Closely Watched Trains (1966)
Ostre sledovane vlaky (original Czech title)


I remember watching Closely Watched Trains when I was in college and being fascinated by it at the time. I had not seen it since and was curious to watch it again, almost 40 years later. Like a good bottle of cognac, it has aged well, although its vintage may not be to everyone’s taste.

 

The film is rife with Freudian socio-political psychosexual power symbolism, and I would like to discuss some aspects of that symbolism in this commentary. The Freudian symbols for power are the male sexual organ (phallus) and act (ejaculation). Lack of power is synonymous with being impotent. This symbolism can be applied to individuals and also to governmental regimes.

 

The power symbolism in the film plays out across three levels of interpretation.

 

The first, most basic level of interpretation is a coming of age story of a young man, Milos, who is just starting his first job at a train station in Czechoslovakia during the period of Nazi occupation. Young Milos displays an endearing innocence as he tries to navigate the transition from childhood to manhood. He approaches the uncharted territory of adulthood sexuality with fear and trepidation, ruminating to the point of becoming sexually impotent. Meanwhile, he is literally surrounded by powerful ejaculation symbols such as steam escaping from train engines and a plethora of phallic symbols that range from locomotives to a goose’s neck. The first three-fourths of the movie in which this coming of age motif plays out has many very funny scenes. However, there is a foreshadowing that Milos’ personal angst is more serious than appears on the surface. His despair over his impotence at one point drives him to attempt suicide. Near the end of the movie, in true Freudian fashion, Milos achieves manhood via a sexual union with an experienced woman who happens to be a member of the Czechoslovakian resistance, and thus becomes empowered. The movie turns deadly serious at the very end when Milos demonstrates his newfound power in a symbolic ejaculatory explosion that destroys a Nazi train.

 

The second level of interpretation is historical socio-political in the context of the Nazi occupation. Czechoslovakia had become effete and impotent under the Nazis.  At a superficial level, a psychological strategy for survival during this period was for Czechoslovakians to make self-depreciating jokes about their situation. For example, jokes about the ridiculousness of things like adherence to silly protocols and admiration of pompous uniforms. However, at a deeper level, these jokes reflected despair, a sickness unto death of the national psyche, brought about by the impotent state of the country. An alternative to impotence and despair was the resistance movement. Embracing the resistance movement could empower Czechoslovakia to deliver (symbolic ejaculatory) explosive punishment to the Nazi occupiers.

 

The third level of interpretation is socio-political in the “present time” in which the film was made, circa 1966, and it is this third level of interpretation that raises the movie to a whole new level. The third level of interpretation was a direct threat to the Soviet occupiers of Czechoslovakia at the time the film was made. For that reason, the film likely would not have made it past the Soviet censors had the third level of interpretation been done explicitly; thus it was done implicitly. This third major theme can be summarized along these lines: We the people of Czechoslovakia may appear on the surface to be effete and/or impotent. Beware! We have a resistance movement among us. One of these days she just might empower us to strike back in a deadly fashion.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 out of 5 stars
Ron Boothe
psyrgb@emory.edu