Monday, February 3, 2014

Closely Watched Trains

I mentioned not long ago that the Czech movie Closely Watched Trains was coming u pon the TCM schedule as part of 31 Days of Oscar. That appearance is tomorrow, February 4 at 12:15 PM, and is certainly worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

Václav Neckář plays Miloš, whom we first see in the opening scenes of the movie putting on his uniform. Presumably about 18, Miloš is the latest in a family line of railway workers, and is about to go off to his first day of work as an apprentice train dispatcher at a railway station in God-forsaken little station in the middle of nowhere in Bohemia. It!s relatively easy work, at least compared to all the other options available for somebody of Miloš' age in his era: this is the middle of World War II, when the Nazis had absorbed the Czech parts of Czechoslovakia into Germany, while leaving Slovakia as a puppet state, so Miloš and everybody else is working under Nazi domination.

The Nazi presence affects their jobs a bit, as one of the duties of the folks at the station is to make certain that Nazi cargo trains have precendence in getting through over all the other train traffic. It's not as if there's a whole lot of traffic, though, as it seems as though everybody at the station has time to do all sorts of things other than work. Miloš' immediate superior, dispatcher Hubička (Josef Somr), spends just as much time pursuing the telegraph operator Zdenka as he does dispatching trains. That, and talking with Miloš about sex; Miloš is clearly inexperienced on the topic and the other theme running throughout the movie is Miloš' desire to become a man, which for him means having good sex for the first time.

Both men have sexual experiences that go wrong, in a manner of speaking. Miloš tries to bed the conductor Maša, but the sex act is over too quickly, leaving Miloš distressed as he thinks he's impotent. Hubička, meanwhile, is engaging in kinky behavior with Zdenka, taking one of the rubber stamps that are used at the station to stamp official documents, and instead stamp Zdenka with it on her thighs and caboose. This runs Hubička afoul of the Nazis.

Against the backdrop of all that, there's a war going on. And that war is about to come to their peaceful little town. Miloš didn't know it, but there are members of the Czech underground around. They know that the Nazis have a trainload full of ammunition, and that the train is going to go through the station where Miloš and Hubička work. Hubička, in fact, is in on the plot, as the one who's supposed to put the bomb on the train to blow it up. However, when it's discovered that he's misused the rubber stamp on his co-worker, he's called away for a disciplinary hearing, leaving Miloš the only one who can put the bomb on the train. Perhaps this is a way for him to become a man....

There's a lot good to be said about Closely Watched Trains. It was filmed on location in one of those middle of nowhere villages, so there's an air of authenticity. The story of a bunch of incompentents who get the chance to redeem themselves is a theme that's been done in several war movies set in any number of wars and made in any number of countries, and it's done well here. The one part I didn't care as much for is Miloš' obsession with sex, as these scenes, and especially his psychological block over not being able to perform well in bed, really dragged the film down. If you're a fan of the various European New Waves, however, you'll probably love this one. Well, if you're a fan, you've probably already seen it, since this is one of the more famous Czech films of the 1960s.

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