Directed by Jirí Menzel
Co-written by Jirí Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal
Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal
Review by Brett Boham
Among soporific movie titles, Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains is the undisputed champion. Picture it on a marquee, right below Fantastic Voyage!Duel at Diablo!!How To Steal a Million!!! “What the hell is that?” Closely Watched Trains “Some sort of rail transport documentary?” In the original Czech, it loses even more pizazz: Ostře sledované vlaky. Literally, Trains that are being keenly monitored. Not exactly tentpole caliber. “Yes, yes, Jirí, we know it’s based on a novel by the same name, but couldn’t you please spice it up a little? How about Trains, You’re Being Watched, or Get a Load of These Trains?” Nope. Closely Watched Trains. Plainly stated. So plainly, in fact, that it doesn’t seem even to qualify as enigmatic or atmospheric. It is just… tedious. Grammatically, thematically, ostensibly tedious. Almost as though it doesn’t want to be watched. Closely or otherwise.
This is Milos Hrma. He has just taken a job as a train-dispatcher. And he is our hero. Or, more accurately, our antihero. As Milos unapologetically explains, via voiceover, he hails from a long line of louses, whose greatest achievements include collecting government pensions and taunting the working class: “I don’t want to do anything just like my ancestors except to stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work while others have to drudge and toil.”
Milos’ face, however, tells a different story. And not just his face, but his entire head. The head of Milos Hrma! It is one of the great heads in film history, a lumpy, twitchy, wistful, lascivious, dopy thing that appears so bored one second it might tumble off its neck and roll onto the floor, and so awe-struck the next you wouldn’t be surprised if it floated away and disappeared above the train fumes.
It is not the head of a cynic, but of an overmatched romantic, a curious fool. And when you see it in action—ogling, blushing, furrowing—you realize that Milos’ frank confession of his own apathy is just an act. Milos is hungry for meaningful experiences, yet woefully unprepared for the psychological complexity that accompanies them. Naturally, much of the credit for this extraordinary head belongs to actor Václav Neckář, who, in only his first feature film role, manages to capture all the contradictions of young adulthood in his constantly shifting expressions.
The Kostomlat Train Depot, a small outpost near the Czech-German border, provides Milos with an education at once revelatory and emasculating. He learns about sex and politics and power, but always at his own expense. Shame is the cost of knowledge for Milos, because shame is the game that the men of the depot play to maintain authority. “Away with the monstrosity of young people’s imaginations!” the lecherous Railroad Inspector declares, after being outmaneuvered for the affections of a younger woman. The Inspector then retreats to his lodgings above the depot to plot his revenge, and help his wife knit a garment.
Tedium, as the title of the film suggests, is the only certainty in this world; tedium is safety and self-preservation. To search for meaning, on the other hand, to stray from the tracks, the timetables, the telegraph machine, is only to set yourself up for disappointment, or worse, to discover your complicity in a system of evil.
Not immediately. But by the twenty-minute mark, you become aware of two facts that Milos has known all along. First, the time period is the mid-1940s. And second, the Kostomlat Train Depot is controlled by the Nazis. Milos himself is not a member of the Nazi Party (at least, not intentionally), but he is responsible for ensuring safe passage of German supply trains. In fact, as Bosley Crowther’s contemporary (1967) New York Times review of the film notes, “closely watched trains” was a regional euphemism, a “designation for the German munitions and troop trains that were given priority passage through [occupied Czechoslovakia] during World War II.” This fact doesn’t undermine the tedium of the station, but inflects it with sinister connotations, conjuring visions of Mussolini (and his obsession with railroad punctuality). But the central strength of the film is that it asks you to contemplate the consequences of totalitarianism, not at the level of nations and history, but over the shoulder of a young man coming of age in the middle of nowhere.
Steam escaping from a passing engine. Chimes from a nearby church. Director Menzel strews the film with images, sounds, and actions that are both symbolic and natural. Rubber stamps wet with ink. Torn fabric on the sofa. This is the minutia of Kostomlat, and yet, in the context of the station’s power dynamics and Milos’ developing self-awareness, a tear in an otherwise pristine sofa becomes a poignant symbol of desire, loss, and despair. Although Trains was Menzel’s feature-film debut as a director, he shows a deft hand in these moments, presenting visual metaphors as simple realities so as not to suffer the weight of hyperbole or heavy-handedness. Even when the film gleefully embraces sexual innuendo and slapstick, it never sacrifices the authenticity of the moment. The overall effect is a unique blending of realism, dark comedy, and folklore, creating a texture that feels immediate and timeless, visceral and abstract, coarse and sublime.
Perhaps the defining image of Closely Watched Trains (and the only one to show up in a sentimental montage at the 2010 Academy Awards of past Best Foreign Language Film winners) shows Milos trying to capture an intimate moment with pseudo-girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová), who works as a train porter. With one hand on the back platform handrail, Masa leans down to kiss Milos, approaching closer and closer. Milos keeps his eyes shut, passive but hopeful. Before their lips touch, train-dispatcher Hubicka (who has been watching the impending kiss carefully) blows his whistle and the train rolls out of the station, pulling Masa backward out of the shot. Milos, meanwhile, remains in place, unaware that he is alone, lips still pursed, heart still beating.
The central contradiction of this scene is the central contradiction of the film itself: The train station both enables and prevents Milos’ search for meaning, presenting him with a path to manhood while frustrating and mocking his attempts to get there.
But don’t rely on what I’ve said here: Closely Watched Trains is a movie that you need to see and appreciate for yourself. And no complaints about accessibility: It’s available as a Criterion Collection DVD and you can find it on Netflix and Hulu Plus. Do whatever it takes. And when you’re done with Trains, tackle the other masterworks of the Czech New Wave: Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball, and The Shop on Main Street. What is the Czech New Wave? Well, on the one hand, it’s like the other European New Wave movements that flourished in the 60s—French, German, British—in that it breaks apart traditional modes of cinematic storytelling through avant-garde camerawork and editing techniques, as well as more ambivalent depictions of character and ironic commentaries on cinema itself. And on the other hand, the Czech New Wave remains a completely distinct period in film history because of its frank explorations of sexual angst, its nuanced critiques of totalitarian societies and arbitrary power, and its provocative pairing of realism and absurdism.
What more do I have to say? Make a night of it! Order a bottle of Becherovka, recite an ode to Kafka’s ghost, and then watch closely.
Brett Boham lives and works in Los Angeles. He is currently pursuing a MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside while he works on his first novel and short story collection.