In 1993, Czechoslovakia dissolved into two independent states: Czech Republic (made up of the Bohemia and Moravia regions) and Slovakia. The 20th Century up until that point had been a turbulent time for the former country. After World War I, it gained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and grew into a socially and economically progressive state, maintaining to be the only functioning democracy in Central and Eastern Europe after 1933. But this was all to end when Hitler began taking control of Czechoslovakia in 1938, invading it and then dividing it into two states. As with other countries under Nazi occupation during World War II, Hitler’s plan was to eradicate the nationality of Czechs and Slovaks, and the country suffered considerably under a brutal and repressive regime with an estimated 136,000 deaths recorded. In the period after the war, the divided parts of Czechoslovakia re-connected. However, the rising Soviet Union hung over the country like a shadow and when the Communist Party took control of the country in 1948, it became part of the Soviet bloc. Despite periods of mass protest and quests for liberalisation, such as the Prague Spring in 1968, Czechoslovakia remained a puppet state of the Kremlin through until the fall of communism in 1989, when the non-violent Velvet Revolution restored democracy there.
Jiří Menzel and the Czech New Wave
The celebrated director Jiří Menzel was born in Prague in 1938, just as the Nazis were taking control of his country. He has lived through and witnessed all of those turbulent times described above, and ever since he hit the international scene in 1967 with his film Closely Watched Trains, he has being making films that capture a certain essence of what it means to be from that part of the world. His films possess a sharp wit and offers more-than-subtle nods to liberal politics. He has always been a provocative presence in European cinema and his tongue-in-cheek approach to historical events has always managed to get him noticed. He has often been championed for invoking a ruminative reflection on humanity amidst seismic carnage. Closely Watched Trains, which I will get to in more detail below, was one of many Czech masterpieces that raised the ire of censorship arms from the anti-democratic Communist government in 1966, and although it was never banned, his next film Larks on a String in 1969 was (it was only released in 1990 after the wall came down in Berlin, subsequently winning the Golden Bear at the Berlinale).
Menzel’s genesis in the arts came at a time when Czechoslovakia was producing formidable filmmakers, who were in turn producing quality films that would later become renowned around the world as part of a movement called the ‘Czechoslovak New Wave’, otherwise known as the ‘Czechoslovak film miracle’ or just the Czech New Wave. Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Elmar Klos and Ján Kadár, to name but a few, caught the attention of international audiences during the 1960s, and along with Menzel became the forerunners in the movement. Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball from 1967 was probably the most famous film of the era, and its success prompted him to head to Hollywood, where he would go on to make two major award winners in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). The Czech New Wave was distinguished from other ‘New Waves’ by its array of accessible themes, and a nod towards camp and sometimes dark humour. It was also noted for the often broad and wide-ranging views on sexuality. This, despite being contained in a country stymied by a socialist dogma that was adverse to political and social liberalisation.
Censorship was not invented by the communists. Through all cultural history there is censorship. Of course, if you are not adult enough, your parents tell you what you can do or what you can say, and when you are an adult, you know for yourself and you don’t need parents to tell you. Censorship is the parents. Now, unfortunately society is not adult enough, and that’s a problem. We lose our adults too early. Every one of us has their own censorship because censorship is another name for respect for other people. Or responsibility.
Menzel, with his unique sarcastic outlook, sat very easily into the Czech New Wave, and his enthusiasm for contemporary Czech literature, which agitated against the status quo, served him well. Many of his films were adaptations from works by Czech writers such as Bohumil Hrabal and Vladislav Vančura. For his troubles, Menzel had to deal with communist intrusion on his art throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. After Breshnev drove his tanks into Prague in 1968 to quell a rebellion, Menzel was denied access to a camera until 1975. However, unlike Forman, he didn’t head off to Hollywood. He stuck around and continued to make great films in his own country. For a more in-depth look at Menzel’s life and films, as well as the Czech New Wave, check out CzechMate – in Search of Jiri Menzel – a recent documentary directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
Closely Watched Trains (1966 Barrandov Studios and Ceskoslovensky Film)
Direction and screenplay by Jiří Menzel. Produced by Zdeněk Oves. Cinematography by Jaromír Šofr. Featuring Václav Neckář (as Miloš), Josef Somr (as Hubička), Jitka Bendová (as Máša), Vladimír Valenta (as the stationmaster), Naďa Urbánková (as Viktoria) and Vlastimil Brodský (as councillor Zednicek).
Jiří Menzel created Closely Watched Trains (or Closely Observed Trains as it was called on its UK release) from a 1965 novel of the same name by the afore-mentioned Bohumil Hrabal. It was his first feature film after a number of earlier shorts. He was only 27 when he began making it, while Hrabal was in his 50s when he completed the novel. In this regard, the film combines a mixture of young, energetic director with a mature, reflective writer, and it results in an irresistibly charming end-product. The film was shot around a picturesque provincial village called Loděnice in Central Bohemia. In short, it is a bittersweet coming of age story set against the background of Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia during the last year of World War II. It concerns the sexual awakening of a young man called Miloš who has just started a new job at a remote train station in order to avoid being enlisted as a soldier.
Miloš and the Loss of Innocence
Miloš Hrma is portrayed as the central protagonist of the story – starry-eyed, uncertain and innocent, he maintains a very empathetic presence throughout. We learn from Miloš’ opening narration – a clever and comical cross-cutting sequence that I assume Wes Anderson may have taken inspiration from – that his ancestors before him had avoided doing any hard work in their lives, but had come to ignominious ends (his grandfather was a hypnotist who tried to stop the tanks of the Third Reich with his mind but instead they drove over him). He decides it is safer to become a trainee guard at the local train station and to stay out of the Third Reich’s way. Miloš is quickly taken under the wing of experienced and eternally randy train dispatcher, Hubička. It is very obvious from the beginning that Hubička’s active, and sometimes creepy, sexual appetitie represents an antithesis to Miloš’ humble virginity.
Miloš’ virginity then becomes a primary consideration in the story. The women around him become overtly sexualised and it appears that seduction is everywhere (or certainly in the way Menzel’s camera captures it): the pretty, young conductor Máša; the countess as she descends and ascends from a horse; Hubička’s visiting, blonde-haired cousin; and even the stationmaster’s wife as she feeds some rabbits. He starts to think that everyone is having sex apart from him, or certainly Hubička anyway, who freely has sex with anything that moves. Sex then becomes a psychological barrier for Miloš, and particularly because Hubička starts to pressure him with questions about his relationship with Máša. Miloš eventually gets closer with her, but their relationship eventuates in calamity.
After ejaculating too soon in his first attempted sexual encounter with Máša, Miloš despairs and tries to kill himself. After the failed act the next day, a bomb is dropped on her uncle’s photographic studio, where the encounter took place, but fortunately no one is hurt – the bomb is no doubt a symbolic insertion by Menzel to signify Miloš’ obliterated confidence. Miloš solemnly leaves the wreckage, checks into a hotel, runs a bath, takes off his uniform in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary and slits his wrists. Luckily, a maintenance man who happens to be breaking a hole through the roof, spots Miloš in a pool of blood and saves him. The scene is very reminiscent of Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums, but without the poignant Elliot Smith music (was Wes Anderson again channelling inspiration from this film?). The whole sequence is troubling, as it should be, but it is remarkably handled by Menzel. Nothing is rushed or obvious. Miloš just instantly and assuredly gives up. It leaves us in no doubt how awful it must feel for a sensitive, young man to fail during his first sexual experience and then apparently be rejected because of it. But even as the obvious choice of blame should sit with the pushy Hubička, we are somehow prompted to believe that Máša’s rejection is what caused it (her regret at the end of the film confirms this). The difficulty of weighing all this up is compounded in the next sequence when Hubička displays an indiscretion with a young telegraphist at the station – he plays with her and then gleefully rubber stamps her bare bottom.
Miloš recovers and his doctor (played conveniently by Menzel himself) suggests that he find help from an older woman. Thus begins a quest for solace, or in other words an indulgence of his self-pity. He goes around asking men for guidance first. The Nazi-supporting councillor Zednicek and the stationmaster baulks at his impertinence. Hubička consoles him and tells him to be patient. While a passing Reverend sees an opportunity to have him indoctrinated into the church and delivers one of the best retrospective jokes of all time: ‘Everything will be fine…the church has mastered psychoanalysis for 600 years’. Then there is a strange and ethereal moment where Miloš is subtly approached by Nazis at gunpoint and lifted on board a train that is passing through. With his hands in the air, and unsure what will happen next, Miloš looks out at the beautiful world as it passes by, while twee, happy music plays in the background. Then the lead Nazi officer notices the wounds on his wrists and suddenly orders for him to be let off. The reason for this is unclear, but it may be because Miloš is not seen as a threat.
Miloš returns to the station to find that Hubička has conspired with a female Resistance agent called Viktoria Freie and now plans to blow up one of the Nazi trains. Miloš offers to help the next day, but first he seeks help himself from the stationmaster’s wife for his sexual performance issues. This scene is notably cringe-worthy – the older woman seems perplexed as she begins to understand that the young man wants sex even though she is currently preparing a goose for the slaughter, and the fact that she is probably three times his age! However, Miloš finally finds redemption in his quest when, with the encouragement of Hubička, Viktoria consoles him and has sex with him. Rejoiced and fulfilled the next morning, Miloš then embarks on completing Hubička and Viktoria’s plan alone, only to be spotted at the last minute by a Nazi gunner on the passing train…
Sex and Liberalisation
There is no doubt that Closely Watched Trains is a lot about sex. An early sex comedy if you will. But more broadly, it is about the liberalisation of ideas, and of free and fundamental thought. Even though there is much risqué material and themes in this film, it is indeed much restrained compared to modern standards. For example, the stamping of the telegraphist’s nude behind would likely have been quite the eye-catching moment for Czech audiences in the mid-1960s, but would be very mild today. It must be kept in mind, however, that this is during a time when sexual thought and desire was repressed in many parts of the world – Czechoslovakia in this case. Menzel makes this a prominent sub-text to the story, and it is mainly accentuated through councillor Zednicek, who bemoans the ‘monstrosity’ of young people’s imagination and decries their lack of morals. In his eyes, the Nazis are justly fighting ‘to save humanity’! The stationmaster, who is an ambivalent character, cares much for retaining his position and echoes some of the councillor’s sentiments regarding young people’s promiscuous ways – ‘Sodom and Gomorrah!’, he shouts when Hubička has sex with his own cousin in the station quarters. However, his hypocrisy is obvious – if his wife had not called him for his lunch, it seems he would have been happy to indulge with Hubička’s cousin himself instead.
The hypocrisy of the establishment is conveyed prominently too. When the telegraphist’s mother discovers the stamps on her daughters posterior and legs, she marches her into the main office of the train station and exposes the stamps to all the men present. Unsurprisingly, they gawk and smile at the exposed flesh but fail to act on Hubička’s handiwork. The process is repeated at the district court, where three prominent judges leave their seats, conveniently placed behind a massive crucifix, to take a good, close look at the stamps…indeed, the stamps! The smile on the girl’s face hints that she doesn’t really care, and I suppose that relieves the tension and sort of makes it more farcical and comical than expected. Despite the obvious issue here with the objectification of women, Menzel’s expressed humour toward the hypocrisy of old fuddy-duddies in political and civic establishment is a nice touch.
Stylising Times of War
In Closely Watched Trains, Menzel cooks up a straight-forward and uncomplicated visual style. There is little camera movement but there is much detail in each frame (again, Wes Anderson all over!) The quirky, symmetrical shots of events at the station or even the illustrated plane on the wall at Máša’s Uncle’s studio are all utilised smartly and are quite eye-catching. The stark black and white photography is also very effective (even though this was probably a matter of funding more than anything else). It complements the remote sleepy train station outpost as the setting and also complements the chronology i.e. 1944, on the fringes of the World War II battlefront. Soldiers come and go on the tracks or in carriages, while normal citizens turn up to go places, maybe to get the hell out of Czechoslovakia. It is bleak, cold and very wartime. But Menzel’s script is often genuinely funny and at all times charming, and this assists in brightening up the picture. There are lots of dry jokes but there are many poignant moments too.
There are subtle influences of the French New Wave and British social realism melded into the mix but essentially, it is a very unique style of film making. Absurdity is never slapped on too thick but it pervades most scenes. Menzel carefully structures that absurdity to emanate from a clinical political background. Whether it is a reference to the Nazi occupation during the war or the contemporary situation with the Soviets, Menzel is making a stylised stance against social oppression and he does so from an oblique and humorous point of view. He deals in rueful and wholesome humanism and he offers beguiling comedy and some playful eroticism where he can. Basically, he wants his audience to enjoy themselves but also to be mindful of what is going on around them.
The portrayal of Nazi soldiers and personnel is also interesting. They are certainly not stereotyped as was becoming the norm in Hollywood and other places at the time the film was made. They are not demonised, but rather are humanised and portrayed as fools rather than villains. For example, near the end of the film, when Hubička is detained at a hearing for the bum-stamping incident, Miloš quietly grabs the bomb from a drawer right in front of the enemy and leaves without any detection. Even when the Nazis appear sinister, such as when they take Miloš hostage, they have a turn-about of thought and let him go peacefully. In general, it is not your typical war film. The war does become more prominent as the film progresses, and its significance grows in the plot in the last 20 minutes or so when an agent of the Resistance shows up, but Menzel’s message is far greater than ‘us vs Nazis’. It is all about the denial of true, human feelings.
Councillor Zednicek states to the camera at the end that all Czechs are ‘laughing animals’. But Menzel does not want this to be seen as a straight-forward character attack on his country. His intent is for it to be treated ironically. Indeed, we should all treat being called ‘laughing animals’ as a compliment!