Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jiři Menzel | Ostre Sledované Viaky (Closely Watched Trains)

a comedy of death
by Douglas Messerli
Jiři Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal (screenplay, based on Hrabal’s fiction),  Jiři Menzel (director) Ostre Sledované Viaky (Closely Watched Trains) / 1966 / the screening I viewed was at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on September 23rd 2013

Jiři Menzel’s 1966 film, Closely Watched Trains was one of the major Czech New Wave films, winning the Academy’s Oscar that year for the Best Foreign Film. I recall seeing it in the theater in 1966, but could not have described any of its scenes until reviewing it last evening. When we are young (I must remind myself I was only 19, about the age of the major figure of the film, when it first premiered) we often perceive events at a far more literal level, and comic scenes remain just that without us comprehending the deeper implications of what the comic truly signifies.

     The film centers on a young man, Miloš Hrma (wonderfully performed by Václav Neckář), who shares in his ancestor’s ambition to do as little as possible in life, an early relative having been a professional hypnotist, who when the German tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop them in their tracks through hypnotism. They rolled over him. The boy’s father has retired in his late forties to spend his life on the couch, living on a small pension.

      Clearly a kind of “mamma’s boy,” revealed through his mother’s loving attention to the uniform she has made for him as a stationmaster’s assistant, Miloš, living in a small backwater town, sets off into the world with a job, mostly, of slowing down and speeding up trains, saluting them as they pass.
The young man is a true innocent, who has clearly never had sex with a girl (the director describes himself as an “abstinent bachelor”), the slightly clumsy figure who looks somewhat like a child dressed up for a new job, seems to fit in nicely to the laid-back atmosphere of the train station, where the elderly stationmaster, living upstairs, raises pigeons while screaming out oaths (“Sodom and Gomorrah”) to his sexually busy Train Dispatcher, Hubička (Josef Somr), who seduces nearly every woman who comes into view, including, later in the film, the office telegrapher, whose legs and ass he stamps with various of the rubber impressions, used to officiate legal documents, that sit upon his desk.

      Shy, painfully uncomfortable around his train-riding girlfriend (a “nice girl” he reassures his colleague), Miloš looks up to Hubička with a kind of grudging admiration. When he, himself, attempts to have sex with the willing girl, he fails, presumably because of his sexual inexperience. So far, the film has revealed itself, accordingly, as a comedy, with Miloš serving as a kind Buster Keaton figure, while the rest of the eccentric gathering underline Menzel’s sly Eastern European wit.

      Throughout the film, however, the director as subtly demonstrated a kind of rustic cruelty in the Sationmaster’s pigeon-shit covered clothing, the killing of a rabbit right after we’ve watched coupling with another rabbitt, and the obvious fear these simple villages must daily face for living in a wartime region controlled by the Nazis. When Miloš awakens from his night of interrupted love, a bomb suddenly goes off, tearing away a part of the house in which he has slept. And soon after, the ungainly young man checks into a brothel, sans partner, to cut his wrists. Discovered just in time, the boy is taken to a nearby clinic, where an eager young doctor (played by Menzel himself) convinces him that the problem is “premature ejaculation”—something which, he admits, he himself suffers from. While there is no outward evidence that that is the problem, the doctor’s advice, which the gullible boy takes literally, is probably for the better: “Find an older woman who can take you through the process.

      Thus, has Menzel introduced into this, at first, seemingly comic work, a series of surrealist acts representing the utter chaos and brutality of war, and the desperateness of young people facing the broader world of social relationships and sexual activity. Although treated comically—the bombing scene, in particular, calls up Keaton in works such as Steamboat Bill Jr.—the following episodes take us closer and closer to the true violence lying just below the everyday events of this small Czech village.

       Approaching the Stationmaster’s wife, who sits with, what my World Film Directors volume describes as “an ailing” goose between her legs, Miloš indicates that he would like her to help him with his sexual afflictions. In itself it is simply another visual comic gag, a sort “Leda and the Swan” nudge into surreality. But, in fact, the woman is not stroking the goose’s neck to nurse it, but is force-feeding the poor animal so that its liver might eventually be converted into foie gras. Once more, comedy and cruelty are conjoined in Menzel’s and Hrabal’s tale.

       So too does the sexual release that Miloš seeks come with a price. The Czech resistance sends Victoria Freie with a bomb so that Hubička might blow up an ammunition train soon to pass through the station. Exhausted from her trip, the beautiful older woman retreats to the station’s back room, therein embracing the young Miloš in her arms and introducing him to the bliss of sexual fulfillment.

      Hubička has taken his young assistant into his confidence, asking the young man to slow down the train just enough so that he might drop the bomb onto its roof. But just a few moments before the train is scheduled to arrive, the local Councilor shows up with railroad authorities and the telegrapher’s angry mother to question Hubička about his sexual activities with the girl. Miloš must take the bomb without his superior (even in front of the Nazi Councilor and his associates, climb a train stanchion, and drop it into a passing railway car.
He successfully completes his act, but unexpectedly, a guard on the train witnesses his actions and shoots him dead. The train moves on down the tracks, a few minutes later blowing up in a whirlwind of debris that reaches back to the station, returning the poor boy’s hat. The film ends with Hubička’s empty laughter, in delight for having achieved his ends, but certainly without the knowledge that it has destroyed his young assistant’s life. Ironically, the young man who wanted an uneventful life has become an unidentified hero.

      In a somewhat uncomfortable interview with Mendel after the film, screenwriter Philip Kaufman attempted to ask a question about whether or not the boy really had a problem with premature ejaculation or whether the doctor had diagnosed it merely because he had suffered it himself. Perhaps misunderstanding the query in translation (and having played the doctor himself), Menzel blushed brightly, something his biographers describe him doing often when approached with the subject of sex. While clearly completely embracing open sexuality, Mendel is apparently, like his hero, somewhat awkward about his own body.

                               Menzel is said to be spectacularly accident-prone, liable
                               to half-blind himself while sweeping the floor, and to
                               break ribs when he tries to fix the television aerial.
                               (World Film Directors, Volume 2)

There is something endearing about an artist who is so aware of his own bodily movements and the carnal actions of the body in space which of themselves may result in serious accident or, as we see in this gentle movie, suicide and death. The marvel of Keaton or Chaplin, for example, is that even walking across the room might result, at any moment, in a kind of impossibility. Movement forward for figures such as these comedians, among whom I would count Menzel as well as Samuel Beckett’s characters, is like a tightrope walk (Menzel, indeed, played tightrope walkers in his films Capricious Summer and Crime in the Nightclub), a miracle of survival even if always on the verge of disaster.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2013

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