Sunday, September 11, 2011

Film #62: Ostre sledovane vlaky (1966)

Title for us English-speaking Types: Closely Watched Trains

Director: Jiri Menzel

Initial Release Country: Czechoslovakia

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Young, newly-minted train station operator passes boring hours by obsessing about losing his virginity. Backs into involvement in a World War.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, serious spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Towards the final months of World War II, in the middle of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, the young Milos Hrma is taking a major step in life – he is preparing for his first job. While his mother helps him don the fresh uniform of a train station dispatcher, Milos mulls over his family history, which is not exactly glowing. Milos seems to come from a long line of duty-shirkers, layabouts, delusionals, and generally disagreeable loafers.

Milos Hrma. Not exactly the sharpest tool in Czechoslovakia's shed.

On his first day on the job, the skinny and shy Milos absorbs his new workplace and workmates. The station is in shoddy repair, being connected to the station master's home and farm. The master himself spends as much time tending chickens as doing his job. Milos' immediate superior is the calm, affable, and randy Hubicka. Hubicka uses the many quiet hours on the job to seduce any attractive woman within sight.

Hubicka readily takes the wide-eyed Milos under his wing and starts to show him the ropes. The actual job is laughably simple and dull, which leaves plenty of time for Hubicka to start asking after Milos' love life. Milos has a girlfriend of sorts – a young, pretty train assistant named Masa – though they are yet to consummate anything. Milos is made all-too aware of this as he sees the savvy Hubicka bed several women while on duty, which inflames Milos' libido even more.

Opportunity comes when Masa invites Milos to stay at her uncle's house/photo shop. Masa makes strong advances on Milos, but Milos sullenly and strangely turns away. Not understanding the rebuff, Masa returns to her own bed. Early the next morning, a bomb attack blows down the house Milos is in. No one is hurt, but the house is destroyed.

Later that day, Milos checks into a hotel and attempts suicide. He is found and saved by a hotel worker, and sent to a hospital. While there, he explains himself to the doctor. It turned out that he had suffered impotence or premature ejaculation, which was why he did not have sex with Masa when he had the chance. He thought that this equaled a lack of manhood – something that he could not live with. The doctor assures him that this is normal, and Milos returns to work.

The devastated Milos prepares to do himself in after his "failure" with Masa.

Back at the station, things have been stirring. Hubicka and a handful of other locals have been conspiring to blow up a German military transport train. This is all being planned under the noses of politicians subservient to the conquering Nazi forces. Milos returns in the midst of this, and Hubicka welcomes him back to work. Once he hears the story of Milos' hospitalization, Hubicka soothes the young man and suggests that he find an older woman with whom he can relax and enjoy his first sexual foray. Hubicka also lets Milos in on the plan to blow up the Nazi train, and the two plan the sabotage together.

The eve of the sabotage arrives. A beautiful woman arrives at the station late in the evening, offers a password, and gives Hubicka a package with the explosives in it. The woman stays in the station, and Hubicka urges Milos into her arms. With the older woman, Milos finally enjoys his first night of sexual pleasure.

Milos looks out over the tracks, his slacking mentor Hubicka looking over his shoulder.

The next morning, the day of the planned attack, the train station begins buzzing. A few government officials show to follow up a complaint about Hubicka, who had previously bedded the young woman who works at the station with him. In the middle of his interrogation at the hands of the bureaucrats and the young woman's grandmother, Milos brazenly takes the explosives, shimmies out onto a structure hanging over the tracks, and waits. When the Nazi cargo train passes underneath, he deftly drops the explosives onto a middle car. However, just as he begins to soak in his success, a soldier on the train spots him and shoots him dead.

The train makes it about a mile farther down the track when it blows up in a massive explosion. The remaining workers at the train station rush out to see the tell-tale smoke clouds rising in the distance. Hubicka, oblivious to the death of his young co-worker and countryman, lets out a satisfied laugh over the victory.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this one viewing, before any further research)

Closely Watched Trains is a very uniquely hilarious movie.

Right from the opening minutes, I was laughing. As the sheepish, gawky little Milos is being dressed by his mother, his dry summary of his male forebears is great. His even-toned description of each man's laziness, oddity, and ultimate fate is accompanied by great still shots. It does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film.

The entire telling of Milos' pursuit to vanquish his own virginity is funny enough, but Milos himself is so hilarious in his innocence and naivete that it amplifies the comedy immeasurably. It starts with the aforementioned role call of his own lineage of laze, but it gets even better after his sexual failure with Masa. His attempted suicide is morbidly realistic, but his subsequent actions and behavior are so funny that they make you forget the darkness of it. So socially oblivious is he, that he seeks advice from any person available, openly proclaiming his problem of “premature ejaculation.”

This and his pubescent notions about manhood can't help but make you laugh, if only because everyone around him takes it in such easy stride. At one point, in his quest for a “mature woman” to help relieve him of the burden of virginity, he approaches the train station chief's 60-something year old mother as she stuffs a massive goose. While Milos awkwardly explains his plight, the woman calmly takes in the confession/plea while massaging foods down the goose's massive, phallic-shaped neck. Perhaps not very subtle, but the actors play it so straight that it's comedy gold.

The station master's mother placidly takes in Milos' tale of impotence, holding a suggestively fashioned goose.

While Milos more or less quietly steals the show, as he should, the supporting cast can't be overlooked. The libidinous Hubicka is a fantastically lovable loafer and ladies man. He basically has everything that the unimaginative Milos hopes to – a thoroughly undemanding job and a seemingly endless procession of young women to sleep with. What makes the otherwise selfish Hubicka so likable is that he is more than willing to help the hapless Milos achieve his dream. Sure, it's hardly a master/apprentice relationship on the scale of Socrates and Plato, but it's heartwarming in a much earthier way.

The entire mini-saga of Milos is funny enough, but what puts Closely Watched Trains in that rarer category of great movies is the setting. Being set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia adds a strange element to the character study. In the movie, the Nazi presence is tangential to the main plot, and the Germans are almost never seen. We mostly hear about them through the Czech bureaucrats, who obey them more out of fear rather than any loyalty. This reduction of the enemy presence emphasizes how an inexperienced teenage boy would prioritize such things: Number One = Sleep with a woman. Number Two = Find the easiest job possible. Number Whatever = Anything and everything else, including World War II. This totally bears out in the story, as it is only with his job secured and his virginity firmly stamped out that Milos is able to play a small part in the rebel cause.

The train station staff, caught in the blow back of the train explosion - Milos' lone confident and heroic act.

The movie does end on a somewhat weird vibe, as poor little Milos is shot and killed a few seconds after his crowing achievement as “A Man.” However, as I think back on it, it's not as sad as it seems. Had Milos lived, he almost certainly would have gone down as just another slacker in a long line of slackers in the Hrma family. His role in the attack on the Nazis probably would have faded, and he would have probably ended up just like his father – prematurely retired at age 50, lounging on a couch and being ridiculed by his working neighbors. As it was, he got to die a “hero's death” of sorts.

The characters, story and tone of the movie are clearly the outstanding elements of this movie, but a few other aspects shouldn't be overlooked. The filming is fantastic. It's in black and white, but the sets and framing show skill that goes beyond the norm. Some of the compositions and juxtapositions of characters and props enhance the physical comedy greatly, and usually is very sly ways. Whether its Hubicka playfully stamping his young co-workers legs and buttocks in the station or the uncomfortable stand-off between Milos and the goose-stuffing station master's mother, the visuals do nothing but enhance everything about the story.

As I write this, it had been four days since I watched Closely Watched Trains, and with every passing day I realize more and more just how much I liked the movie. As I think about the different levels that it was working on, and just how solid a film it was in all regards, I can see it as a film that I would watch and enjoy again. Anyone who enjoys somewhat dark, tongue-in-cheek humor would do well to track down this movie and give it a shot.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (Done after some further research)

Some of the writing on Closely Watched Trains has sent me into philosophical crisis. I don't know whether to be hopelessly frustrated at human stupidity or grudgingly thankful to it for providing the fuel for artistic genius.

A little bit of research has informed me a little more of the political climate, and the geographical and historical context that allowed the birth of a film such as Closely Watched Trains. The best of what I read is this essay by Richard Schickel, in which he gives a thumbnail account of Czechoslovakia's unique place in European political affairs. He describes how its odd and interminable position as an occupied country led to a culture of “impish rebellion” that could be seen in its arts. It's a really interesting read, and one that makes the Czechs a very endearing group to me, a person who has never been there and only known a handful of the country's people (they were great, and boy, did they know their beers).

Milos' first of many near-kisses with Masa. This is just one of the much lighter comic moments sprinkled throughout this very sly film.

One other thing that stuck out a bit to me was that, in this original review in 1967, the TIME magazine reviewer didn't seem to view the character Hubicka as genial as I did. At best, he is written about with indifference. I felt that I agreed much more with Schickel's take (in the same essay as above) about Hubicka's more well-rounded character. Schickel even points out how Hubicka quite possibly represented the entire Czech nation, with his humorous self-absorption not completely drowning out his penchant for causing headaches to boorish and idiotic superiors and conquerors. I guess its no surprise how characters and filmmakers like that would appeal to viewers not only in the U.S., but throughout the Western world.

That's a wrap. 62 shows down. 43 to go.

Coming Soon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

I'm giddy with glee that this one is next on the list. I've probably seen it 10 times, and I can't wait to watch it again. Come on back to read me gush about one of my absolute favorite films of all time. Maybe I can convince a few uninitiated to give it a shot.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.