Closely Watched Trains (Jirí Menzel, 1966)
Czech Title: Ostre sledované vlaky
Jirí Menzel's Closely Watched Trains opens with a narrated history of the Hrma family (it's a very amusing montage detailing the several unlucky circumstances that have surrounded the clan --- how his great-grandfather spent his riches on alcohol and tobacco, or how his grandfather met a brutal death trying to hypnotize Nazi tanks). The youngest Hrma, goofy-looking Milos (Václav Neckár), is off to apprentice as a train dispatcher in a remote station, following the footsteps of his father who has retired very early and earns pension money without doing anything. He dons his uniform like a royal robe and wears the dispatcher's cap like a crown. In full attire, he looks older than he really is. You can barely tell that underneath the overcoat and the boots, is a young man anxious to get laid for the very first time.
Menzel tells his story with a lighthearted daze. Jaromír Sofr's black and white cinematography, curiously soft and lovely in its simplistic elegance, lends an air of ease to the darkening narrative of our virginal hero suddenly awakening to the fact that there's a more conflicted world beyond his pitiful premature ejaculation. Menzel populates his film with comedic instances and charming visual cues (that famous shot of a little kiss with Milos' conductor-girlfriend stolen by her train's abrupt departure); it's really very easy on the eyes and undeniably adorable, even when events start getting drearier.
That remote station, depicted by Menzel with fanciful commitment to the absurd (the denizens of the station from the pigeon-loving station manager to Milos' oversexed superior and all the females in between), is more than Milos' place of employment, it is his personal train station to his coming-of-age. He enters that stage in his life by disappearing in a mass of dark engine smoke. There's more to watching trains regularly than pulling levers and reading telegraphs, it also involves being stuck in an office simmering with pheromones and sweaty memories of playful nights where rubber stamps serve a steamier purpose bigger than officiating documents.
The film seems ridiculously naive, as if Menzel is invoking the Milos in his world-view of a nation invaded. But this placid depiction of war, far from being childish and immature, is more childlike than anything. The reason Closely Watched Trains is so refreshing, so genuinely watchable, is that there's a fathomable transition from lighthearted to fatal, from coming-of-age to daring heroics, from quotidian comedy to utter pathos.
Milos grows up way before he realizes it. We see the world, currently being overwhelmed by violent battles, through the eyes of Milos who is bent on ridding his blossoming masculinity of a minor inconvenience, allowing him to finally consummate that mildly amorous feeling he has for his girlfriend. The film's biggest conceit and in my opinion, its claim to greatness, is its elegiac ending which not only satisfies Milos' interrupted coming-of-age but also his place in his war-torn country. Much like the way he disappears in the thick engine smoke to the duties of apprentice train dispatcher and the accompanying pressures of adulthood, he again disappears from a former life, this time through a powerful gust of darker smoke coming from an explosion he caused out of both extreme happiness from his recently consummated manhood and that fleeting, brash and almost unnoticeable sense of patriotism.