by RICHARD WINTERS
This is an engaging, amiable Czechoslovakian import that won the Academy Award for best foreign film of 1966. The story concerns a young man named Milos (Vaclav Neckar) who follows in his father’s footsteps and gets a job at the local railway company during World War II. He almost immediately becomes bored with it and gets preoccupied with a beautiful young train conductor named Messa (Jitka Scoffin). The two have a sexual tryst, but Milos is unable to “rise to the occasion.” He becomes despondent and even tries to commit suicide, but is saved at the last minute. While he is recuperating in the hospital the doctor informs him that he suffers from premature ejaculation. Milos then spends the rest of the time scouring the village for some prostitutes that he can “practice on” so that he can learn to control his condition and become a “real man.” A subplot involves plans to blow up a German train carrying some high level munitions.
Despite the fact that it is very leisurely paced and everything happens at one not very exciting location I still found the film to be immensely enjoyable. I had the feeling that director Jiri Menzel spoke straight from the heart with this one. The bleakness of the characters’ situation and the poor, hopeless conditions of their country is vivid and yet the ingenuity and perseverance of the human spirit never fades. Anyone who has dealt with an oppressive situation will most assuredly relate. The fact that this film stays so highly amusing and touching despite the depressing elements is what makes it a winner.
In a lot of ways this was years ahead of its time. The very liberal sexual attitudes and provocative scenes were stuff not yet seen in most movies and didn’t really become the norm, even for European films, until the ’70s and ’80s. Although not extreme there is indeed some lingering eroticism and even nudity. One segment involves Milos’s very amorous co-worker Hubicka (Josef Somr) rubber stamping the naked rear of Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska) who works as the station’s secretary. When her shocked mother finds out about this she parades her daughter all around town, exposing her rear to everyone, so that they can witness the “outrageous crime” while the amused Zdenka finds it a turn-on. There is also another scene, which another reviewer considered to be the most unique scene ever put on film that involves an old woman and a goose. I’ll agree it is very different, but I am not exactly sure what she was doing with it, or if I want to know, or if it is even legal, but it does indeed catch your attention.
Of course the drawback to this is the fact that the characters’ attitudes seem far too modernistic for the era. At no time did I feel like I was really being transported back into the 1940s. There was also a little too much preoccupation with the sex angle and I felt there needed to be a little more balance with the actual war.
The Milos character is a bit too wide-eyed. He looks literally like a deer-in-headlights through the entire progression of the movie. He seems overtly naïve for someone of 18. I know it was done for comedy purposes, but having his mother dress him for his first day of work was going over the top. For the first half of the film he has hardly any dialogue and it is difficult for the viewer to relate to him, or get inside his head. Things do even out at the end when he “transforms into a man,” which I liked, but the opening half paints him too much as a caricature.
If there was one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way it would be the downbeat ending. I didn’t think it was necessary and tended to go against the film’s theme, which was human survival and coping. Still, it’s a good film with a great message. The budget was clearly very low, but its entertainment value high.
My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars