Some of my favorite bits in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk were when the narrator’s attention would wander to an illustration mounted on the wall. What followed would be a kind of comic ekphrasis: a detailed description of the absurdity inherent in some pious bit of war propaganda or hagiography.
In the foreground lay a dying soldier with his leg torn off. An angel was bending over him with a wreath with the inscription on the ribbon: ‘This very day you will be with me in Paradise.’ And the dying man was smiling blissfully, as thought they were bringing him an ice cream.
Jirí Menzel’s film adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Closely Watched Trains shares both the sensibility and love for the humorous aside that mark Švejk and some of its best moments come when it utilizes still images to tell a story or provide a punch line. There is the hilarious relation of the tale of Milos’ grandfather, who when tanks roll into town, sets to work trying to hypnotize them into submission, with predictable results.
The entire Hrma family is notorious for their laziness. Milos’ father is an early pensioner and Milos new position as a station agent, a job that largely amounts to saluting passing trains, is seen as the latest example in the familial tradition. So the still images also help evoke a kind of mood: despite “great” things happening across a war-torn Europe, Milos family and indeed the entire town are not looking to find themselves making much of a mark in the history books. The title sequence is comprised of stills intercut with footage so that you’re never really sure if you’re looking at archival images from World War II or Menzel’s until one moves.
Despite the war, this frozen town finds its citizens largely attempting to ignore the grand schemes of der Führer but feigning attention when the Nazi agent shows up to give them progress reports. The townsfolk spend their time engaged in varying pursuits, each according to their interest: chickens, drinking, photography, painting and sex. There’s a great sequence where a locomotive rolls into the station covered with paintings and the station agents stop to examine and comment on the conductor’s work.
Trains like Švejk is a great meditation on the absurdities of wartime, viewing fist pumping declarations of the glory of slaughter as a nuisance that interrupts the real glories in life: small by comparison perhaps but infinitely richer. At one point the Nazi agent gleefully spreads out a map, arranging rubber stamps to mark troop locations to reveal the exciting development that their allies are retreating on all fronts. It’s all part of the plan he explains. Later, Milos fellow workers Hubicka and Zdenka engage in a flirtation that culminates in them demonstrating a more proper use for rubber stamps.