Yesterday the Toronto film festival hosted a special presentation of Jiri Menzel’s 1968 Czech feature Closely Watched Trains. We were lucky to see it on a big screen, because there’s only one English-subtitled print in the world, and even more lucky to hear it introduced by British director Ken Loach, because there’s only one of him in the world as well. They can always strike more prints.
As Loach explained, he’s always been a fan of the politically oriented Czech films that predate the Prague Spring of 1968, particularly this one and Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1966), but I was still fascinated that, of all the movies he might have chosen to introduce, he picked this buoyant, almost giddy comedy. Closely Watched Trains focuses on a virginal young man from a small Czech village who takes a job as a train dispatcher during the Nazi occupation. Despite the sabotage plot that takes shape as the story progresses, most of the screen time is devoted not to antifascist rhetoric but to the more pressing matter of getting laid. The young dispatcher is in love with a pretty conductor who passes through on occasion, and though she returns his attraction, he’s terrified of how he’ll perform with her. His mentor in this respect is the station master, who takes advantage of the sleepy depot’s relative privacy to stage his romantic trysts.
Although the movie’s bawdy humor seems well removed from the Loach movies I’ve seen, I can see why he admires it so much and the lessons he’s taken away from it. The shocking act of violence that ends the movie is a boldly political statement, yet for most of the running time the movie’s politics are admirably muted; Menzel spends most of his energy establishing and loving his characters, so the politics grow out of the action instead of being laid on with a trowel. “We’re accustomed to films that tell us what to think,” Loach said after the screening, but Closely Watched Trains is a movie of still, probing shots and long silences that “allow the film to breathe. . . . The quiet observation of this film is a lesson to all of us.” in particular, he said, the economical photography was a conscious influence on his debut feature, Poor Cow (1967).
Eventually the discussion was opened to questions from the audience, and Loach took the opportunity to praise the Dardenne brothers, defend Michael Moore against “sniffy” UK critics, and acknowledge one questioner’s disappointment that Neil Jordan had made a vigilante movie (though Loach noted that Jordan was a friend, and that he hadn’t seen The Brave One). He also recalled with pleasure meeting Jiri Menzel in Venice, where they’d both been invited to accept “old man’s awards.” According to Loach, the third honoree, Al Pacino, was a no-show until the last minute, when he entered from the rear of the auditorium, marched up the aisle surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, picked up his award, and split. “That’s real film,” Loach and Menzel agreed, “and we’re just pissing around.”