Sunday, January 08, 2012



220px-CloselywatchedtrainsTHE GENERALIST has been bewitched by a movie, which has opened up a kind of Pandora’s box of thoughts and connections which this post will try and explore.

‘Closely Observed Trains’  (aka Closely Watched Trains). directed by Jiří Menzel. This Czech film was released in 1966 and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1977.

The movie is set mainly around a small provincial railway station, peopled by a wonderful cast of characters, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. The principal part of the plot concerns the almost heart-breaking saga of the new recruit to the station, who is trying lose his virginity. Sex and trains are a marvellous combination. There’s a spoiler entry about the film on Wikipedia which explains the outline of the plot but I’d recommend just seeing it. The black and white cinematography is really beautifully framed and lit. The film unfolds in an almost magical fashion. I like Bosley Crowther’s co0ntemporary crit:

"What it appears Mr. Menzel is aiming at all through his film is just a wonderfully sly, sardonic picture of the embarrassments of a youth coming of age in a peculiarly innocent yet worldly provincial environment. ... The charm of his film is in the quietness and slyness of his earthy comedy, the wonderful finesse of understatements, the wise and humorous understanding of primal sex. And it is in the brilliance with which he counterpoints the casual affairs of his country characters with the realness, the urgency and significance of those passing trains."

Its Ken Loach’s favourite film.

See also: Czechoslovak New Wave: ‘a term used for the early films of 1960s Czech directors Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Vojtěch Jasný, Evald Schorm and Slovak directors Juraj Herz, Juraj Jakubisko, Štefan Uher, Ján Kádár, Elo Havetta and others. The quality and openness of the films led the genre to be called the Czechoslovak film miracle.’


The film was based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997), who also co-wrote the screenplay. Hrabal is a major writer of prodigious talent  who is still little-known in the wider world. Much of his work has yet to be translated. These two are both short pithy works of great power, lashed with humour, full of vivid and unexpected scenes and remarkable flights of fancy.

imageThere’s a lovely piece of writing about Hrabal by James Wood in the London Review of Books, which you can read online. These are three short exciting extracts:

Hrabal kept his ear close to the pub table. He sat for hours in his favourite Prague establishment, the Golden Tiger, listening to beer-fed stories foam. Those who knew him recall a man who liked to pass himself off as a beer-drinker rather than a writer, content to sit silently and gather – the community’s generous beggar.

…..a new way of writing, whereby heterogeneous elements could be forced against each other, in a natural, comic manner, arising out of ordinary human business rather than the obviously surreal.

Hrabal began to experiment with an unlimited, flowing style, almost a form of stream-of-consciousness (he admired Joyce, Céline and Beckett) in which characters associate and soliloquise madly. He called it pabeni, to which the closest approximation, according to Skvorecky, is ‘palavering’. This palavering is really anecdote without end. The lovely truancy with which Hrabal’s work vibrates has to do with its hospitality to an abundance of stories. Often, one senses that Hrabal has taken a brief comic tale heard in the pub, and exaggerated its comic essence.

On 3 February 1997, Bohumil Hrabal, sick and in despair, haunted by what he called his own ‘loud solitude’, and obsessed by the idea of ‘jumping from the fifth floor, from my apartment where every room hurts’, fell from the fifth floor of a hospital while he was trying to feed the pigeons.

Then what happened over the last eight weeks during which I not only watched the film twice but also got hold of Hrabal’s books and read them excitedly – while I was in the spell of all this – Vaclav Havel died and his state funeral was held and then, just yesterday, read this obituary of Josef Skvorecky in The Independent. For those who were there at the time and for those who weren’t, some history.





‘In the long run, the most noble of the "1968's" where not the French, German, British or American students and intellectuals; the real heroes of that time were Sakharov, Bonner, Landsbergis, Milosz, Kuron, Karpinski and Havel. They helped create a human rights movement that would spread throughout the Soviet bloc and discredit the tyranny. The 1989 revolution would not have been possible without them.’

Source: Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day

The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected the First Secretary of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and continued until 21 August when the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms. The Prague Spring reforms were an attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel.

Czechoslovakia remained occupied until 1990.




Vaclav Havel In Wenceslas Square in Prague

The Velvet Revolution was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989. Dominated by student and other popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, it saw to the collapse of the party's control of the country, and the subsequent conversion from Czech Stalinism to capitalism.[1]

On November 17, 1989, a Friday, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.

With the collapse of other Warsaw Pact governments and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state.

. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.



Vaclav Havel and Lou Reed (2005)

Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician.

A Nobel Peace Prize nominee,[2] he was the ninth[3] and last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He wrote more than 20 plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally.


During the first week of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Havel assisted the resistance by providing an on-air narrative via Radio Free Czechoslovakia station (at Liberec). Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. He was forced to take a job in a brewery, an experience he wrote about in his play Audience.

This play, along with two other "Vaněk" plays (so-called because of the recurring character Ferdinand Vaněk, a stand in for Havel), became distributed in samizdat form across Czechoslovakia, and greatly added to Havel's reputation of being a leading dissident (several other Czech writers later wrote their own plays featuring Vaněk).[12]

This reputation was cemented with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written partially in response to the imprisonment of members of the Czech psychedelic band The Plastic People of the Universe.[13] (Havel had attended their trial, which centred on the group's non-conformity in having long hair, using obscenities in their music, and their overall involvement in the Czech underground).[14]

Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979. His political activities resulted in multiple stays in prison, and constant government surveillance and questioning by the secret police, (Státní bezpečnost). His longest stay in prison, from June 1979 to January 1984, is documented in letters to his wife that were later published as Letters to Olga.


Plastic People of the Universe. (Retrieved from


Source: Without Shoes blog

The  Plastic People of the Universe was formed less than a month after the Soviet invsaion.

Bassist Milan Hlavsa formed the band which was heavily influenced by Frank Zappa ("Plastic People" being a song by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) and the Velvet Underground in 1968.[2]

Czech art historian and cultural critic Ivan Jirous became their manager/artistic director in the following year,[1] fulfilling a role similar to the one Andy Warhol had with the Velvet Underground. Jirous introduced Hlavsa to guitarist Josef Janíček,[1] and viola player Jiří Kabeš. The consolidated Czech communist government revoked the band's musicians license in 1970.[3]

Because Ivan Jirous believed that English was the lingua franca of rock music, he employed Paul Wilson, a Canadian who had been teaching in Prague, to teach the band the lyrics of the American songs they covered and to translate their original Czech lyrics into English. Wilson served as lead singer for "the Plastics" from 1970 to 1972, and during this time, the band's repertoire drew heavily on songs by the Velvet Underground and the Fugs.

The only two songs sung in Czech in this period were "Na sosnové větvi" and "Růže a mrtví", lyrics of both being written by Czech poet Jiří Kolář. Wilson encouraged them to sing in Czech. After he left, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec joined the band and they began to draw upon Egon Bondy[2] whose work had been banned by the government. In the following three years, Bondy's lyrics nearly completely dominated PPU's music. In December 1974, the band recorded their first "studio" album, Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned (the title being a play on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), which was released in France in 1978.

In 1974, thousands of people travelled from Prague to the town of České Budějovice to visit the Plastics' performance. Stopped by police, they were sent back to Prague, and several students were arrested.[1] The band was forced underground until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Unable to perform openly, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s. The sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, mainly due to their long hair.

In 1976, the Plastics and other people from the underground scene were arrested and put on trial (after performing at the Third festival of the second culture) by the Communist government to make an example. They were convicted of "organized disturbance of the peace" and sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months.[1] Paul Wilson was deported[3] even though he had left the band in 1972. It was in protest of these arrests and prosecution that led playwright Václav Havel and others to write the Charter 77.[3]


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