A slow, hypnotic train ride into the past
by Viktor Palák
14/03/2012 - Alois Nebel [trailer] is one of those films that one feels an early attachment to, thanks to the story behind the movie – in pre-production for several years, it's based on a series of popular graphic novels and comic strips and features an unusual (and in the end very purposeful) technique, so it is difficult not to feel intrigued.
However, the story of a train dispatcher who lives in the second half of the 20th century in a small village on the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (and later Czech Republic), which also includes a sub-plot regarding a bloody feud, is strangely detached, even though it swirls around significant events in Czech (and European) history, but these remain in a mist as thick as the main character is stubborn.
For the most part set during the Velvet Revolution (1989), the eponymous protagonist symbolizes a typical worn-down individual for whom the political shift has not opened up many possibilities, as he is weary after years of oppression and own his personal retreat into a private world.
While the big topics are shrouded in obscurity, details come to the forefront and we are invited into the world that Nebel inhabits, even though it is not particularly rich. The film is very observant, especially when it comes to anything related to the railways and its strong atmosphere stems from here - the authors know the setting intimately and, by adding interesting detail after interesting detail, manage to draw the viewer into a raw but aesthetically enchanting milieu. The exquisite sound design and subtle music (Ondrej Jezek and Petr Kruzik won a Czech Lion and Critics's Award for their work on the film) boost the overall feeling of melancholy and bursts of activity.
The more the society depicted here is a mess, the tidier the cobblestones in the film appear. Seen through the eyes of the main character, Alois Nebel is not oblivious to what is going on (including the acts of a time-server always behaving to his own benefit), but only observes this from a distance. The only strong impulse comes from an encounter with a kindred spirit from the Prague main railway station, whom he sees as worth following. Perfect in detail, the film lacks a stronger urge to comment on the historical events and in the end is only mildly dramatic but manages to be quite intense, mainly thanks to its powerful visuals.
Based on a series of three graphic novels (2003-2005) that gained a significant following, Alois Nebel has managed to draw audiences, partially thanks to one of its theme songs featuring Vaclav Neckar, a 1960s star of Jiri Menzel's Oscar winning Closely Watched Trains. Having premiered in Venice and drawn 100,000 viewers to Czech cinemas, Alois Nebel is now on French screens with German audiences (who are already familiar with the graphic novels) waiting for a later premiere.