Tuesday, June 6, 2017

1967 Winner, Closely Watched Trains

Closely Watched Trains

Director:  Jiří Menzel

Distributed by:  Ústřední půjčovna filmů

Released:  November 1966

Country:  Czechoslovakia

Wars are won and lost by few great acts and by many small acts.  In keeping with that thought, most histories of World War Two focus on great leaders, like Eisenhower, Patton, and Montgomery, and on key moments like Midway, D-Day, and Hiroshima.  But no less important were the actions of the average man on the ground, the family that hid Jews from the Nazis, the soldier that jumped on a grenade to save the men around him.  Closely Watched Trains is about one of those seemingly unimportant people, a kid just going out his business who ends up doing something spectacularly heroic.

I’m not going to give away what that heroic act is, but this film isn’t really about the act so much as about the hero, Milos Hrma.  Milos is starting his new job as a train station guard in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.  He is proud to take the position that his father and grandfather and great-grandfather had, though unbeknownst to him, they were all scoundrels and deadbeats.  In his new job, he works with two guys in the station, and they teach him the ropes.  The dispatcher, Hubička, is a nerdish looking man who somehow has a talent with scoring with the ladies.  When he learns that Milos is a virgin, he decides he’ll try to help Milos with the pretty conductor who works on one of the regular trains.

Milo getting ready for his first day
This film is considered a shining example of Czechoslovakia’s New Wave movement in the 1960’s, which focused on oppression of the Czech people.  As such, the humor is dark and like the Italian neo-realism movement of the same time, the actors seem to be ad-libbing their lines.  Milos becomes depressed and suicidal over his lack of success with women; yet as a viewer, you can only laugh at his misfortunes.  And this is a funny movie, though the humor is often borderline perverse.  I couldn’t help but laugh at Hubička as he flirts with a young telegraphist, Zdenička, by using a rubber stamp to put postage on her in places the mailman wouldn’t readily see.  And as pathetic as Milos is, he’s likeable and you have to root for him to do a little better with the ladies.

Milo just missing
The interaction between the Czechs and the Nazis is interesting to watch.  Everyone smiles and acts politely as the Nazi collaborator Zednicek comes to the station to check on things periodically, but the Czechs hate him and he thinks of the Czech people as “nothing but laughing hyenas.”  To Milos, who is working in a new job that he has always wanted and is striking out with the women he’s interested in, the Nazis are almost an abstraction.  But though they may not be his great concern, as absurd as it may be, he will, in his own small way, make a great contribution to end their rule in Czechoslovakia.

Here is a trailer for the film.  It's pretty antiquated, but there's a phrase in there my dad, whose family was from Bohemia, used to say: Ježíš Maria.  A very short and mild NSFW in there as well.

The title:  Ostře sledované vlaky.  It’s based on a 1965 novel of the same name by Bohumil Hrabal.  Hrabel also wrote I Served the King of England, also made into a movie by Closely Watched Trains director Jiří Menzel.  Hrabal is considered, along with Milan Kundera, to be one of the great Czech writers of the 20th Century.

Hubička about to address Zdenička
The Culture:  Czechoslovakia was the sacrificial lamb intended to placate Hitler and stave off war with the Nazis.  The Czechoslovakians, in this case in Central Bohemia, had other ideas.  The film’s story of slow-burn antipathy by an occupied people reminds me of John Steinbeck’s underappreciated The Moon Is Down.  Written in 1942, the novel doesn’t name the occupying force of a small town in Europe, but given the time, it was popular in Nazi-occupied countries.  Like Steinbeck’s book, the folks in Closely Watching Trains cannot be permanently subjugated; their patriotism and their yearning for freedom, even if below the surface, will eventually spell the end for their occupiers.

Agenda danger:  Czechoslovak New Wave was as much about message as it was about style.  There is a subversiveness that challenges the Communist government that replaced the Nazi rule of World War Two.  In using dark humor, it mocks the Nazis’ unwarranted arrogance, but if you peek just below the surface, you can see it may be the Soviet occupiers that it actually is mocking.  Along with that mockery comes the message, eventually borne out, that freedom is will inevitably win out over the occupier that was Communism. 

A small hobbit and a large dragon
Best Picture that year:  In the Heat of the Night.  Taking a look at the other winners of the 1968 Oscars ceremony--In the Heat of the Night; The Graduate (Best Director); Cool Hand Luke (Best Supporting Actor, George Kennedy); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Best Supporting Actress, Katherine Hepburn)—one can see subversiveness was in fashion that year.

Rating:  The central character, Milos, is this film’s Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit—a small, unobtrusive young man who seems to have no further potential that to be a train station guard like his father and grandfather before him, but does a great thing.  The film is equally unobtrusive, a quiet 92-minute black-and-white film.  But like Milos, it does great things.  It is funny and heartfelt and it gets the job done in somewhat spectacular fashion.

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