War, death, and sexuality: The themes of Closely Watch Trains (1996)
The 1966 Czechoslovakian film Closely Watched Trains reflects many features of European New Wave cinema, including its emphasis on comedy even when detailing the tragic aspects of human existence. It is set during the Nazi occupation of the country and features a young man named Milos Hrma who works as a train dispatcher. Milos is obsessed with a fellow train dispatcher named Masa, although his first sexual encounter with her ends as a disaster. After prematurely ejaculating, Milos attempts suicide by slitting his wrists but is counseled by a physician to find a more ‘experienced’ woman to initiate him into sexual matters. However, in his encounter with Zdeni-ka, Milos playfully ‘stamps’ her buttocks with an official seal which results in him being disciplined by his superiors. The absurdity of the ‘trial’ highlights the absurdity of bureaucratic governments in general. The film ends with Milos’ death after being prompted to bomb a train by his friend (and the more sexually experienced) Hubi-ka and a female member of the resistance (who finally ‘solved’ his sexual problem). Sexual awakening, boldness, and also death are all united in the film, as is the frequently used cinematic sexual metaphor of a train being synonymous with sexual activity.
Milos is an unlikely hero: he is bumbling and incompetent throughout most of the film and is overly obsessed with his love life. Despite the fact that his country is under Nazi occupation, he is more interested in losing his virginity than actually fighting the Germans. Even his last, heroic gesture that takes his life but wins him the love of Masa is motivated by the fact that the ‘experienced’ freedom fighter Viktoria has initiated him into sexuality, not because he has suddenly become politically aware.
Milos functions more as an ‘everyman’ rather than as a hero in any sense of the word, despite the final shot of him blowing up the Nazi train. At the beginning of the film, he is an insecure adolescent, uncertain of his sexuality and still a virgin, as he begins his first job. Working with trains is the family trade: just like his retired father, he has a relatively inconsequential occupation and life. His focus is extremely narrow and does not fully encompass the great historical moment of which he is a part. Most of his admiration is focused upon the train dispatcher Hubi-ka’s sexual prowess. The film thus portrays how ‘little people’ like Milos become caught up in the sweep of history. The translation of the film’s original Czech title Closely Watched Trains seems apt: Milos is so focused upon the minutiae of his own life he cannot see the bigger picture until the very end (although it is questionable if he ever really does, given his limited political vision for much of the film and the fact he seems to act more out of sexual confidence than calculated political will).
The film contrasts the ordinariness of the protagonists and their concerns with the larger sweep of history. For example, the stationmaster of the trains where Milos works keeps pigeons; Hubi-ka initially seems more concerned with bedding young women than he is with doing his job. Even the Nazis are portrayed less as evil than they are as foolishly invested in protocols and are unaware of the strength of the resistance and the tenuous nature of their own power. They are just as obsessed with their own self-importance as the suicidal Milos and Milos’ absurd pride in his uniform.
The idea of a uniform conveying identity is very important to Milos. At the beginning of the film, he is praised by his mother for his attractive uniform. Although Milos actually has a relatively inconsequential position, he is made to feel significant because he has a uniform much like the Nazi soldiers or indeed any soldier during wartime. The film implies that this idea of a uniform conveying authority is the root of all war and discontent. There is also a discrepancy between how a bureaucracy views a uniform and how this translates into sexual mastery. For example, Hubi-ka technically has a lower position than the stationmaster, but the stationmaster is outrageously jealous of Hubi-ka because of the younger man’s success with women; the stationmaster may have pigeons but Hubi-ka has been able to ‘score’ some real birds. Likewise, simply because Milos has a uniform does not make him a man, which he discovers all too quickly. The absurdity of how officials value authority and how it does not translate into sexuality is shown both through Milos’ sexual incompetence and also what effectively translates into a court martial over the ‘buttocks-stamping’ incident.
The film could be best described as a tragic-comedy. It mixes very serious themes (the Nazi occupation) with very inconsequential themes such as Milos’ fascination with sex. The abnormal — the regimented, uniformed environment both of the Nazis and of the train station — is contrasted with Milos’ very normal fascination with sexuality, which is so typical of a young man. This typical nature is underlined when Milos, frustrated by his premature ejaculation, visits a doctor who assures Milos that this phenomenon is characteristic of male sexual development. The doctor urges Milos to think of football as a way of calming down the young man’s excitement, further eliciting humor through stereotypes in the film. The Nazis, physicians, and the stationmaster are all comically incompetent in the ways they relate to the fumbling Milos, indicating that Milos’ lack of direction is a symptom of a later system of mismanagement, rather than something particular to his character. The tragicomic nature of the film is further underlined by the lack of true villainy — instead, there is merely an obsession with protocol and blindness that creates tragedy, ultimately cumulating in Milos’ death, rather than a calculated design to create horror.
While some people watching the film might protest this theme of incompetence rather than cruelty as uncharacteristic of the true Nazi leadership, it must be remembered that the film was created during the 1960s rather than the 1940s when the memory of the Nazi occupation was less fresh. What was very real and very part of the worldview of the likely Czech viewership (although the film went on to become an international success) was the dominance of the Communist Party and Russian domination of the nation as a whole. Ostensibly talking about the past was thus a safe way to talk about the present and the ways in which the Nazis and the leadership of the train station are presented (obsessed with hierarchy and protocol, sexually prurient and prudish all at once) could be said to function as a stand-in for communism.
Thus, the death of Milos at the end is bittersweet: he defeats the Nazis and seems to gain a sense of manhood, rising to the challenge of heroism by blowing up a Nazi train even though he is gunned down in the process. He gains the love and loyalty of the woman he has long lusted after, but only through death (interestingly enough an orgasm is often called a little death or a ‘petite mort’ in French and this proves to be the case of Milos). The other Czechs are overjoyed by this even though Masa is sad and there is a strange juxtaposition of laughter at the Nazis combined with the awareness of Milos’ sacrifice. Milos becomes a hero, but at what price, asks the film, suggesting that there is an absurdity and horror even to the heroism of war lauded by fascists and communists alike. At the end, only Milos’ uniform cap remains.
Closely Watched Trains. Directed by Jiri Menzel, 1966.
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