Those Eastern Europeans and their black comedies! Would anyone else think to open a film as Jiří Menzel's 1966 Closely Watched Trains opens, with a slacker protagonist recalling how his forebears all spent their lives doing the least work possible, and how their violent deaths came about? I guarantee you have never laughed so hard at a young man's description of his grandfather's decapitation, unless you are a particularly bloodless individual.

It's all part and parcel of the Czech New Wave, a film movement that flourished during the Prague Spring in the mid-'60s, before the increasing openness of Czechoslovak culture led to a massive Soviet crackdown. Whereas the earlier and more famous French New Wave was unified (loosely) as an exploration of cinematic language and generic convention, the young Czech directors of the 1960s were related more in their subject matter and their tone, which was slightly bitter, absurdist, and mocking. Oh, how they mocked! They mocked politics, ambition, sincerity, cynicism, ignorance. And, based on my admittedly small sample size, they really loved to mock sex. Which must have been especially shocking in the 1960s, but remains fresh and pleasing even today; on those rare occasions when American films address sex at all, it's as a very intense thing with dire ramifications, or else a sacred and noble moment. The Czech New Wave directors, in contrast, had the good sense to recognize that sex, when it's done well, is actually pretty funny, and when it's done poorly (as it always seems to be in these films), it's goddamned hilarious.

And here I go, having managed already to lose sight of Closely Watched Trains. Co-adapted by Bohumil Hrabal from his novel, the film is centered on Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckár), a virginal youth who takes a job as apprentice train dispatcher in a backwater town sometime during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, on the assumption that this position with give him the maximum respect in town (come on, he has a uniform!) with the minimum amount of actual effort. Certainly, the job's long hours of sitting and doing nothing are the driving appeal for Miloš's mentor, Hubička (Josef Somr), who introduces the youth to the glorious world of sleeping with gorgeous girls in the back office. Or rather, he tries to; but before Miloš can do any proper seducing, he needs to take care of a pesky case of premature ejaculation.

A very loose and shaggy narrative emerges from that situation, that I couldn't really recap even if I wanted to. Though I have noticed over time that most discussions of the film, in trying to explain what it's "about" always leap to the plot thread that starts up about ten minutes from the end, in which Miloš - trying to prove his manhood - joins in on a plot to sabotage the Nazi's "closely watched" trains - the ones carrying all of the ammunition and supplies through occupied (and angry about it) Czechoslovakia. I can see the appeal of doing that; it's the one segment of the plot that has enough stability where you can say, firmly, that here is the film's story. Because otherwise, one has to define how "three men in a train office, two of them goofing off and one trying like the dickens to impress the Nazis" constitutes a narrative in any classic sense.

It doesn't, not really, and it's not supposed to; Closely Watched Trains is all about the meaning of little moments, and not the giant historical arc that connects them all. It's the difference between a film that's about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and a film that's about day-to-day life during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. A small enough difference, but it's the reason that Closely Watched Trains is a film from the Czech New Wave and not a glitzy Hollywood film about Eastern Europe during World War II (as though a Hollywood film about the Czechs could ever get greenlit). There are actually two impulses working through the film that mark it as unmistakably regional: the first is the focus on minutiae that I've just mentioned, the second is the film's overriding comic tone. Rather, it's the film's comic tone in the face of its focus on life under the Nazis that marks it as a product of a certain place: for where else but Eastern Europe would you see the argument that the best response to horrible things that you can't control is laughter? There's an inherent absurdity in war, after all, and it can either depress you or amuse you, albeit in the darkest, most morbid vein of humor that exists. Anyway, the film alternates from awful moment to humiliating moment, never flinching in its mocking, humorous tone, until at the very end there's a scene where a young woman realises her lover has just been blown up, and it's played...maybe not for flat-out comedy, but surely not for pathos.

Overseeing all this with a light but absolutely controlling hand, Menzel understands this material and its point-of-view completely, and is a perfect match for Hrabal's mindset; so perfect indeed, that the director would return to the novelist four decades later in producing I Served the King of England, currently making the rounds of America's art theaters. The films are more than a little similar in a lot of ways: the WWII setting, the hero whose sexual life is more important to him than the degradations of the Nazis, the what-the-hell comic sensibility. But while I thoroughly liked I Served the King, I adored Closely Watched Trains, which is unmistakably the product of a youthful filmmaker, still feeling a sense of exhilaration at the fact that he's out making movies (it was Menzel's first feature after a goodly number of shorts and omnibus contributions). I shan't lie; as a director, Menzel lacks the innate skill with visuals enjoyed by his colleague Miloš Forman (who made the best film, to my tastes, of the Czech New Wave in The Firemen's Ball before eventually fleeing to America and making solid but generally unexceptional prestige pictures, the best of which remains Amadeus), and Closely Watched Trains is unmistakably a triumph of attitude rather than a great exploration of cinematic paradigms. But such explorations were never a part of the Czech New Wave, which under Communist rule was at any rate limited in its ambition. I don't mean at all the argue that the film is somehow a failure on that count, or that it's unworthy of its fame and pre-eminence among 1960s Czech cinema; on the contrary, it's a note-perfect dissection of how male sexual solipsism and the world at large intersect, and a brilliant satire of the ways that people try to go on about their business even as the world sometimes literally falls down around them.