Obviously I love my girlfriend for many reasons, some even totally unrelated to film. The reason in particular I am writing this piece is because of a simple gesture on behalf of her towards me which I found sweet and touching. When out shopping the other day she saw a DVD that she thought I would be interested in and bought it for me. It was a film that she had not heard of, but she grabbed it for me to watch. Someone buying a DVD may not sound that amazing, but it is nice to know that someone is thinking of you, and for her to buy me something for no real reason at all made me feel good.
But enough of all that, let’s talk about a movie. The film that my girlfriend bought for me was Closely Watched Trains (1967 – It appears there is conjecture over the title’s translation. This is how it is in the 1001 book, my DVD version supplants the word ‘observed’ for ‘watched’). The film is set in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia toward the end of WWII. Milos is a young man starting his first day at work at a train station. He is excited by this bureaucratic position, him putting his hat on is shot in a borderline lustful slow-mo shot. Throughout almost all of the film, his hat remains on at all times, as a physical symbol of his attachment to his job, a certain inescapability to his responsibilities. However Milos hopes to carry on the family tradition. Not one of hard work and success in the work place. Rather, Milos is the latest in a long line of slackers, who take pride in their ability to do very little work, collect an early pension and get through life with a minimum of effort. This is Milos’ aim in life. His other aim is to lose his virginity and much of the film is concerned with this sexual journey. The film is also a train movie. What is it about trains and film? Running the gamut from Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), to Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010) in both vintage and tone, train films have been an ever-present in cinema history. Perhaps there is a sense of the train being an iconic invention for a certain age, just as cinema is and trains also facilitated such dynamism in human movement, dynamism perhaps being a hallmark that film also possesses.
The film drew me in early on, the black and white photography is fresh, crisp and unembellished. It is really quite a joyous, funny film, especially early on in the piece, with humorous double entendres about “shaft bars’ etcetera abounding. I was not expecting a comedy. The cinematography overall seems very modern, encompassing techniques such as the editing together of still photographs to mesmerising effect. There is also a distinctly self-aware voiceover that accompanies the early parts of the film. Closely Observed Trains is a sharp yet subtle satire. It satirises institutions such as the transport system and the mindless minutiae of bureaucracy is also gently mocked. After my recent viewing of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), it appears that this exploration and satirical view of bureaucracy is another core concern of films throughout the ages, or it’s just that my professional life makes me more attuned to these pot-shots than others. In addition to bureaucracy, the other target of much of the film’s satire is the occupying Germans. The Germans, whilst partially menacing, are also hilariously deluded about their ‘masterful’ tactical withdrawals as they lose the war.
The atmosphere of the film is concocted by the ever-presence of two things – trains and sexually provocative women. In regard to the former, the film joins the tradition of train films already mentioned. They are also a constant reminder of the work that the men must still occasionally attend to and they also bear mysterious gifts each time they arrive at the station. A train arriving at the station could come bearing a hot work colleague, or equally as likely a carriage load of swaggering, sneering German soldiers. A train arriving in the station brings a sense of duty and wariness. On a technical level, the director Jiri Menzel also utilises trains as a linkage between shots. He often cuts from one shot, to a train, to another shot illustrating a change in the geographic or temporal location.
Sexually provocative women are another constant, and Milos revels in lusting after them and their alluring physical charms. He is egged on by a horny colleague who attempts to make Milos something of a sexual protégé in his own image. Despite this Milos, with his natural shyness, is somewhat more innocent in his sexual yearning than the older man who considers himself quit the stud. Vaclav Neckar who plays Milos, has the perfect physical presence to convey this innocent, youthful yearning. In some ways his look and mannerisms are a little reminiscent of Jacques Tati but with more of a forlorn, almost timid edge. There is depth here, as to why exactly Milos so wants to lose his virginity. Is it because he desires a deeper connection with the women who surround him? Or for the sheer reason of physical pleasure? Or is it just because that is what society has told him he should be endlessly attempting to do, in much the same way as contemporary society tells young men the same thing? Whilst a lot of this film is concerned with a quest of sexual enlightenment, American Pie (1999) it is not. The film is concerned with becoming a man, and exploring how intrinsic sex is to manhood. For some reason Milos’ sexual adventures are always interrupted, becoming sexual misadventures. One particular scene brilliantly articulates the awkwardness and hurt as well as the intimidation factor of youthful sexual encounters. The words “premature ejaculation” are repeated endlessly throughout the second half of the film, almost as a taunt to Milos and what he is striving desperately for. In a strange way I think that the film explores the theme of sex in a similar manner to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Both consider the far too great importance placed upon sex both by individuals and society. Here, MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT, it leads to Milos attempting suicide in a heartbreaking and surprising scene. I was not expecting this plot twist at all, and it is beautifully rendered. It makes the film a whole lot more human, but this shift in narrative direction also causes the film to move away from the light touch that it had been so successfully trading in up until this point.
As the film shifts tonally, for me it also became increasingly incomprehensible. Whilst a lot of it is universal, I did get a sense that due to the film being made in both a different culture and era, that much of it was going over my head. Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every film should be sanitised in order to be better understood by the Western audience such as that I represent. But it did make the second half a little less enjoyable for me. The film though, does build to a crushing, tragic ending which was a closing reminder of the power of the film and the connection to the characters that the first, lighter half had engendered.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs