Thursday, February 01, 2007

Closely Watched Trains

Like the French New Wave there was once a Czech New Wave. It flowered for a brief time in the mid sixties, in the period also known as the "Prague Spring", during which it produced a few classics. A few even won the academy award for the best foreign film. It didn't last long however. In 1968 at the height of the cold war Prague was invaded by the Soviet Armed forces and it became one of the satellite states of Soviet Union. The bleak and absurd humour and sly anti-authoritarian style, so typical of the Eastern European literature in general, wasn't really in tune with the Soviet aesthetics and artists and intellectuals were mostly persecuted under the new regime. Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is set in the same period, memorably tells the story of one such intellectual (and a doctor) who is forced to become a window-cleaner after he publishes an essay critical of the Czech communists. Many even had to emigrate. Most famous of them was Milos Forman who continued to make great films in Hollywood, among them One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Closely Watched Trains is based on a novel of the same name by the famous Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who also co-wrote the screenplay. It tells the story of a young and awkward loser of a young man, again something typical of these films, some kind of an anti-thesis of a "hero" and not unlike the famous "good soldier Svejk," who is more concerned with his personal problems and sexual confusion than the events surrounding him. The story is set in the last days of second world war in a remote Nazi-occupied Czech town where the hero works a trainee guard at the railway station. He is romantically involved with a girl but can't consummate his affair because he suffers from premature ejaculation. In despair he even tries to take his own life. The story basically tells the process of his transformation into a heroic character, although of a very peculiar type. I won't reveal anything of the plot but suffice to say that it is very surprising and very effective.

The most obvious thing to notice in it is its narrative style. Everything is as low key as imaginable. If one is not attentive one is sure to miss all the humour. The humour itself is so absurd that at places it turns into something else. There is an erotic scene which must be one of the weirdest ever. (The guard who has sex with a young girl is prosecuted for profaning the German language instead! She was willing, you see! I won't spoil it by describing what happens just that it involves some creative use of rubber stamps.) The wry comic tone is disturbed at many places by tales of cruelty, specially to animals. One scene where one of the characters describes a railway carriage carrying cattle is particularly disturbing. In a way that is why the film is so successful in the end. The way it mixes different tones and yet maintains a low-key and mildly somber style. This is only the third Czech film from that period that I have seen but all three have been very impressive. The other two are Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde, which I saw last year and The Firemen's Ball, which I saw only yesterday. Will write about them in detail later. I had linked to some articles about Czech new wave in my small post on Loves of a Blonde earlier. All three highly recommended.

And even though I haven't read anything by Hrabal, I should link to this essay by literary critic James Wood. It is fantastic.


km said...

So many good films (and so much literature of dissent) came out of Eastern Europe in that one year - 1968.

w said...

Oh, please do pick up Hrabal, especially Too Loud a Solitude and I Served the King of England (the latter has made into a film by the same director of Closely Watched Trains). I'm such a fan of his that I even named my blog for Solitude. :-)

Anyway, thanks for posting this, I can't wait for my copy of the DVD to arrive now.

Alok said...

km: yes east europe has a vibrant cultural tradition. sadly it doesnt get lot of coverage in the west.

w: wow! that's a nice name for blog :) Hrabal is on top of my reading list now. Will get one of his books asap.

Eugene Costa said...

Thanks for the reference to Hrabal's Too Loud A Solitude. A related essay of mine here from some time ago on Good Soldier Schweik and Closely Watched Trains: