Closely Watched Trains  – A Clever and Allegorical Coming-of-Age Tale
Czech cinema had its luminous era in the 1960’s when young film-makers like Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Jan Kadar, Juraj Herz, Jan Nemec made those sweetly humane and timeless, satirical works. Those impactful movies portrayed the turbulence and destruction of Czech community during World War II and the subsequent Nazi Invasion. The sharply focused black-and-white cinema of Czechoslovakia also allegorically poked fun at 60’s puppet communist regime, installed by Soviet Union. However, the Czech film-makers’ unbridled artistic freedom was slashed off at the end of 1960’s, as the already present ‘Iron Curtains’ wholly encompassed their film industry. One of the important bittersweet fables of the era is Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” (1966). It seamlessly moves between comedy and melancholy without ever losing its humanistic touch (the movie won ‘Best Foreign Film’ Oscar).
The movie opens on an Nazi-occupied Czech town, where young Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) is looking forward to join as the apprentice train dispatcher. He is cloaked in a uniform and his mother places a hat on his head, which could be a symbolic indication that he should now totally submit himself to the cause of family and nation. It is vital for Milos to muck up the job because the previous generations of male in his family are work-shy in nature. In a sequence that might remind modern cinephile the works of Wes Andersen, we see Milos recounting the exploits and sad fate of his great-grandfather, grandfather and his father. Milos’ father, a former locomotive driver has taken early retirement and spends his day lying on the couch. The grandfather was a hypnotist, who tried to stop the parading German tanks from entering into Prague through hypnosis, but actually was flattened by the advancing tanks. So, it’s all in the hands of Milos to restore their family honor.
Milos knows the apprenticeship is a blessing, since many boys of his age are getting caught in the cogs of a looming war machine. Milos works under a lecherous superior Mr. Hubicka (Josef Somr). During the job, Milos wrestles with his sexual desires for beautiful conductor Masa (Jitka Scoffin). She loves him too and invites him for a rendezvous at her uncle’s home. There our young Milos submits to the stirrings in his loins. Alas, he under-performs with the girl due to premature ejaculation. It embarrasses Milos to an extent that he decides to slash his wrists, next day in a bordello bathtub. Dr. Brabec (Jiri Menzel) tells the boy to seek an older woman to gain sexual experience. While Milos tries to negotiate with his sexual awakening, Hubicka has a risque encounter with the station’s young telegraphist Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska). He bawdily stamps her in the backside. Among all these ribaldry behavior, the men are constantly reminded about the war going in on the front lines. The chance for participating in the political upheaval arrives to the small station as Hubicka is informed about German train full of explosives and ammunition. It all leads to a shattering ending.
“Closely Watched Trains” was based on a novella, written (and adapted for screen) by acclaimed Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. Director Menzel and writer Hrabal uses the yearnings of inept teenager as the surface and profoundly invests in the allegorical exploration of human frailties and its historical roots. Unlike many American or other European films, Czech film-makers didn’t use wartime occupation as an excuse for evoking pathos. The country suffered and was sliced to bits by the Nazis and communist regimes, although the films rejected melodrama. Their pursuit for satirical tone has in turn imbued deeper meanings. Czech New Wave movies like “Daisies” and “The Cremator” wavered from the naturalistic tone of “Closely Watched Trains” or “The Shop on Main Street”, but still those works withheld strokes of surrealism to visualize the stark realities faced by Czech people rather than put out a blatant war epic.
Director Menzel delicately moves between grim expose of wartime realities and comedic elements. In fact the funny, erotic episodes add layers of texture to the themes of political and war upheaval. Menzel cleverly ridicules Milos’ erectile dysfunction and the political authority surrounding him through the use of different phallic symbols in the imagery. There’s the iron levers Milos pulling for the work, projected hat-stands, ink holding rubber stamps, and the station master’s wife strokes the long neck of goose when Milos comes to ask her for a ‘favor’. These phallic symbols doesn’t pertain to Milos’ quest to become a ‘real man’; it also works as metaphor for elucidating the nation’s quest to attain ideological, political awakening. In the ending, immediately after the accomplishment of sexual maturity (after winning the battle with impotence), Milos shows political maturity. We witness a heroic act at the denouement, which is also an act of self-destruction. So, Milos’ passive existence and contrasting eventual fate symbolizes the Czechoslovakian history, which through acts of self-destruction gained a refreshing confidence to throw out the occupiers.
Menzel’s use of the subversive sexual episodes also symbolizes a sense of liberation (not just sexual) that couldn’t be taken away by the Nazis (and the subsequent Soviet occupiers). Even if the movie is only seen as a sex comedy, its tone doesn’t denigrate the characters. Milos’ lament on premature ejaculation is dealt with delicacy, unlike the gross American comedies. And, director Menzel never forcefully imposes the twisted sense of morality or judgment onto the characters. The allegory and social parody keeps away the pseudo-emotional constructs or other tired tricks to elicit feelings.
“Closely Watched Trains” (93 minutes) is an intensely inventive, powerful critique on the fascism and tyrannical bureaucracy which plagued Czechoslovakia’s political history. Its funny, erotic tone perfectly camouflages the inherent, rebellious non-conformity.