In the opening moments of Jiri Minzel’s 1966 film Closely Observed Trains, the young Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) stands between pictures of his grandfather and his great-grandfather. Milos tells us through voice-over that his great-grandfather Lukas served as a drummer boy during the Prague Upheavals of 1848 and had his leg broken by student protesters throwing stones. He collected a pension and spent the rest of his days drinking rum, smoking cigarettes, and harassing laborers. Milos’s grandfather Vilem also evaded hard labor, instead taking up life as a huckster and selling his services as a hypnotist. We see Milos’s father, a locomotive engineer who retired at 48, sitting comfortably on the couch collecting a pension. Jiri is proud to join his family’s line and his voice-over juxtaposed against humorous images of the men of his line feels ironic as if Minzel wants to satirize the foibles of military and civil service.
But, this moment is doubly ironic. Minzel wants us to see this line of opportunists as both disreputably selfish and heroically selfless. Milos’s grandfather stood up to the Nazi occupation, only to be killed by one of their tanks, and his father notes the arrival times of the titular trains carrying supplies to German troops. He will pass on the information so that others can blow them up. This line of men is simultaneously taking advantage of society’s offerings and resisting its darkest urges.
Minzel’s film deftly manages its tone – a dark humor that satirizes Czechs while also empathizing with their profound tragedy. Minzel follows two plot strands: Milos’s quest to lose his virginity and the resistance’s quest to blow up incoming German supply trains. Milos’s quest is juvenile and quixotic while the resistance’s quest is mature and honorable. Minzel manages to not only maintain the tone of each strand, but sometimes even manages to swap them for great effect.
In one notable moment, Milos nervously backs down from a sexual encounter with his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendova), only to have the house they are staying at bombed from above. As Milos leaves to go to work, he grabs his coat from a stand that is still upright in the midst of rubble. The tragedy is comedy – Milos leaves for work more bothered by his sexual humiliation than the destruction of his town. Later, Milos checks into a hotel, runs a bath, and slits his wrists. Here, the comedy is tragedy – Milos’s sexual misadventures wound him so deeply that he seeks solace in suicide.
Menzel’s work continuously confronts our immediate critical impression of characters. In Closely Observed Trains, lecherous and slovenly opportunists are the true heroes of WWII-Czechoslovakia. They are the ones transforming the Nazis’ mechanical terror into joi de vivre.