In Jiri Menzel’s Czech New Wave gem CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS, the comical and deadly serious combine in a portrayal of the follies of war and of youth. From its opening moments, it brings a light touch and absurdist sense of humour to bear on its subject matter.
Teenage protagonist Milos (played by disarmingly fresh-faced pop singer Václav Neckář) introduces the viewer to his ancestors through voiceover; all eccentrics and shirkers who met violent ends. Milos himself is a trainee signalman at a provincial railway station, a vocation that appeals due to how little work he has to do.
Made in the mid-1960s but taking place in the last years of the Second World War, the film takes an unconventional tack on its depiction of wartime life. This is obvious from the opening credits, with the ironic juxtaposition of triumphant marching band music with images of Czechoslovakia’s invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany. Initially far from the war in their backwater domain, it falls to Milos and his colleagues, pompous stationmaster and pigeon keeper Max and ladies’ man Hubicka, to entertain themselves in between passing trains. We are often shown a front-on view of the platform, with the trains sliding in and out of the frame, to emphasise the characters’ stationary existence. Everything comes to them, and then leaves, while they are stuck in place.
… it brings a light touch and absurdist sense of humour to bear on its subject matter.
CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS revels in a earthy, irreverent humour; for all the talk of politics, tradition and religion, all most of the characters are after is a drink and some fun with the opposite sex. Milos, being a young man, has his head turned by nearly every woman who crosses his path, including a trainload of nurses. But his eternal crush is no-nonsense train conductor Masa. The two strike up a budding romance in her photographer uncle’s darkroom, an event which throws Milos into adolescent confusion.
The abrupt intrusion of the war into the leisurely proceedings is conveyed through the stark, simplistic film language in one of the film’s most impactful sequences. We see Milos staring at an arriving troop train; we see what he sees – a pair of bodies laid out beside one carriage – and then smash cut back to the boy, now flanked by SS troops. As Milos and his colleagues are drafted into a partisan sabotage operation, there is an unconventional spin on the old trope of conflict between love and duty. His adolescent hang-ups fade into the background, and it is the mysterious Resistance figure of “Viktoria Freie” who ushers the boy into manhood.
In its flippant attitude towards authority, the film harkens back to one of the most famous fictional Czechs, The Good Soldier Švejk of Jaroslav Hašek’s First World War novel. Like Švejk, Milos is often presented as a naif, speaking truth to power by accident. Within the kind of passive defiance practiced by the station employees is an assertion of humanity.
“You know what you Czechs are?” sneers a representative of the occupying powers late in the film. “Laughing beasts.” The bittersweet final scene positions laughter and bombs as equally powerful agents of resistance.
CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS screens on 9 September at 15.00 at APH