Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966) is probably the best-known film (though probably not the best) from the Czech New Wave of the early 1960s. (It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968). It is the first of five Czech New Wave films (actually, four Czech and one Slovak) that I am showing in my Eastern European Film class this semester.
Closely Watched Trains is a film of many little virtues. With an emphasis on the “little,” as this is a film which eschews larger ambitions, much as its young protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar) does — he tells us that he is glad to work as a train dispatcher at the local station, because he is basically lazy, and this job is one that doesn’t demand too much of him. The film is set during World War II — a politically safe subject to choose in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. But it is much more a coming-of-age film than a war-and-heroism one, even though this latter is what it becomes at the end. Aside from doing as little work as possible, Milos is most concerned with losing his virginity — or overcoming the condition of “premature ejaculation” that has thus far prevented him from losing it. In his despair over this, he even tries to commit suicide at one point, though the film doesn’t take this happening very seriously.
So, we have a film with quirky, singular characters, each of whom has his (generally it’s a he) own little obsessions; with finely observed details, organized around the slow and sleepy pace of provincial life; with an abundant, but wry and very dry, humor; with an empathetic but somewhat distanced point of view; and with a bittersweet tone. My description comes very close to being a cliche: both of a certain type of unambitious but much-beloved art film, and of an alleged Czech sensibility. What then, distinguishes Closely Watched Trains in particular? (aside from the fact that it more or less set the pattern for what I am calling a cliche).
Closely Watched Trains has antecedents, of course, both in Czech literature — Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, as well as the novel by Bohumil Hrabal on which the film is based — and in cinema — I sense the presence here of Francois Truffaut’s early work. But it feels fresh nonetheless. The question is why. I notice that both Richard Schickel’s notes for the Criterion Collection’s DVD of the film, and Tom Keogh’s notes on the film at Amazon both approach the film by way of expressing a certain degree of (rhetorical) surprise at how well it holds up after all these years (and all the imitations).
I think the power of the film has a lot to do with its cinematography, and its pacing — both of which are far less laid-back and casual than they might at first appear to be. (Of course, the appearance of casualness actually requires quite a lot of difficult planning and work on the part of the filmmaker). As was the tendency for the Czech New Wave (as for the French New Wave a few years earlier), Menzel does not interested in elaborately setting up the film’s plot events and situations: he just plunks us into the middle of them. Also, he makes us infer motivation and mood from behavior, and from visual and sonic set-ups, rather than bringing us more directly into the minds of the characters. Once past the opening titles, the film begins with Milos’ first-person voiceover narration — but this is quickly dropped, and does not reappear later in the film. There are almost no close-ups, and no elaborate speeches or other indications of the characters’ motivations for doing what they do. Camera angles are continually varying, which has the effect of suggesting variation and change even when not much is happening, and which generally works against sort of deep identification with the characters (not that ti is “alienating,” but just that it denies us the sense of repetition which is necessary in order for identifications to form). Non-diegetic music is used sparingly, and then mostly just for ironic contrast (like the somewhat comic martial music that comes up whenever the local Nazi boss makes a visit).
All of this makes for a film that is more concerned with sensation and observation than with affect. And thus for a film that privileges wry humor and sympathetic distance, rather than the far more frequent cinematic mechanism of hysterical overidentification (I am using this latter phrase in a purely descriptive, rather than pejorative, sense). I am tempted to say that Closely Watched Trains is something like an inverted Rube Goldberg machine. That is to say, in this film the chains of causal relations are as oblique and surprising as they are in Rube Goldberg machines — it is always a question of external relations. But whereas Rube Goldberg machines rely on an absurdly hyperbolic and methodical, even paranoid, overorganization, Menzel’s film makes its (equally contingent and absurd) associative links through subjective states of drift and inattention. The film’s humor comes from its incongruities, but the narrative moves forward through incongruities as well. There is a series of connections, but these connections unfold at seeming random, sort of like a Rube Goldberg machine in slow motion.
Let me give an example, even at risk of both giving away the plot, and of making that plot sound convoluted and “difficult,” when in fact it is quite slack and laid-back, and altogether clear and easy to follow. Milos, after being rescued from his suicide attempt, goes around asking everyone, without any sense of propriety or embarrassment, for help and advice with his ejaculation problem. (This utter lack of shame or self-consciousness is part of what makes Milos, and the film in general, so charming and endearing). One of the people he asks is the stationmaster’s wife — as he approaches her, she is sitting calmly, and
preparing a goose for the cookpot by smoothing or shaving (I wasn’t quite sure) force-feeding a duck, making the food go down by stroking its long neck — in what, in this context, cannot help but appear as a phallic gesture. The promise of this gesture is taken up a few scenes later, when one of Milos’ superiors, the womanizer Hubicka (Josef Somr) sets him up with an “experienced” slightly older woman, who does initiate him into sexuality with an attention to his needs such as that which the scene with the goose sort of implied. But this woman is a resistance fighter, delivering to Hubicka the bomb to blow up a German train; and it’s because Hubicka is made the subject of a (more ridiculous than scary) inquest by the Nazis on account of his womanizing activities (he is accused of offending the dignity of the State by stamping the official bureaucratic ink stamps of the train office on a young lady’s posterior) that Milos becomes the one who actually has to throw the bomb onto the train — which is what leads, at the end of the film, to his almost accidental death (he is shot by a Nazi soldier who acts more on principle — kill any of the locals who might be seen as stepping out of line — than by any awareness of the bomb — which the soldier has not seen, and which does successfully destroy the train a few seconds later).
In this way, Milos’ death at the end of Closely Watched Trains — and his thereby becoming, quite unintentionally, a hero of the Resistance — unfolds with exactly the same logic, and the same sort of weightlessness, as all of the comic incidents throughout the film. And this is Menzel’s way of describing the odd, and thoroughly contingent, ways that individual lives get inscribed into History. Throughout the film, the Nazi occupation is described as a burden, but nothing more — the employees at the train station have to pay obeisance, and pay attention, when the local Nazi little tyrant comes around, but as soon as he leaves, they go back to acting as they always did, ignoring whatever orders and exhortations they have received. Milos’ death reminds us that such a lackadaisical attitude does not provide any sort of exemption from the horrors of war and tyranny; but it does suggest (once again) that these relations are, in principle, external ones rather than innerly determining ones — however mortal they may turn out to be in practice. And that is how Menzel clears away a sort of free space, even amidst the horrors and traumas of 20th century history. Closely Watched Trains does skirt close to the edge of a certain cliche. as I suggested earlier (and to a postmodern taste, “charm” is far more troubling than any sort of sleaziness or exploitation or even frank stupidity could be), but it manages to remain deftly on its razor’s edge through its gaps and silences, its comic digressions, and its oblique meditation on history and contingency.