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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 is a film critic for Time. His latest book, Matinee Idylls, which was named a New York Times Notable Book, has recently been reprinted in paperback.