Closely Watched Trains imagines Czechoslovakia's social and sexual liberation during German occupation
In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.
The opening credits set the tone for the 1966 Menzel masterpiece Closely Watched Trains. A young Miloš Hrma (a delightfully fresh faced Václav Neckář) relates, with no false pride, the story that makes his family famous: their success in avoiding work for the past four generations. Miloš longs to be a stationmaster, because he can sit, do nothing and watch the trains go by — the ultimate job that isn’t really a job — keeping in good faith with his families traditions.
This ethic of joyous unemployment is not just something Miloš’ family has been blessed with. The family also makes it their business to go see their fellow Czechs at work and taunt them from the sidelines, a practice that results in perpetual beatings. Only his great grandfather, a hypnotist by trade (he was accused by frustrated neighbours of hypnotising people into giving him things so he never needed to work), tried to lift a finger to do something about the war, standing against the oncoming German tanks, using hypnosis to stop them. In fact he was successful, but only to a point. Soon the tank recovered its strength and drove over the top of Miloš’ grandfather, cutting off his head.
So the Germans got into Czechoslovakia, the Czechs watching wide-eyed as the nationalism that never convinced them fell into pieces. Closely Watched Trains begins a few months after German occupation.
Naturally, when the world is at war and the Nazis have just taken over Prague, the question at the forefront of Miloš' young mind is: how can I lose my virginity? He has a beautiful and willing girlfriend, but Miloš suffers from that ailment many young men experience — it’s all over before it starts.
Is there a better metaphor for war than premature ejaculation? Young men sacrificed for the ideology of old, flaccid males? Closely Watched Trains is the consummate war movie from a country that had seen so much conflict brought to its blood-soaked land on behalf of alien ideologies, that it begins to take advantage of how inconsequential its culture becomes, embracing liberation never possible through the imposition of ideology.
The Nazis demand the law of heroes and honour with the judgement of courage. The local freedom fighters insist on the law of history and honour with the judgement of courage. But Miloš’ freedom — and, strangely, the freedom of most of those around him — comes from his intricate relationship with life, food, animals, work, and most of all, sex.
The Czechs are a rare and precious kind of human creature. For the most part, they are without national identity, the Austro-Hungarian Empire being completely wiped out after WW1. The Czech population divisions are broad enough that no majority can rule, and yet it is here, above all the other nations of the region, that inter-war democracy flourishes.
The first on the chopping block, even before the Jews in Nazi occupation, are the artists and intellectuals — the keen observers of the soon-to-become systemic indifference of the Czechs to ideology. It was the 1968 Prague Spring, the time of Menzel's making of Closely Watched Trains, that the Soviets decided that filmmakers were again the people to be most feared in a peculiar little country that rarely even bothered to defend itself. “The Czechs are laughing beasts”, goes the quote Nazis used to describe Czech indifference to their occupation, immortalised in Bohumil Hrabal’s book on which the film is based. Perhaps the greatest response to occupation is indifference, particularly when your culture was taken from you only decades before, in another bloodthirsty world war.
The films of the Prague Spring — even when the world had grown wings from the influence of New Wave culture, the French bringing post-modern sophistication and the Italians neo-realism — were about ordinary people living ordinary lives in a comical, joyous way that included laughter as a form of dismissal, as opposed to the British laughter/pain we are now so familiar with.
The Prague Spring officially lasted eight months, but the filmmakers had been making subversive films such as Closely Watched Trains (indifference to an occupying force), Loves of a Blonde (naive ignorance of a nation indifferent to an occupying force), and Daisies (corruption of consumption by an occupying force) since the mid 1960s — all the more reason to ban the films and banish the filmmakers, something Jiří Menzel must have known he risked at some level. Věra Chytilová had already been banned in her home country in 1967, and while she refused to leave and was reduced to producing commercials under her husband’s name, Menzel had the luxury of being able to work on the Berlin festival and in other countries — no doubt due to the privilege of his anatomy, something he took advantage of, but not to the length his counterpart Miloš Forman would do, who fled to America only to make American classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. Věra Chytilová and Jiří Menzel refused such indulgences, and the question is ours as to whether their sacrifice was worth it.
While the world was as war, Jiří Menzel concerned himself with a small scale, local social revolution, one where women were positive sexual creatures, men were inquisitive and responsive, masculinity was not defined by aggression and femininity was not defined by restraint and/or a burdensome response to fertility.
In Closely Watched Trains Jiří Menzel speaks of a world liberated, where vulnerability gets men laid by sexy revolutionaries, and morality is the fault of church-addled males. Democracy represents the right to refuse to work, and the supreme accomplishment of life is to find a way to drink your days away in excess and marry a woman who will make love to you at least once a day. If these are your aims, how can the periodic invasion of an alien culture become a problem for you? Surely the heroes made on the battlefield are fighting for something they have no chance to experience, should they miraculously escape death? They will go home, find solace in drink and if they are lucky, enjoy comfort in a devoted lovers' arms.
At the end of the day, is there any higher aspiration?