Movie Closely Watched Trains is a rather harsh criticism of the then current political situation of Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia while investigating the isolation of Czech youth. Yet what makes this film so remarkable is its analysis of both human and social conditions without an ounce of pretension or overbearing agenda. Menzel ‘s form is so light-hearted and simple that, despite the bleak subject matter and social critique, Closely Watched Trains not only loves life, it celebrates it amidst social turmoil.
I pursued three fundamental issues recurring in the movie. (1) The issue of “delayed responses,” such as Milos’ development from boy to man, the locals’ understanding of war and occupation and the contemporary response (as of publication) of Czechoslovaks to Communist rule. (2) The issue of “ongoing servitude,” both as a theme in the movie and as an element of Czech history, and how that servitude has suddenly transformed in the past ten years. (3) The issue of “ironic bad luck,” seen everywhere in the movie (and a fundamental darkly humorous aspect of Hrabal’s writings), as well as a quirky element of Czech culture.
The plot of this heavily symbolic, sometimes surrealist piece is rather difficult to sum up in a brief way. I spent some time on the symbolism in the movie, since it’s a dominant aspect. The story opens with a huge, dark wing floating over the town. Other symbols worth exploring: eyes watching from behind windows, ticking clocks (and snowflakes, watches, timetables, etc.), uniforms and uniformities, pigeon-keeping, the ventilator shaft, dead horses with their feet in the air, the bricklayer as God installing fire extinguishers, rubber stamps, striped pajamas, marching feet, furniture.
The genius of the film is that it is deceptively innocent. Like the employees of the train station it depicts, Closely Watched Trains seems pretty disinterested with the Nazi activity passing through. Trains carrying ammunition and soldiers (the “closely watched trains” of the title), as well as other Nazi supplies, roll through the humble train station but trainee Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) is more interested in doing as little work as possible while developing his romantic manhood. (The significance of trains as a method of transporting the doomed to concentration camps is never explicitly mentioned, but the imagery is always there. Czechs talk about the cattle and other livestock crammed into train cars without any thought given to their well-being. Even though the film mostly has a light tone, the darkness is never far from the surface.)Seemingly belying its title, the film’s setting is a backwater station which trains nearly always skip as a stop. But gradually the real sense of this title becomes clear, referring to the German trains that were given priority passage through occupied Czechoslovakia to carry munitions and troops during World War II. And finally that meaning is in turn subverted: the last train is indeed closely guarded, leading to the death of the central figure, but not before his own close surveillance is rewarded. Given his own family background, the heroism behind his act grows from what seems an unlikely base (right down to his grandfather who tried to stave off the German advance by hypnotizing a tank, which promptly flattened him). We see only lovable but bumbling Czech provincials in the film, who seem to have worked out a private arrangement of holding the War at a comfortable distance; old-world, charming people who are ultimately rather self-indulgent. But all this proves illusory, and we’re left with an unexpected act of heroism, which largely occurs off-screen. There is no Hollywood foregrounding of the individual here; instead the after-effects of the explosions resonate across the screen and through our own historical consciousness – this is what it took to disable the closely watched trains and the whole system that relied on them running on time.Closely Watched Trains has one of the most surprising endings I’ve ever seen. It’s surprising for many reasons. It seems to go against the style of the entire film up to that point. It is also played in such a matter-of-fact way that it actually magnifies what happens. This is a film of great humanity and the fate of Milos is strongly felt.It’s also a very sensual film. You can almost feel the textures: The thick material of the uniforms, the leather of the furniture, the metal of the trains, skin, hair. Beautiful cinematography and lighting help create this atmosphere with a few simple details. The actors are natural and low-key, but the drama of their lives is real. The film has a wry, dry comedy but still there is suffering.The historical sweep implied by the film is suggested, but never documented, by its low key approach. Freshness of characterization is matched by turning the miniature mise en scène and drama into microcosms of struggles on the world stage. Behind the visuals there is a magical world of wonderful tinkling, of flashing lights and seemingly self-generating signals, all reflecting the operation of the railroad, before their full significance is revealed. A further recurring sound effect is the lovely old clock, a vestige of bygone Hapsburg glory, which at the end almost operates as a metronome to the explosions, having bided its historical time. Just like the underground patriotism of the Czech people, in this strikingly understated film with its bitter-sweet humour, its earthy imagery, and its unassuming heroism.It would be a mistake to discredit the lyrical charm of Closely Watched Trains. The film is indeed enchanting in its loveably absurd situations. Unlike the existential and desperate tendencies of Swedish, Italian and even French cinema, the Czech New Wave portrayed what at first seems equally dire worldviews, but presents such ordinary characters in their humanity such that we can only laugh. Closely Watched Trains is the epitome of Czech New Wave in that, while portraying both social struggle of government upheaval and totalitarian invasion, as well as intense personal struggle to the point of (failed) suicide, it still obviously loves life.Unfortunately, the dark overtones of this comedy are broadened in the last part and Closely Watched Trains slowly turns into drama.Hubicka’s transformation from hedonistic womaniser into dedicated resistance fighter isn’t quite explained. The subplot dealing with German ammunition train still provides good opportunity for a laugh or two. On the other hand, we have an unnecessary symbolism – Milos sexual maturity as metaphor for his political self-awareness looks too much like similar cliches in many WW2 films made in former Yugoslavia. Menzel ends film rather abruptly, without proper epilogue and with the unusual, but rather realistic combination of tragedy and comedy. Even with the flaws that deprived CLOSELY WATCED TRAINS of being the true masterpiece, this is still a great film that truly deserved its Academy Award. Those who would like to enter the magic world of Czech cinema should use it as starting point.