CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS
ART FILM OF THE WEEK
Winner of the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, director Jirí Menzel of the Czech New Wave—from which Milos Forman also hails—was nearly forced to give up his award by his Communist government due to the veiled allegorical criticisms of his society as told by his charmingly minimalist film.
Menzel’s Trains is a book of experimental technique. The introductory pre-credit sequence is a fantastic montage (almost a short film in itself) composed of still photographs revealing the occupation of the Czech government by Germany in World War II. In the narration, youthful protagonist Milos Hrma expounds upon his grandfather’s attempt to hypnotize the German army to keep them from attacking. Thus, a whimsical touch keeps the severity of occupation comedic throughout.
Milos takes up his father’s old job at a train station where almost the entire film is contained. The musical score is often contrapuntal to the stark visuals. Such playful irony is due to the film’s dichotomy between strategic war duties and ecstatic erotica. Keeping watch over the trains builds up tension when females are introduced into the narrative. Milos’ dream girl, a conductress named Masa, entices him into a serious relationship. In a bittersweet vignette, soldiers deprived of the female touch leer at a passing train full of women, which leads to an orgy on the train car.
The post-pubescent Milos takes the initiative to consummate his own relationship, but suffers from premature ejaculation on more than one occasion. In anguish, he attempts suicide by cutting his wrists with razorblades in a bordello. When he is rescued and taken to the hospital, his doctor explains that he needs proper training to avoid his sexual disadvantage. Therefore, he must find an older woman to teach him the ways of intercourse in order to perform for his girlfriend.
In another in a series of blissfully erotic moments, a train dispatcher stamps a young girl’s bare bottom, which, of course, creates an uproar that is never fully resolved. This particular scene has been praised as one of the most iconic, comedic, and original scenes in all of cinema’s erotica.
Director Menzel heralds New Wave craftsmanship to awaken a belief in the art form of modern Czech cinema. He was fortunately able to keep his Oscar for Trains by making a deliberately pro-Communist film immediately subsequent to the award-winning picture. Yet, only a few years later, he was accused again of being subversive toward the government. He was only able to make films by reluctantly admitting to support the Communist Party.
It wasn’t until the fall of Communism that he was truly free to make the statements he wanted to extol. In Trains, there is a sense of total control of the visual image combined with an unforgettable use of sound. Protagonist Milos’ sexual liberation is parallel to a moment of liberty from the occupation of Germany. Put simply, the film is a daring masterpiece of love and honor while being playful, surprisingly light, and accessible.