Some things you happen upon, and due to their novelty or tone or whatever various qualities they possess, you are instantly smitten. You can’t help but have a silly smile plastered on your face. You’re just delighted by it, happy that you crossed its path. For me, Closely Watched Trains (1966) is a good example of this charm.
I’m teaching it in a few weeks to my 218, and I really don’t know what my class is going to make of it. I’ll be pretty hurt if they were bored, but they may be. All the names are foreign, and the setting, late-WWII Czechoslovakia, is further away from them than the moon. The protagonist, Milos Hrma, works at a train station, an occupation that’s a rarity today.
This is a case of seeing the movie first and then reverse-engineering back to the novella. The novella, unlike the movie, is in non-linear form. The story takes place during the day and night that Milos bombs the train. Everything else that happens (his failed attempt at sex with Masha, his interrupted suicide, three months of recuperation) is all in narrated flashbacks, more like memories being lingered on. The movie is linear, relaying these events in order. This will be, at least for me, an exciting new first-person narrator (In fact, all three of my new first person narrators [Milos, Jeff Jefferies, Major Calloway] are pretty reliable.). My previous two first person narrators for this unit (Alex from A Clockwork Orange and the narrator from Fight Club) were totally unreliable. That made for good discussion and a lot of issues regarding adaptation. My new bunch will provide other avenues of exploration. But Milos is so earnest, like he can’t possibly tell us a lie. He seeks the advice of the station master’s wife, Mrs. Lánská, even though she adamantly repeats that she’s “already in the change” and “do[es]n’t want to have anything to do with all that any more, really.” He doesn’t go to Hubička, which would seem an obvious move, as he is the magnet to all women (although Milos does ask him, or anyone else that he comes in contact with, for help in the movie). But he tells us, the reader, and we can’t help him.
Who does help him is Viktoria Freie, and he is able to contribute yet another rip on yet another station-master’s oilskin couch. He’s so empowered, he’s such the man, that he takes on the dangerous mission of throwing a bomb onto an ammunition train as it passes. The train blows up in a mushroom cloud, but not before Milos is fatally wounded by a German soldier, who he kills in close quarters in an awkward passage where he has to try three times to silence the soldier crying “Mutti!” over and over. Milos’s suppositions about “Mutti” being the soldier’s wife and not mother, and him concocting a whole home life scenario for the soldier while he tries to kill the soldier while dying slowly himself, is strange – why is he doing that? Just minutes ago, he decried the German refugees from the bombing of Dresden who huddle inside his station for warmth, sobbing.
But this plot summary is far too reductionist. What delights me are these characters! Station-master Lánský with his pigeons and a coat (with one star bordered with an inspector’s field instead of three stars) ready for when he is promoted, which he seems to live for outside of his pigeons, yelling down the ventilation shaft in his kitchen about the corruption of the youth. He won’t yell at Hubička. When he yells at his wife, she occasionally beats him back, so he yells down the ventilation shaft. Everyone can hear him (his living quarters are connected to the station). No one is missing his message, but he can’t direct his fury at anyone. When the Traffic Inspector shows up to reprimand Hubička, Lánský’s got his birdshit-stained coat on, covered with his adoring Polish silver-points, and we know from the look on his face that he will never be a traffic inspector like he dreams. Hubička with his stamps, it’s just delicious. Two people having fun, it portrayed as being so naughty but it isn’t. Councillor Zednicek, who got his position by taking the Czech accents out of his name to make it sound more German, only able to rage against the improper use of German (since half the stamps were auf Deutsche), even though Zednicek barely knows German himself. Milos’s descriptions of his father, grandfather and Great-grandfather Luke are hilarious. The idea of a hypnotist marching out to meet panzers, them stopping for a moment, and then running him over. A pensioner who goes to worksites, drinking and smoking, yelling about how he loves not working, beaten daily only to come back, bandaged, to tease the workers more. It’s tragic and comic. The bricklayer who is God. There’s so much to enjoy in such a short space.
One thing about the book that does not show up in the film is Hrabal’s rampant hate of animal abuse, or the treatment of animals overall. What we get is the scene where Milos talks to the stationmaster’s wife while she force feeds a goose, which comes off as oddly erotic rather than cruel. But it is very clear in the book. The grotesque descriptions (some of which make their way into the movie, if briefly) of bulls with broken knees and ripped-out noses being dragged by their horns to the station to be sold to the slaughterhouses, the disgusting conditions of cattle and sheep being hauled across the country for days, no food or water, legs breaking through the slats of the floor of the train cars and dangling out to be broken. I realize it would be very easy to make a Holocaust connection, but a lot of Hrabal’s stories deal with the cruel treatment of animals (Hrabal’s demise is sort of linked to him trying to be kind to, of all things, pigeons). And to have these funny situations broken up by these awful details is, at times, truly nauseating. You do not have this tonal dissonance in the film version.
There are two things the film version does do better than the book. One is Virginia’s (again, great name choice) mother parading her around to various authorities, imploring them to view the scandal that is her daughter’s stamped backside, and the various officials all too willingly complying with the request, then noting that she’s showing the wrong people and the matter is for another body (ha, ha). The second is a function of the linear plot. It is a stroke of brilliance on Hrabal and Mendel’s part of having the stamp investigation take place as Milos and Hubička are awaiting the arrival of the closely watched ammunition train. It increases the tension two-fold. But what then unravels things slightly is Virginia’s description of Hubička’s stamping, which almost takes Milos away from the task. Him trying to camouflage the bomb as he takes it out of the desk drawer right where Virginia is sitting, all eyes riveted on her, is so perfect that I wonder if Hrabal wished he had written the novella that way.
And this is where my beloved Criterion truly lets me down. Always so replete with extras, but not for sad little CWT. There’s an essay in the pamphlet inside, which is accessible online, and the US trailer. Nothing else. Crushed.
“We always return to such widely hailed and greatly beloved films with trepidation, so often is our initial enthusiasm betrayed by the passing of years … That is not the case with Closely Watched Trains. If anything it seems to me more powerful” writes Richard Schickel. This I agree with. However, his assertion that the ending is integral and how Mendel and even Hrabal prepare us for Milos’s demise bothers me. I don’t want Milos to die at the end. His conquest of Viktoria is not sufficient enough for me. We cannot be treated to a heroic ending with the train being blown and Milos tripping off to rendezvous with Masha? Why not? Too Hollywood?