Issue 218 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

The big picture

Closely Observed Trains

In a dictatorship critical art often has to hide its message behind metaphor and suggestion. Closely Observed Trains, which was made by Jiri Menzel in 1966 in Czechoslovakia, is a brilliant example of this.

On the surface there is nothing political about a film set in a provincial railway station staffed by a series of oddballs. Indeed, the film works well as a comedy. It is set in occupied Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, yet Nazis appear rarely and are usually minor officials with no real power to inflict terror. At one point the controller of the railways says in exasperation, 'We all know that the Czechs are nothing but laughing hyenas,' and this seems to sum up the activities of the characters in the film.

During one quiet evening the lecherous station guard and Zdenicka, the telegraphist, play a game which ends up with her forfeiting her clothes. He marks official stamps on her legs, and the stamps go higher each time. Seeing these, Zdenicka's mother later drags her along to the local court and demands that something is done to protect her daughter's honour. To show the evidence to the judges, she lifts up the young woman's skirt. But after a good look, the judges inform her it is not a criminal matter. This routine continues from the court to the police station to the railway inspectorate, by which time the mother has completely destroyed her daughter's 'honour'.

Sexual frustration plays an important part in Closely Observed Trains. In this sense it feels like other films of the mid-1960s, where people are yearning to break out of the conformity of the postwar era. This is represented in the film by the stationmaster who keeps complaining about how morals are in decline and shouting about Sodom and Gomorrah.

Sex also looms large for the teenage Milos, the apprentice guard who is one of the central characters. His relationship with a young conductress is hampered by his chronic shyness, and the evening spent at her uncle's house turns into a disaster, which leads Milos to attempt suicide. A psychiatrist at the hospital where Milos is recovering (a cameo part for the director) tells him he is merely suffering from a case of premature ejaculation, and advises him to think of football, and his team being relegated, as a cure.

If the film were merely a comedy of sexuality then it would surely have come and gone, however funny it might be. But there is another side which makes it worth a second look. The speeches of the fascist controller of railways are full of echoes of the Stalinist regime. At one point, when talking about Nazi military strategy, he says that it is all for the benefit of the people of Europe, even if they themselves do not realise it. Stalinism too claimed to rule on behalf of a working class which had no say in the system, and did not like what was being done in its name.

At the end of the film, as the partisan resistance appears, a German freight train loaded with ammunition is blown up and the station staff all fall about in hysterical laughter. The fascist controller of railways is surrounded by people laughing and it seems suddenly that laugher at authority is in itself a subversive act.

Closely Observed Trains was produced two years before the official start of the Prague Spring in 1968, when the Communist Party leaders introduced reforms under the slogan, 'Socialism with a human face.' The liberalisation started in the arts as the authorities allowed more and more books, plays and films to pass the censorship. This acted as a testing ground for reform since, if the leadership got nervous about new freedoms, it could simply stop allowing through new films, plays or books which were not approved. After the Prague Spring was crushed by Russian tanks in 1968 the film was banned as being 'pornographic' despite the fact that it contains no nudity.

The film won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1967, and has since gained a reputation as one of the best films of the Czech 'New Wave'. It has several stories on different levels and you feel as if you have entered into a little world where many of the characters have enough depth to engage the viewer's interest.

If you can't rent it you can buy the video from any major record shop for around 15. Closely Observed Trains will make you laugh and think at the same time, which means it is well worth a look.

Nicolai Gentchev

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