Closely Watched Trains [subtitled]

Closely Watched Trains

This supposed masterpiece foreign film from 1966 never resonated with me. From start to finish I was bored, indicating I’m just not smart enough or whatever to be in tune with this kind of thing.

Closely Watched Trains is a black and white film from Czechoslovakia that looks like it had a budget of about $1.50. It takes place toward the end of World War II. The Nazis and their local collaborationist allies are still in control in Czechoslovakia, but their time is running out.

It’s mostly a comedy about guys working at a train station in the middle of nowhere. They spend more time getting laid (or trying to, or talking about it) than working, because there’s rarely any work to do.

There are moments that are mildly funny (that I’m sure more sophisticated critics would say are uproariously funny), like the one guy sweet talking a girl into letting him rubber stamp her in various places, including her ass. (The funny part being not just his doing it, but her irate mother then dragging her to the train company office and later into a courtroom, pulling down her pants and angrily showing the stamp to the authorities, demanding they take action.)

And it’s also kind of funny when their superior drops by to give them an update on the war (the war virtually all takes place off camera), and assures them that the Germans are still in wonderful shape and certain to prevail. He’s especially encouraged by all their recent brilliant tactical retreats, sucking the Allies in just where they want them.

I was pretty much indifferent to one of the main storylines, which concerns the youngest worker’s embarrassment over his premature ejaculation with a girl the first time he tries to have sex, and his efforts to get people to help him with his problem. I also didn’t much care when the movie tried to get more serious toward the end and have some of the workers conspire to help the partisans by blowing up a German ammunition train.

I assume much of the movie is operating at a symbolic level, both having to do with the Nazis and World War II, and the Czechoslovakian Communist society of the 1960s when the film was made. But any value the film has based on that is pretty well lost on me, watching decades later.

One of the few such references I caught was their multiple conversations about the Germans taking all the local cattle away on trains, and how they mistreat the cattle by overcrowding the cars and such. I assume that’s a reference to people, not cattle, but what’s the point? Is the movie saying that Czechs at that time were ashamed to talk about the Holocaust, so even amongst themselves they’d talk about it in a sort of code by referring to cattle? Is the point that the Communist government censors would disapprove of references to the country’s past that make it seem less than heroic, so instead of having the characters talk about the Czechs’ acquiescence to the Holocaust, the filmmaker has them talk about cattle?

I don’t know. I’m sure the whole cattle thing is very clever or politically daring or subversive or something, but damned if I know what.

And that’s the one I caught. Obviously the other instances of symbolism in the movie went even farther over my head.

I think to watch Closely Watched Trains in a film class, where the references are explained and it’s placed in the context of Czech history, might help me to understand why it’s a classic. Maybe then I could appreciate it. But really, just watching it cold as a layman on my own, I got next to nothing out of it.

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