Skarpt bevogtede tog
1967 is maybe the largest year on the List in terms of volume, but with “Closely Watched Trains” (“Ostře sledované vlaky) I am now done with it. Some of this volume was due to filler, but there was also plenty of quality stuff in 1967. Although slightly underwhelmed (it did with the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 1967) I am inclined to place “Closely Watched Trains” in the latter group.
It is an odd film, unlike most other movies. Nothing big happens through most of the movie, but plenty of small things that does not seem to have that much to do with each other and yet meshes together to paint a larger picture. Throughout the whole thing there is an understated humor, that is often not that apparent, but if you are attentive you will pick up a lot of deadpan stuff.
The introduction sets a high standard in that respect. Milos (Václav Neckář) tells about his great grand father who got wounded in battle and lived off his pension gloating on those actually working until they beat him to death. His grandfather was a hypnotist who tried to stop the German invasion by hypnotizing the tank drivers, which worked for 30 seconds until they ran him over, and his father is a pensioned train driver who does nothing all day. Loved that! Now Milos got a job as assistant railway dispatcher, a job that requires… almost nothing.
In this non-job Milos watches the war passing by while he is mostly concerned with losing his virginity. There is a sweet train conductor he likes and she likes him, but it is not really working. If you ever watched “American Pie” you know the score, except here it is a lot more understated. Milos colleague, Hubicka (Josef Somr) also thinks only about girls but with more proficiency. In fact, he does have a ridiculous amount of fun.
Everything is a little bit absurd, but in a serious and real enough context and that is what makes the movie work. Hearing the Nazi collaborator Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodský) talk about the victorious German armies making strategic withdrawals is that sort of deadpan, absurd statements the movie is full of. When the station inspector greets Milos on his first day he tells him his father was a great train driver and in the same sentence that we once threw a stoker off the train. Think about that. That is a really odd thing to say.
“Closely Watched Trains” never becomes hilarious. There is a bitter-sweetness to it that keeps it grounded. I am not sure if that is what makes it actually work or if that is what is preventing me from falling in love with it. Ultimately it is a very sad movie on many levels. Human foolishness on every scale, from Milos silly worries, over the kangaroo trial against Hubicka for stamping a girl’s buttocks to the craziness of the war. Humor is the medicine, but it is a desperate medicine and it does not really work. Everybody is sinking.
I am pretty sure it is one of those movies you must watch a few times to appreciate it. Already thinking about it I see it in a better light than while I watched it. It is just that it feels a bit… dead. Nothing is really going anywhere and that I suppose makes me impatient. If instead I think of the scenes individually it goes a lot better.
There is a very awkward scene where Milos is looking for an older woman who can teach him about sex, so he turns to the station master’s elderly wife and mumbles something about helping him. It is a bit funny, but when you start noticing what the woman is doing to the duck while Milos is mumbling it get quite outrageous. Understated and deadpan.
This will probably grow on me so I am leaving the door open for “Closely Watched Trains”. The best movies are those that leave you thinking about them afterwards.