Miloš Hrma, the youngest in a long line of layabouts, starts his first job as a trainee signalman at Kostomlaty train station a few kilometres outside of Prague during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in the early 1940s. The isolated station is headed by an inept and frustrated stationmaster who is more interested in caring for his doves and the station is actually overseen by the lecherous but good natured Hubicˇka who takes Miloš’s education, both rail-related and sexual, in hand. While Miloš and Maša, a train conductor, flirt with each other, Hubicˇka seduces the station telegraphist and stamps her thighs and behind with indelible ‘Pelican company’ ink. Miloš is unable to consummate his first night alone with Maša and checks into a hotel where he slits his wrists in the bath but survives. Back at the station, a German munitions train is to come through and Hubicˇka is asked by the resistance to bomb it as it passes. The agent (code-named Viktoria Freie) who gives them the bomb also successfully initiates Miloš into sexual life. Hubicˇka is unable to bomb the train as his stamp-related disciplinary hearing is called for the same time and Miloš decides to act instead. Full of confidence he arranges another meeting with Maša before dropping the bomb on the passing train. He is, however, shot by a soldier on the train, falls onto one of the carriages and is blown up along with the train.
Jirˇí Menzel, like so many Czech film directors, studied at FAMU, the Prague Film School (Akademie múzickch umeˇní Filmová a televizni fakulta). He first worked on Veˇra Chytilová’s student film The Ceiling (Strop, 1962) as both assistant director and actor. Menzel’s subsequent films are exclusively adaptations of literary sources, most significantly the stories and novels of the avant-garde writer, Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997). After a few student experiments, his first film, The Death of Mr Balthazar (Smrt pana Baltaraza, 1965), was part of an anthology film made with his fellow students based on stories by Hrabal, while his second, included in the portmanteau film Crime in the Girls School (Zlocˇin v dívcˇí s´kole, 1965), is based on the detective stories of Josef Škvoreck who would himself go on to write the first history of the Czech New Wave while in exile in Canada in the early 1970s. In 1966, in collaboration with Hrabal, Menzel wrote the screenplay and directed Closely Observed Trains (Ostrˇe sledované vlaky) which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year. These films are all marked by a gentle, absurdist humour with an emphasis on human frailty and desire. It is perhaps no surprise that Menzel cites Jean Renoir’s sensual Partie de campagne (1936) as his most formative film.
Closely Observed Trains is a bildungsroman and takes as its central development the movement from childhood to adulthood (see Cˇ ulik 2012: 35). This is mapped onto a theme of innocence and experience. However, Miloš’s progress from self-absorption to an understanding of the importance of community and his own place within that society does not necessarily imply a loss of innocence since experience in the film does not result in a cynical abjuration of integrity. Miloš’s predecessors had chosen to withdraw from everyday toil and indulge in fanciful pursuits. His father had retired at 48 since, as an engine driver, he was able to accrue double-time while working, while his grandfather Vilem performed as a hypnotist and had attempted to stop invading German tanks by standing in their way and using the power of his mind alone. His quixotic gesture however only resulted in his decapitation. There is therefore a clear link, as Cˇ ulik argues, between ‘reaching adulthood and death’ (2012: 35). The risk of taking action at all, necessarily involves the risk of annihilation and Hrabal ‘presents an insoluble dilemma’ (Cˇ ulik 2012: 36) which Menzel attempts to solve through humour.
Miloš describes his family background in a deadpan voice-over at the beginning of the film as he prepares for his first day of work as a trainee signalman at Kostomlaty station (the film was actually shot at Lodeˇnice about the same distance from Prague but to the west). He says that the ‘whole town knows that I went on the course because I don’t want to do anything but stand on a platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work, while others work and work and work’. It is important that Miloš here does not describe himself directly in this way, but rather presents himself as seen through the eyes of others. At the beginning, Miloš has no individual agency even from his own perspective and the film charts his shift from this initial passivity to action. His family background, however, demonstrates only either withdrawal or spectacularly ill-judged and ill-fated intervention.
The station at Kostomlaty is also staffed by characters who have withdrawn from life in general. The stationmaster is more interested in looking after his livestock than in overseeing the station, but even his animal husbandry is rather useless as he cannot even bring himself to kill one of his rabbits and this task is given over to his wife. Women in this world are more able to act than men and often take the lead, especially in sexual situations. Hubicˇka, the de facto station supervisor, devotes most of his energies to seducing various female employees but is also active in the resistance.1 Thus, his sexual prowess is linked to an ability to take action both on the stationmaster’s couch and in the moral universe of history. Ironically, of course, Hubicˇka’s sexual proclivities deny him the opportunity to bomb the German train himself. Paradoxically, that which marks him as a person of action (his sexual experience) allows him to engage in the world at large but is also that which prevents him from doing so. Once again, Hrabal and Menzel present an insoluble dilemma. It is Miloš who provides the answer to this particular logical knot.
Miloš is an introverted character who seems to have no inner life of his own and, as Girelli points out, the world of Closely Observed Trains is one where there is very little space for privacy and every action is observed in one way or another. She writes that the film,
“is virtually all set in public spaces: the protagonists’ lives unfold in a situation of almost constant exposure, as even the rare scenes set in private homes see them being policed by intrusive parents or relatives. Miloš’s suicide attempt takes place in a brothel, and his rescue is due to a workman who, having made a hole through the wall, is able to check what is happening in the room where Miloš has just cut his wrists. (2011: 55)
Miloš’s suicide attempt comes after his failed attempt at sexual intercourse with Maša in the back room of her lecherous uncle’s photography studio. At the hospital the kindly Dr Brabec (played by Menzel himself) explains his dysfunction with a clinical diagnosis of ejaculatio praecox, premature ejaculation, but Miloš describes the problem elsewhere as him becoming ‘as limp as a lily’ or, as he explains unselfconsciously to the stationmaster’s wife, ‘Look, I am a man, but when I try to prove it that I am a man, then I no longer am’. The wife listens expressionlessly as she vigorously massages a goose’s phallic neck. Miloš adds, ‘At this moment, I am a man’. The problem, then, is not one of acting too quickly but of not being able to act at all. When it comes to the crucial moment, Miloš is impotent. There are however three moments at which Miloš does act.
The first of these is the suicide itself. The scene is short but extremely brutal and very out of character with the style of the rest of the film which adds to its impact. Menzel recalls being admonished by Jirˇí Weiss, a respected film director, that he should not film scenes that will make more noble members of the audience faint. After his failed seduction, Miloš checks into the hourly rate hotel, runs a bath and, after he gets in, prepares two straight razors. One he fixes, blade upright, in a crack in a wooden bathroom table and slits his left wrist with the other. He then brings down his right wrist onto the waiting blade with a loud bang. While both these actions happen off-screen their impact is visceral and it is Miloš’s careful, ritualistic and unemotional preparation and execution which precludes any sentimental pathos. The character has no complicated internal psychology: Miloš merely wishes to die. It is this pure act, thwarted by an external rather than internal agent that precipitates his transformation into an adult in the world.
His second act is his sexual encounter with the resistance agent, Vikoria Freie, following which we see him in exactly the same post-coital presentation as Hubicˇka earlier in the film, a medium shot from behind stretching and whistling on the station platform. It is this newfound confidence and structural position that enables Miloš to take the bombing of the German munitions train into his own hands while Hubicˇka is detained by his misconduct hearing. Miloš is now fully able to take action and while making his way to the position from which he will drop the bomb he also makes a date with Maša. However, of course, he is killed in the course of the bombing; but the film ends, not with his death as such, but with the laughter of the station employees as they are buffeted by the wind of the explosion. Menzel had in fact shot an alternative ending in which Miloš improbably survived the detonation and is seen hanging in the branches of a tree. He chose not to use this cartoonish ending, relying on the celebration of his act of resistance to provide an upbeat conclusion to the dilemma of participation. The argument of Closely Observed Trains may be summarised as: one may die if one acts, but if one does not act then there can never be true joy.
1. Jonathan Owen has criticised Menzel’s presentation of women in this film and in his other Hrabal adaptations for showing ‘an all too conventional erotic admiration for lithe, nubile youth’ (2009: 510) and for demonstrating a 406 Ostrˇe sledované vlaky/Closely Observed Trains (1966) more conservative attitude ‘towards women and sexual politics’ (2009: 497) than Hrabal himself. Owen argues that Menzel simplifies Hrabal’s women and ‘overemphasises the subversive power of sex’ (2009: 510).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Czechoslovakia. Production Company: Filmové studio Barrandov. Director: Jirˇí Menzel. Production Manager: Jaroslav Wagner. Story: Bohumil Hrabal. Screenwriters: Jirˇí Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal. Cinematographer: Jaromír Šofr. Music: Jirˇí Sust. Editor: Jirˇina Lukešova. Sound: Jirˇí Pavlik. Cast: Václav Neckárˇ (Miloš Hrma), Jitka Bendová (Maša), Vladimír Valenta (Stationmaster), Josef Somr (Hubicˇka), Jitka Zelenhorská (Zdenicˇka Svatá), Nadˇa Urbánková (Viktoria Freie), Kveˇta Fialová (The Countess), Vlastimil Brodsk (Zednícˇek).]
Jan Cˇ ulík, ‘Jirˇí Menzel and the construction of historical experience in his films dealing with traumatic 20th century events’ in J. von Puttkamer and W, Borodziej (eds) Europa und sein Osten. Geschichtskulturelle Herausfoderungen (Europas Osten im 20. Jahrhundert. Schriften des Imre Kertész Kollegs Bd.1), Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2012, pp. 25–46.
Elizabeth Girelli, ‘Subverting Space: private, public and power in three Czechoslovak films from the 1960s and 70s’, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2011, pp. 49–59.
Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Peter Harmes, The Czechoslovak New Wave, 2nd ed., London: Wallflower Press, 2005.
Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Film Experience, New York: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1974.
Jonathan L. Owen, ‘Closely Observed Bodies: Corporeality, Totalitarianism and Subversion’ in ‘Jirí Menzel’s 1960s Adaptations of Bohumil Hrabal’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp. 495–511, 2009.
Josef Škvoreck, All The Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema, trans. Michael Schonberg, Toronto: Take One/Peter Martin, 1971.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.