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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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

(2006; dir: Jasmila Žbanić; language: Bosnian; English titles: Grbavica: Land of My Dreams (US), Esma’s Secret: Grbavica (UK); co-production with Austria, Croatia, and Germany).

Grbavica is set about a decade after the horrific Bosnian War in the 1990s, and focuses on single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanović) and her 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijović). Against the backdrop of a traumatised city and population, the film slowly unveils Esma’s personal trauma as the seemingly banal issue of a costly school-trip for Sara forces revelations that Esma would rather keep to herself. I should say now that it is difficult for me to say anything about this film without giving away “spoilers”, but as Esma’s secret is signaled to the viewer from the very first scene, and as the film isn’t a salacious “twist ending” thriller but rather a portrait of trauma, I don’t think this matters a whole lot. But, just a heads up anyway. I chose this film as a well-received Bosnian film (it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), and one that addresses an issue from Bosnia’s recent past that is still devastatingly significant today. I also thought it was high time to include some women-centred films on this blog (I think this is even the first one I’ve reviewed here that passes the Bechdel test), so I chose Grbavica over the Palme D’Or-winning When Father was Away on Business (1985 – also starring Mirjana Karanović), which I would also like to see.

Grbavica is a film driven by the psychological and emotional situation of its protagonists, rather than plot. The relationship between Esma and her daughter becomes increasingly strained when an expensive school trip is planned, and the poor and overworked Esma is unable to come up with the money. Sara is initially not concerned, because it is announced that children of war martyrs are allowed to travel for free; Sara has been told by her mother that her father was a martyr killed in the war, and she demands from Esma the necessary certificate. Esma, however, offers only increasingly shaky excuses, and secretly tries to find the money to pay for the trip. Eventually Esma is forced to admit to Sara that Sara’s father was not a Bosniak martyr but in fact one of the many Serbian soldiers that gang-raped her daily at an internment camp during the war. (At this point I wanted to reach through the television and shake the school staff and say that if the kids of Bosniak martyr fathers get a free place on the school trip then the kids of Bosniak rape survivors should too! Why are only the men heroes?) This admission brings some sort of reconciliation between the two, but not exactly a happy ending.

I read a couple of reviews that called it predictable and/or slow, and I can’t help but feel that they are missing the point. Yes, the central plot device of the school trip and the required certificate is banal and could even be deemed contrived – but that isn’t the point of the film, and neither is the revelation of Esma’s “secret”. Viewers wanting melodrama or titillation should not watch this film. Instead it’s a study in trauma, which is somewhat drawn out and banal in that it is carried with people throughout their lives. The whole point of the film is the difficulty of picking up the pieces of a “normal” life after going through hell, and when the reminders of that hell are all around you, and physically manifested in your daughter.

One of the things I really admired the film for was its focus on the lingering trauma of the war, rather than attempting to dramatise the war itself. There are no sensationalised flashbacks depicting rape or war, everything is told through Karanović’s gut-wrenching performance. The viewer sees Esma having panic attacks, struggling with depression, and freaking out when a mother-daughter pillow fight culminates with Sara pinning her down. Esma’s actions and reactions, and the state of the city itself tell the viewer more than enough. The fact that mass graves are still being dug up, that identifying the dead has become an arena where people forge new relationships, that children casually repeat the stories of how their parents died, tells the viewer more than enough about both the war and its lingering effects. Indeed, Grbavica shows us that war isn’t over when the fighting stops, its effects live on. What happens to a society where an entire generation is decimated, degraded, and traumatised? What happens to the new generation, how do they relate to their parents and the past?

But most importantly, the film focuses on the aftermath  of a specific aspect of the Bosnian war – the systemic mass rapes carried out by Bosnian Serb soldiers against between 20,000-50,000 women, primarily Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). This was a strategy of ethnic cleansing, intended to traumatise the population so much that they would be forced to flee and never return. Certainly, as Grbavica shows, many have done so for that or other reasons, and refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s are today scattered all over the world. But the film focuses on those who stay, even in Grbavica – one of the most heavily hit areas of Sarajevo. It deals with the new significance of ethnic divisions in Bosnia following the war and the mass rapes, and the difficult position of many of the children born to Bosniak women as a consequence of rape. The film also shows Esma’s conflict over her relationship with her daughter. While she is adamant that she loves Sara, and indeed works literally night and day to earn the money to send her daughter on the school trip Sara has her heart set on, it is difficult for Esma to shut out the memory of where Sara came from. Another key theme of the film is the difficulty of even beginning to heal after such an extensive trauma. The film suggests that being about to talk about one’s experiences is a vital first step, and that arenas to do so are needed. Although the women’s support centre is derided by Esma and some of the other women in the film, somewhat reasonably so, it is also in the end the place where Esma can safely unburden herself to an audience of women who have been through the same or similar things.

On the production-side, the film was also well done. The performances of the two lead actresses were great and the cinematography was haunting – buildings with bullet holes and crumbling post-war cityscapes that served as an eloquent physical expression of the film’s themes of a city and country struggling to construct a present and future while the harrowing past haunts its population. I was hooked from the opening sequence, which actually gave me the shivers: the camera pans over the faces of a group of women lying piled up together with their eyes closed on a richly patterned carpet. Unresponsive and still, they could be dead – a reminder of the scale of the horror in Bosnia, even if the film follow the story of only one woman, who opens her eyes when the camera lingers on her. I got the feeling that behind the closed eyes of each woman, there was a trauma – shared, but individual. The film could have chosen any of them – and even if the themes might have been the same, each woman’s life and experiences are to some extent a private burden to be borne. Fiction is a wonderful way of helping people come closer to an understanding of the unthinkable, but selecting one story can work to single it out – to ignore the others or ask it to stand in for them. This simple introductory sequence, and the scenes from the women’s centre, was a powerful indication that Esma’s trauma is not the only one.

The only part of the film I didn’t really enjoy was the confusing subplot involving some kind of criminal dealings between Esma’s shady night club boss and the guy that nearly became her boyfriend. Maybe I was just a bit tired, but I really couldn’t follow what was going on there, and I don’t really think it added anything to the film. Their scenes also felt like they belonged in a cliché mobster film, in stark contrast to the honesty and emotional complexity of the rest of the film. Another issue I had was to do with the translation rather than the film itself (I watched the Nordic region release with subtitles in Swedish): apparently the film’s script refers to the rape perpetrators as “Chetniks”, a derogatory term for Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, rather than “Serbs”, in order to avoid ascribing guilt to an entire ethnicity. This distinction was not preserved in the translation.

In sum, watching Grbavica, I learned about the Bosnian war and its effects in a very personal and emotive way; in a way that was more effective than simply reading historical accounts. The film also gave me a lot to think about more generally, in terms of rape as a weapon of war and the lingering effects of war (and rape). I am definitely keen to see some more of the director’s work.

Shoutout: Another well-received Bosnian film (Oscar-winning, in fact) which I have already seen also deals with the Bosnian War. No Man’s Land (2001) is grimly farcical parable of a meeting between a Bosnian Serb and a Bosniak in a trench between the opposing front lines, both wounded and trapped until dark. Things escalate when the UN and the international media get involved, with cynically predictable results. While not as nuanced or sensitive as Grbavica, and not as unique, it is also worth a watch.

Angola: Hollow City

(2004, dir: Maria João Ganga; language: Portuguese; original title: Na Cidade Vazia)

Hollow City is set in 1991, during the Angolan Civil War that had been raging since the 70s. The film follows 12-year-old N’Dala (Roldan Pinto João), who has just witnessed the murder of his parents and the destruction of his rural village Bié. Although traumatised, N’Dala is rescued along with some other children by a missionary nun and brought to the capital city, Luanda. There, he runs away and begins wandering the city, seeing its various sides and meeting diverse inhabitants, including the kindly fisherman Antonio, the fiery and selfish Rosita, an impulsive older boy Zé (Domingos Fernandes Fonesca), and Zé’s friendly but dangerous cousin Joka.

I chose Hollow City partly because it is one of the first Angolan feature films to be directed by a woman, and because I was intrigued by the intentions Ganga said she had for the film, namely to depict everyday life in Angola without sensationalising war:

N’Dala is an orphan and a refugee of war. He travels in a world devoid of prospects, living at the fast and reckless pace of survival… N’Dala’s story is fairly common in the everyday life of Angola and it would be too easy to fall into the sensationalism of war. Our good conscience, eased, will survive the gunshots, but N’Dala will not… As an Angolan woman I saw the day-to-day turbulence of Luanda, which, despite the recently-established peace, will continue to see for years to come, many children in its streets.

Watching the film, Ganga achieves this ambition through showing us the psychological violence of war, rather than action scenes. Throughout the film, the war is a threatening atmosphere, not totally stopping people’s everyday activities, but colouring them with fear and pessimism. As for N’Dala, his blurred and confused PTSD-flashbacks provide in many ways a more powerful idea of what it must actually be like to have lost your family through violence than if the viewer had simply seen them killed outright.

For me, another strength of the film was how it managed to take on what Ganga calls “the turbulence of Luanda”, exploring some of the more depressing sides of the city, without inviting any kind of patronising pity on the part of the viewer. Honest depictions of many of the problems facing African countries can easily play into popular European images of Africa as either inherently backward or irrevocably and unambiguously screwed up. It was one of the things that bugged me about Blood Diamond – the repeated phrase “TIA, this is Africa”, and the notion that the only way Africans can improve their lot is by leaving! Not only do these notions homogenise an entire continent, and the complex web of historic and contemporary causes and effects that shape the lives of its people today, they allow non-Africans to reduce these people to objects of suffering, rather than people who still, day after day, eat and sleep and make friends and meet challenges and solve problems and tell stories, etc. In Hollow City, however, the audience is guided by N’Dala – a charming, vulnerable, resourceful, loyal, daring, and strong-willed protagonist who leads a cast of other characters who each deal with life’s problems and pleasures in their own way. The viewer is presented with a city of landscapes and characters not so different from those to be found on other continents. In this way, the problems facing Angola are disassociated from the “This is Africa” narrative, and make room for a story that is fully human.

The film’s evocative cinematography made the most of the urban setting, to the extent that Luanda almost became a character in its own right. In contrast to films such as Algeria’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (reviewed last week), which gloried in pastoral motifs as a symbol of national identity, Hollow City confronts both the viewer and N’Dala with a confused jostle of environments and identities. N’Dala misses his village, and prefers to sleep on the beach in Luanda with the fisherman, surroundings that remind him more of home. But Bié is gone and there can be no return. In the city, soldiers are juxtaposed with school children, Christian saints with an Angolan sea goddess, lively parties with empty streets after curfew. It’s hard to know how everything fits together, or what people really believe. It’s hard for N’Dala to find his place there (in a heart-breaking insight into the sorrow of refugees, N’Dala is bent on ‘escaping’ back to his decimated village, believing it to be the only place he can reconnect with his parents’ souls). If Chronicle was trying to construct an Algerian national identity, Hollow City depicts the scramble of a urbanising country torn by civil war, with cities flooded by internally displaced people trying to cope with their trauma and sorrows and make a new life; a country exploding with possibilities and lacking in security.

While the film was excellent cinematically, the weaknesses of the film are in many ways the somewhat muddled script. Attempts to draw some kind of parallel between N’Dala and N’Gunga are confusing and ineffective, and occasional cutaways to the desperate search of the nun for runaway N’Dala are more distracting than anything else. Further, the end left me wondering what the film was actually saying, if anything. Without giving away too much, what begins as a lively adventure of the country boy in the big city (a feeling boosted by a decidedly jaunty soundtrack), gradually becomes more sinister – revealing perhaps the answer to N’Gunga’s question: “are people the same everywhere, thinking only of themselves?” And yet not all the people N’Dala meets are like that – the nun, the fisherman and especially his friend Zé all take pains to care for him. Or was the message that the war has destroyed the whole country – that Luanda is no safer for the internal refugees than the massacres they have fled from? Or is it just a portrait of a country in turmoil, shown through the eyes of one of its inhabitants?

As a final note, I will say that this film was fascinating for me personally, as I have (as of yet) never set foot upon the African continent. It was wonderful to get a rich glimpse of a living and breathing African city, in contrast to all the grass huts and refugee camps that a lot of Western media seems to insist are the only structures to be found below the Sahara. Knowing about the rapid urbanisation many African countries is one thing, but seeing it is another. It also really brought home the bizarreness of colonialism – hearing this European language, from a country that isn’t exactly prominent in today’s Europe, and seeing all this colonial architecture – somehow seeing it in a new place brings the wrongness of it home again.

Final verdict, a thoroughly enjoyable and involving film, which compensates for a somewhat flawed script with powerful cinematography, lively music, and above all a well-acted and charming protagonist.

Algeria: Chronicle of the Years of Fire

(1975, dir: Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; language: Arabic, French; original title: وقائع سنين الجمر or Chronique des Années de Braise)

Chronicle of the Years of Fire is an epic 177-minute film set in the lead-up to the Algerian War of Independence against colonial France. The film follows Ahmed, a peasant, through his frustrated attempts to make a life for himself in a country devastated by brutal colonisation, to being unwillingly conscripted into World War II on the side of France, to joining a resistance movement against the French colonial regime.The film focuses on the gulf between the drought- and famine-stricken Algerian peasants and the wealthy and sheltered French colonists, as well as the power of colonialism to divide and conquer.

In selecting this film, I was torn at first between this and Rachida, another highly-regarded Algerian film. While my desire to support the work of female directors was initially pushing me towards the latter, it being Easter I felt like giving a full-blown epic a go. Other points in Chronicle‘s favour were it being made in the 1970s, in contrast to many of the more modern films I’ve got lined up, and it being the only Arabic language film (or film from the African continent) to haven won the Palme d’Or. (Rachida remains on my to-watch list, however.)

The film certainly was epic – cast of hundreds, guns, horses, sabres, costumes, lingering wide shots of the forbidding and beautiful desert landscape – and yet like many older epic films the pace was quite slow. Over three hours (and 15 years in narrative time) the viewer sees Ahmed turn from an aimless peasant into a revolutionary leader. As well as allowing for this gradual and natural maturation (a metaphor for Algeria itself?), the slow pace allowed the repeated abuse from the French colonial system to build up for the viewer, at the same time as we watch the Algerians debate amongst themselves about what action to take. I liked how the barbarism of colonialism was portrayed as larger effects on the individual and society, rather than focussing too much on one particular French “baddy”. The typhoid outbreak was particularly gruesome, where French citizens were evacuated immediately and the rest of the Algerian city just left to sicken and die. But perhaps more interesting to me was the building up of the resistance movement, from a divided peasantry fighting over the few resources left to them by the colonisers to a full-blown revolutionary war. Certainly the take-home message, other than that violence begets violence and violence is needed to free oneself from violent oppression, seemed to be the need to reclaim and construct an Algerian identity separate from French control. These are not messages I necessarily agree with, but watching them build and unfold was an interesting insight into the history of a particularly bloody colonial occupation and war of independence, which can also some shed light on the mentality of occupied people today.

As an epic polemic, the film works well, I think. But the director’s use of archetypical, and predominantly male, characters made it harder for me to get into it. I’m the kind of viewer that likes watching people more than fight scenes, gorgeous landscapes, and rousing instrumental score (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy these things); so I didn’t personally feel very engaged with the film. The strong pastoral and domestic focus of the film and its cinematography especially made me want to see and hear more from the few women in the film, particularly as the hasty research I did about the Algerian war of independence suggests that around 11,000 women were involved as active participants in the resistance. To be honest it was the character of Miloud that kept me going with the film – a madman in the style of the Shakespearean fool, who guides the viewer with exposition and the other characters with the cutting truths that you’d have to be crazy to say out loud.

In sum, a landmark, well-constructed and epic film with a lot to say. It’s well worth seeing to get a small sense of the devastation caused by colonialism, and an introduction to a significant but under-discussed chapter in African and colonial history.