Last week, Ana told me about a screening of "Closely Watched Trains" at the Working Men's Club in Bethnal Green. It sounded like fun, and I hadn't seen a Czech film before.
The Working Men's Club was really great, a perfect place to watch a movie. The air was a bit musty, and all the seats were filled with pretty serious film lovers. It was almost as if they transposed the regular crowd at Anthology Film Archives onto a small-town community center multi-purpose room-- if only I could imagine them screening New Wave movies at the old LAYC hall or American Legion.
The film was wonderful. Winner of the 1967 Oscar for best foreign film, "Closely Watched Trains" (Ostře sledované vlaky) tells the story of a teenage boy, starting his first job at a small train depot in Czechoslovakia towards the end of the second World War. Acting as apprentice to a lascivious dispatcher, Milos comes to learn about love, sex, and frustration with the help of his superiors and his girlfriend-- a young conductor named Máša. Eventually, Milos takes action, almost oblivious to the war around him.
In many ways, "Closely Watched Trains" reminded me of one of my favorite films-- Ermanno Olmi's 1961 masterpiece, "Il Posto." Sometimes called the last Neorealist film, "Il Posto" also tells the story of a teenage boy learning about the world and its frustrations while at the helm of his first proper job.
Menzel's Milos and Olmi's Domenico share first loves, knowing glances, a growing understanding of the power structure. When we see these kinds of overlaps in international film, we realize what a universal art it is. How natural filmmaking must be for us if we use it all to a similar end.
"Closely Watched Trains" and "Il Posto" would make for a great double feature: it would be an evening of young men, fumbling through the more decisive moments of the twentieth century, all while figuring out how to talk to girls.