Saturday, 30 August 2014

Watching the film, Closely Observed Trains

Last night, I sat at home and watched Jiri Menzel's film Closely Observed Trains (premiered in Czechoslovakia 1966 released abroad 1967). I don't know how many years it is since I last watched it.

Memory (which may be false) tells me that I first watched it in 1969, when I was 22 and living in the first of several Communes at 154 Barnsbury Road, Islington, North London - known to some as the "Horror Commune". Under the direction of the house's owner, Hilary Rawlings, this large North London terraced house had been refurbished to make it communal-activity friendly. The open plan ground floor incorporated a stage at the garden end. In the centre of the room, a circular or egg shaped table had a central hole cut into it through which gas pipes led to several gas rings - the idea, to make cooking a more communal activity with people sitting round rather than facing the wall at a gas stove.

Someone - maybe Vivan Sundaram, studying film at the Slade - had the idea of whitewashing the rear garden wall, thus enabling films to be projected from inside the house through the large rear sash window. People could then sit on the stage to watch. My recollection is that Closely Observed Trains was projected onto that garden wall. Whether other films were ever projected, I don't recall.

In memory, the film is linked to an incident a year or so before, when I was a student in Oxford. A young male Czech student and a girlfriend arrived (I don't know how) as refugees from Czechoslovakia, looking for help to get asylum - I think this must have been around the time of the Soviet invasion. They were put in touch with me ( as someone active in socialist politics) and I arranged for the student to meet Robert Maxwell MP at his Oxford home, Headington Hall. We went there on a Sunday morning. I remember a harp on display in the hallway and then the three of us in a large drawing room. The boy's English was not so good and Maxwell switched into his native Czech. Afterwards, he expressed some ambivalence about helping. He was worried that the student might be a provocateur and Maxwell had business interests in Czechoslovakia, where books were printed for his Pergamon Press company.

I have no memory of what happened after that meeting.

Watching Closely Observed Trains last night, I was surprised first by its candour about sexuality and its sexual liberalism. Czechoslovakia was never as prudish as the Soviet Union and though the heavy hand of Communism may partly account for scenes which fade to black, sexual humour is central to the film and is allowed free expression. The centrality of sex in the film reflects a reality of war time: faced with daily danger, people want to have sex and if it's fun so much the better.

The young hero of the film - all of 15 or 16 - wants to have serious sex (with his eager girlfriend) but suffers from premature ejaculation. He tries to commit suicide and then, recovered, talks about his problem to anyone who will listen and asks for their help. All this in Nazi - occupied Czechoslovakia circa 1943.

In the end, it is the Czech Resistance which comes to the boy's rescue: his older (and cheerfully promiscuous) colleague in the railway station where they work (and where the whole film is set) sets him up for a night with a female Resistance worker who has just delivered a package of explosives for use against a German munitions train. She does the trick. I laughed when I made the connections: The Resistance will make a Man of You!

And it does make a man of him. When the boy's Resistance colleague finds himself trapped in a gorgeously farcical disciplinary hearing (pure Bakhtin carnivalesque you might say), just at the time when he is supposed to place and detonate the explosives, the newly masculinised hero steps in, does the job for him - and gets machine gunned by an alert Nazi guard. But he died happy - he'd fucked.

As critics I have Googled remark, all this is unfolds with great sympathy and tenderness against the backdrop of a brutal war. Some of that brutality is alluded to by the railway station staff when they talk about how terribly the Germans mistreat cattle, visibly so in passing trains headed for the slaughter house. At their station, it is only cattle trains which pass but the allusion to the human cattle trains which everyone in the cinema audience knows about is very effective.

Googling I found that Ken Loach picks this as a film to be passed on to future generations. I think he's right.





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