Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains is a film that deals with human tragedy on several different levels but which, even in doing so, keeps a calm, informal and overall passively humorous character. Menzel’s style of filmmaking is such that the sad and tragic events that the film depicts are presented from a kind of detached perspective which provides them with a poignant realism. The powerful impact of each event is felt more so upon retrospection, the after-thinking which the film invokes. The film does not present the viewer with the dramatic heightening and emphasizing which is often expected when dealing with subjects so serious as war, suicide and death. The often expected dramatization of the sadness of life can often cheapen the experience. However, in Closely Watched Trains, the calm and detached representation of these events at once renders them powerful, realistic and also denies the audience the dramatic release of an idealized and glamorized over production. Without this release, the audience is left to thoughtfully engage with the events for itself which invites an individualization of the film-watching experience.
The film interestingly mixes tragedy with comedy. Throughout the film there is a great deal of sexual humor, often related to Dispatcher Hubicka’s womanizing and to Milos Hrma’s much emphasized problem of premature ejaculation. Even more significant, though, to the character and plot developments of the film are the themes of chaotic and absurd sequences throughout the course of the film. These are, also, often humorous but made so through their greater context within the film. Each character has his own, weird, individualizing and eccentric quality. The station is located, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. The region is not urbanized, and the area seems desolate except for things related to the station and its employees. This perpetual isolation from the rest of Czechoslovakia affords the station employees, the film’s main characters, the time and freedom to independently go about their daily lives in spite of the fact that World War II is being played out in the same country. The only contact that the station employees have with the war at all are when German troops pass by, when those conspicuous “closely watched trains” pass by or when Councilor Zednicek stops by for a talk. Even all of these situations, though, are treated by the characters as mere distractions. As soon as their presence is gone, so is any thought of them and the characters return to going about their individual concerns and affairs. The reverberation and impact of the war rarely disturbs the characters, but even when it does enter their lives they usually shrug it off, with an almost careless annoyance. This is highlighted in scenes that include the Councilor with his map in hand, praising the German war machine’s strategies. Milos and Hubicka continually make fun of the Councilor and indeed seem bored with his speeches. As bored as they seem with having to salute the German trains as they pass. The character’s dissent concerning the war is carried to absurdist extremes in the incident of Hubicka’s stamping the naked telegraph girl with German language stamps, the same that the Councilor uses in previous scenes to mark the German armies advances and retreats on the map. The situation is carried to absurd extremes by the girl’s mother, and the German occupation of the country is satirized through absurdity in the climax of the event when the Councilor tries to bring Hubicka to justice. The entire sequence is treated humorously.
The relative isolation and slowness of life at the station only emphasizes each character’s personality and concerns, which are often portrayed chaotically and absurdly. The absolute lack of rigid formality in the film’s editing contributes to the overall sense of randomness and light-heartedness that the characters embody. The lack of rigidity and rule in the formal aspects of filmmaking also detract from the sense of continuity between scenes and causality in the narrative. Things seem only loosely tied together, and no scene in the film necessarily necessitates the next. The causality relationship among the scenes is negated, and the continuity is disrupted considerably. This is an appropriate style fir the film to take. The spirit of randomness and freedom embodied by the New Wave Czech approach to film fits well with the character’s unusual approaches to life. The opening sequence in which Milos recounts his family history back through his great grandfather sets the tone for the rest of the film, in terms of content but also stylistically. Milos tells the tragedies of the deaths of his grandfather and great grandfather, but they are represented humorously. More significant, though, than what these ancestors did, is what Milos identifies as their raison d’être, Milos says that they each were their way and did what they did because they did not want to do anything at all. They did not want to work, they preferred to pass their times in easy idleness. Milos claims that he too has inherited this quality for life. This attitude of ambiguous apathy translates in the case of Milos, and Hubicka, to a passive but significant reluctance of attitude toward the war and especially the German army. This attitude culminates at the end of the film in an active resistance toward the German army in which Milos blows up a passing German train. Milos gives his life in doing this, but inadvertently so. Milos becomes a reluctant martyr. The sequence can be seen as a poignant reminder, at the end of a film about apathy and carelessness, of the tragic reality of war but the scene resists doing so. Milos’ death is treated with the same informal passivity as his, almost comic, attempt at suicide. More than a deliberate and heroic action of rebellion and martyrdom, Milos’ death seems like the result of a chaotic sequence of events. Far from meaningless, but certainly not dramatized or heroicized. Milos’ act seems as much a strategy by which to get Hubicka “off the hook” for the absurd underplot of stamping Virginia’s ass, which detracts from its import in relation to the war, as it is a revolutionary act of individual heroics.
The opening sequence also sets the stage for the film stylistically. Milos directly addresses the audience and the scene is made up of very quick editing of film mixed up with still images. In these ways the opening sequence to Closely Watched Trains introduces the film’s resistance of traditional film structure and rigidity and also calls attention to itself as film, an artifice separate from reality. Menzel’s decision to begin the film in this way sets the tone for a film that won’t take itself too seriously but that will, in content and style, embody a free, improvisational and humorous attitude toward the representation of tragedy and the eccentricity of life in rural Czechoslovakia.