Few European films are so affectionately remembered as Closely Observed Trains, one of the pinnacles of the Czech New Wave of the 60s, brutally cut short by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, which caused Milos Forman, one of its chief exponents, to flee to America. Jiri Menzel, its director, stayed and was unable to make films for some time. Closely Observed Trains, however, won Hollywood’s Best Foreign Language film.
When eventually allowed to make a comparatively anodyne comeback feature, I interviewed him in London with the help of a translator who turned out to be a minder. This was why, every time I asked Menzel a vaguely provocative question, he kicked me gently under the table. It was a bit like a scene from Trains itself.
The film was shot in and around the Bohemian train station of Lodenice and set near the end of the second world war. The central character is a shy young clerk with a love life he can’t manage but otherwise no other serious problems. But the triumph of the film is to show us that our petty destinies are inextricably linked to bigger events outside our lives and that we can never escape them.
That he does this with such tenderness, charm and guile, as well as producing an extremely funny film, is a measure of the longevity of its appeal. It was once thought by its detractors that the film lacked real bite – indeed, Marxists called it bourgeois. But running through it is a desperate seriousness, which hardly precludes politics. “In my opinion,” said Menzel, “the true poetry of this movie, if it has any, lies not in the absurd situations themselves, but in their juxtaposition with obscenity and tragedy.”
To recount the details of the plot hardly gives more than a flavour of this much-loved film. A visiting Nazi controller explains to those at the station how, even in defeat, the Germans are triumphant, and the clerk’s first experience of a bombardment and his sight of dead people on a passing train remind one of the war. But the often absurd everyday life at the station provides a counterpoint to that. You could say that Menzel’s love of small detail and his tenderness towards his characters leaves in almost everything your average Hollywood editor would cut. The result is what one can only describe as quietly uproarious. Sexually, the film is not what one might call politically correct and it is the quirky erotic episodes, that so many remember, notably the moment when the randy young station guard, whom the clerk watches with increasing envy, rubber stamps the naked backside of a flirtatious peasant girl.
Menzel’s often elliptical work was later blunted by the self-consciousness his fame brought him; he could never have gone to Hollywood to produce something as bold as Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Amadeus. He later made the equally good and even more nostalgic Capricious Summer before being forced into a long silence. With these two films, however, he made a reputation that comfortably survived the greyness of Czech production in the censored 70s.