyond subtle subversion?

What I thought the film did particularly well was the use of visual allusions to send up that which Nazism, and the Soviet occupation under which the film was produced, held dear – namely, authoritarianism and control through bureaucracy. Recurrent visual gags – including the famous scene where Hubička uses the station’s rubber stamps to seduce a nubile telegraphist, and the subsequent farce of a trial which distracts the inspector at a crucial moment – render ridiculous the Nazi propaganda and machinery that surrounds the characters, thus lessening some of its power. This is what Schickel refers to above as “ideological pomp… subverted by the imp of the perverse.” It is worth noting, too that the director paid for this satire – suffering blacklisting and censorship under the Soviet occupation soon after the release of the film.

While the visual dimensions of the film were witty and well-executed, particularly in their satire of bureaucracy and authority, I was less impressed by the narrative and the thematic connection it made between male sexual virility and political action. Miloš is allegedly impotent sexually, and definitely impotent politically, until resistance agent Viktoria Freie (Naďa Urbánková) turns up for one scene to deliver a bomb and, apparently inevitably, a fuck. Although we are informed that she is a resistance agent, and also – for added titillation – a circus performer, Viktoria is more of a cardboard cutout than any Bond-girl, serving only as a sexual tool to help the protagonist “man up”. Even Miloš’s would-be girlfriend, the “nice-girl” Máša, could as easily be a figment of Miloš’s torrid imagination as we never see her doing anything not related to wooing (and at the end, mourning) Miloš. This film was definitely a man’s story all the way, with the female characters neatly divided into willing sex objects or humorously past-it mother types.

Another aspect of the film that I reacted to is the film’s treatment of animal cruelty. References to and depictions of animal cruelty turned up at a few points throughout the film – and unsettlingly I’m not sure if the onscreen stuff is simulated or real (films should really carry content warnings for this kind of thing). Apparently the original novel is damning in its critique of animal abuse, but if this is the case it doesn’t translate to the film, or at least not in any way that made sense to me. The film’s characters speak with disgust about the German animal transports and the terrible abuses carried out on livestock; is this a reference to the Nazi transportation of Jews, Slavs, Romani and other victims of the Holocaust? Perhaps. But what does it mean then when we see in lingering close-up the station-master and his wife caring for the animals they raise, but also striking rabbits to death? Something about the ease with which the authorities can kill seemingly indiscriminately? Or, in a scene where Miloš is clumsily propositioning the station-master’s wife, should her stroking of a goose’s neck to force-feed it be read as sexual or violent, or both? The pieces didn’t quite add up for me, and I found them more jarring than meaningful.

In sum, Closely Watched Trains was a fun and visually clever send-up of authoritarianism with a distinctly Czech flavour and a sting in the tail. However, I personally found it rather distastefully sexist and a bit thematically muddled, particularly with regard to its treatment of animal abuse.

Shoutout: for those who enjoy surrealism I cannot recommend enough the work of Czech film-maker Jan Švankmajer. His films are not only visually innovative and fascinating, but they usually have something to say as well. With a body of work including short and full-length films going back to the 60s, he is well worth a look at.

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