Since my earlier attempts at reaching out to a wider audience – for instance, reviewing a Polish film about the hollow nature of communist propaganda, an Iranian documentary, Japanese wartime propaganda, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s semi-pseudo-documentary debut – were all resounding failures, here comes another attempt at mainstream accessibility.
‘Closely Observed Trains’ follows a story depicted regularly in cinema: a coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening and development. However, unlike most of those tales, this one is set in an isolated village in rural Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, in the final days of World War II.
The character coming-of-age here is Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckář): a thin, weedy individual with innocent, wide eyes, who escapes being conscripted by working at the village train station. There, he strikes up an on-off romance with a conductor, Máša, whose train passes through once a day. But due to youth and inexperience, he finds himself unable to consummate their relationship.
Based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, it was the debut film of director Jiří Menzel. And for a debut, it is remarkably assured piece of work (something I repeatedly find myself saying on this blog).
The first thing to note is quite how funny the film is, blending several different strands of humour. Firstly – and most notably – there is a strong, dark element to a lot of the comedy, much of it garnered from the wartime setting. For example, in a pre-title sequence, Miloš narrates his family history to us, including the story of his grandfather – a circus performer – who believed he could halt the invading tanks through the power of telepathy alone. And to the amazement of the on-looking crowd, he remarkably stopped one rolling into town by standing stood in front it. Only for it to carry on.
Secondly, there is visual, slapstick humour too. Early on, Miloš and Máša fail to kiss as her train pulls away, leaving his eyes closed and lips pursed, acting as both a visual metaphor for his failed consummation later, and evoking the train-based slapstick of Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ (1926).
Finally – and what film could survive without it – there is a smutty, sexual, strand of comedy at play. When combined with an absurdist streak, it leads to one station master getting an indecent amount of pleasure from his ink stamps.
But alongside the comedy, one of the film’s greatest accomplishments is its ability to skewer those in authority, while avoiding the censorship that existed in communist Czechoslovakia at the time. In one courtroom scene, the three judges find excuses to ogle a woman’s bottom, while the accused is the only individual who maintains moral decency.
The music too is well worth mentioning. It is perfectly over-the top, matching the comedy excellently. At the beginning of the film, when the railway hat is placed on his head, the soundtrack is so pompous and exaggerated as to compare it to the coronation of Napoleon. (A hat, worth noting, which he keeps on at all times, even when in bed with Máša.)
The cinematography too, has an excellently crisp, monochrome finish. I cannot immediately consider why trains and train stations are quite so cinematic, but it is impossible to deny so. Think back to ‘Brief Encounter’ (David Lean, 1945). Or further back to ‘The General’ (Buster Keaton, 1926). Or further back, to ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (Edwin S. Porter, 1903). Or further back, to ‘Train Pulling Into A Station’ (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895). The use of trains is one of the oldest trends in cinema.
The result of Closely Observed Trains was a film deemed worthy of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and put the Czechoslovakian New Wave on the map of world cinema for the first time. Directors like Miloš Forman were able to launch their careers with similar satires on authority such as ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ (1967), before moving to Hollywood himself and making ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975) and ‘Amadeus’ (1984). Menzel however stayed in Czechoslovakia and continued to face censorship. He would never make a film as internationally adored as Closely Observed Trains again. But with one film, he had secured himself a reputation that continues to last today.