01 September 2006

100 films: ostre sledované vlaky


starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Jitka Bendová
written by: Bohumil Hrabal and Jirí Menzel, from Hrabal's novel
directed by: Jirí Menzel
NR, 91 min, 1966, Czechoslovakia

Latest in a long history of people who's chief ambition is to get through life by doing as little work as possible. young Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) prepares for his first day working in a railroad station by recounting his family's heritage, from his father's penchant for laying on a couch all day and collecting a pension to his grandfather the hypnotist and his futile attempt to stop the German troops through hypnosis. At the station he befriends Hubicka (Josef Somr), the resident Cassanova, who advises him on the process by which he can lose his virginity to his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová), a conductress on one of the trains. His attempts in that regard prove to be far too eager, and a distressed Milos, thinking something must be wrong with him, tries to kill himself.[1] Meanwhile, Hubicka's latest seduction comes under scrutiny from the German military.

Despite the ongoing war, director Jirí Menzel portrays Czechoslovakia as a country obsessed with sex. War is but a minor inconvenience. Even when a bomb destroys the photography studio of Masa's uncle, it has little impact on the characters or the narrative and Menzel spends as little time on it as possible, opting instead to move immediately to Milos' suicide attempt. And why not? When you're in a remote railroad post in the middle of Czechoslovakia, where nothing happens except the passing of trains, it's easy to find the terrors of love much more troubling than the horrors of an abstract war. It's only when the war comes a little closer to home, when the bombs actually destroy the building you're in, that it even warrants a mention.

That's not to say Milos and Hubicka are ambivalent about the whole thing. On the contrary, when the resistance comes to their door, they are more than willing to help out, even if that means blowing up one of their closely watched trains.

But ostre sledované vlaky isn't about war, it's about Milos coming into his own as a man. Václav Neckár plays Milos as a boy who's sexual inexperience informs everything about him, from the way he does his job to the way he relates to people around him, both male and female. Neckár's Milos is timid and unsure, an innocent terrified of the world around him. He so wants to become a man that when he fails on his first attempt, he assumes the failure to be a sign that he will never be able to perform and goes to a bordello where, instead of employing a prostitute, he cuts his wrists in the bath. He is so despondent that it isn't until a doctor informs him that premature ejaculation is perfectly normal--a symptom of being "too healthy"--and that he should practice with an older woman of ill repute and think of football.[2]

When he does find one, finally and after asking nearly everyone he encounters to set him up, he emerges a new man, composed and assured and confident. Suddenly he fills the screen. Jirí Menzel enhances the transformation, equating him to his mentor by evoking shots early in the film where Hubicka enjoys the memories of his latest conquest. No longer does Menzel continually put Milos in the bottom of the screen where he can be easily dominated by the other characters. Instead, Milos is given equal billing, existing on the same plane as everyone else--a sure cinematic sign of maturity.

What Menzel does in his Academy Award winning film[3] is infuse every frame with a virginal eroticism that mirrors the preoccupation of his hero. Seen through Milos' mindset everything is sexual, yet nothing advances past a certain point. There is no sex education for Milos, who is continually stymied in his quest for knowledge by a hastily closed curtain or an urgent telegraph or some other interruption. But it's not just Milos who sees everything as sexual. There's Hubicka, to be sure, but also their boss, Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská) the telegraph operator with whom Hubicka has a particularly explicit fling, and virtually every other character in ostre sledované vlaky. This begs the question: why is everything sexual in Menzel's film? Is it because Milos is preoccupied with sex, or is it because Menzel is trying to make a certain statement about the futility of war? Or is it a combination of the above?

[1] Naturally, this is a foolish thing to do, but is even more so when you consider how beautiful Masa is. With a girl like that, you try again.

[2] I'm no expert on the medical profession, but I imagine this isn't what they tell people to say in medical school.

[3] Winner of Best Foreign Language film in 1968, where it beat out Claude Lelouch's Vivre pour vivre (1967), Chieko-sho (1967), Skupljaci perja (1967), and El Amor brujo (1967).


johanna said...

i absolutely adore this film.

i was flicking through some doc recently where a woman was talking about how being gentle doesn't get you very far in life, and i was thinking, Maybe, but it sure makes for great filmmaking, shortie.

lucas said...

how this has slipped from the consciousness of even the film snobs is beyond me. it's really a beautiful gem.

one could argue though, that great filmmaking doesn't get you very far in life either

johanna said...

one could.

this has been my favorite of the 100 films thus far. the way the filmmaker places you right in there with his vulnerabilities and makes them your own...chiseled, without any marks left.

i think that has the effect of making this seem more about sex than it is...because it's so visceral that the eroticism is undeniable w/o being seductive, hence more enjoyable

johanna said...

ooh. i like the way your header's shaping up. nice work, lucas.

lucas said...


levi said...

the header:
i dunno. i think it slipped from good to too busy.

lucas said...


that's probably b/c i suck at photoshop.

the old one had to go (it had all those words on it that did nothing), so i'm trying this out.

johanna said...

i figured it's a work in progress, with good pics. i have no patience for photoshop, myself.