Saturday, February 24, 2007

Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia, 1966)

This film is an example of Czech New Wave, an emulation of French New Wave cinema, with its improvisational style. Its sense of informality and loose plot focuses more on the nuances of daily life and on the nature of its characters instead of the progression of an immanent plot. What is absent from this film is a very rigid plot that ascribes a sense of fate. Here, events happen casually and almost at random. Based on a novel, the story revolves around the coming-of-age of a teenage boy who lives in a small rural town of Czechoslovakia during WWII. He is the only male in his family to actively pursue work, although an easy one as a train station attendant, continuing the legacy of avoiding hard labor as his father, grandfather and uncle did. The movie follows his hopes to lose his virginity as a rite-of-passage to adulthood.

Mostly a comedy by way of light-hearted self-deprecation, the film was humorous throughout until the end when the boy has a tragic albeit heroic death. This is another example an ironic, self-deprecating style of humor that mixed comedy with pathos. Part of the reason that this style is common among many of the films during this period is due to the nature of censorship in communist regimes. Films that were outright subversive risked not getting past the censor, so filmmakers relied on more subtle modes of criticism. The film has a lightness with the way it treats people and the comedy derived from the quirky, eccentric habits of the characters, which is part of the referential style of New Wave cinema. The characters do their jobs under the annoying and superfluous Nazi supervision. They indulge their quirks in order to pass the time and avoid the seriousness of the bureaucracy. Even though the story takes place during a horrific war, there is no moralizing quality to it, until perhaps the death of the boy, which inserts a sense of seriousness about the war that changes the tone of the film.

Why would a film set during the war refuse to deal with it directly? I found Dr. Shaviro’s notion convincing, that it is an oblique statement about refusing to get caught up in the vortex of the politics of war. It refuses to be morally inundating as part of a repetitive war-drama genre that pervaded many films of the time.


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