What’s the fuss about Closely Watched Trains?
It cannot have been easy for Jiří Menzel (1938–2020); he produced the masterpiece Closely Watched Trains as his debut feature. The movie poses that question, how do you move on? The characters are like insects trapped in amber because they were standing too long in the wrong place. The movie is set at a village station. Trains arrive and depart in plumes of vapour, but most things don’t move. Menzel understood the power of keeping the camera too, locked in position, resisting its curiosity. The station’s rhythms pass by the lens, playing out day upon day. Action is often off-screen, in another room, over a fence, in a railway carriage, spied through a gap. The camera waits, surveying life-long ennui punctuated by bawdy moments of interchange, windows of opportunity.
Jirí Pavlik received a BAFTA nomination for the soundtrack, meticulously constructed, marshalling discrete noises into neat taxonomizes, from huff, to click, and chime. At the station, the tick of time is well-maintained. It is the people who are dysfunctional. Central to the story is novice ‘train dispatcher,’ Milos; an adolescent wracked with anxiety about sexual performance. His pathology is not the only short-coming among the station staff. All share a blind spot, the naïve conceit that they have privileged insight. It makes them inert so that they can quietly spy on one another’s boring activity. The people are enigmatic, lacking commitment. They have associated too long with the inscrutable mechanical signals and telegraphs in the station office. One minute they seek the approval of the officials of the Nazi occupation, the next conspire against them.
Milos is played with smouldering impassively by proto heartthrob popstar Václav Neckár. He suffers unrequited love for the slightly more urbane, and somewhat flirtatious, Mása, acted by Jitka Bendová. She is a train conductor, always on the move. In one defining moment, poised to steal a kiss, Milos craning up from the tracks, Mása bending over the railing of the caboose, before their lips meet, the train pulls away. The camera’s gaze is stoic, fixed on Milos, still puckered up, eyes closed, as Mása slides out of frame.
She also helps out in her randy uncle’s photographic studio. Here, in the darkroom, the couple steal an embrace. The rapturous moment is ruined. Uncle bursts in, accompanied by a group of shrill coquets. Later that night, the couple draw close again, renewing their kissing, but Milos is taciturn. Her passion rejected Mása goes off to sleep elsewhere. The source of Milos’s coyness is fear of premature ejaculation. A doctor, a cameo acted by Menzel, advises him to seek an experienced woman and, when stimulated, to think of football. In a series of innocent and absurdist encounters, Milos follows the advice to the letter.
The arrival of a bomb, delivered by an attractive resistance fighter, initiates momentum leading to the movie’s explosive denouement. Inviting Milos to join her for a ‘nap,’ she relieves his sexual demure, and, with it, equilibrium. Change is expressed in Milos’s post-coital pronouncement, “I’ve never been so calm as I am today. I cut myself off from the past entirely. Just like that.”
Milos’s past, outlined in the movie’s opening scenes, is a story of paralysis. Retired at 48, his father spends the day reclining on the sofa. Standing fast, his grandfather tried to hypnotize the entire German army. He was crushed by their advance. His great-grandfather was invalided from the army, spending his pension on a daily ration of rum and tobacco.
Milos recants his indolent legacy, but Menzel’s camera won't budge, it is unflinching to the end — the final blast. Typically, the bomb’s detonation occurs out of view. The train has left the station and disappeared around the bend. Milos is gone. The shockwave delivers his cap back to Mása, who has arrived just in time to witness his heroic gesture of resistance.
The rooted life of the railway station has parallels with the contemporary era of pandemic. The small group isolated together. In this case hemmed in by the perils of war, but it could equally be the unseen virus that lurks just outside our doors. We have inactivity, periods of just watching, enhanced awareness of ambient sound, yearning for intimacy, and sexiness itching in the tedium. Reviewing Closely Watched Trains today is a reminder that it is easy to become stuck in the past, vacillating around opportunity, yearning for a return to imagined security. It is an old story.