If you’ve lived in New York City for any extended period of time, you eventually become familiar with all the warning signs on the subway advising passengers to stand behind the yellow line at the station platforms. But within the last year or so, I’ve noticed a new batch of signs specifically explaining why: every year around 50 New Yorkers are hit by trains and killed. Some are accidental, some are deliberate. But these trains are not fully automated: living, breathing humans drive them. And each time they hit somebody, one of these conductors has to deal with the trauma of being an inadvertent killer. For them, it’s just another occupational hazard. So you have to ask yourself: at what point are conductors able to compartmentalize this trauma? What’s more, does it ever become normalized as just another part of the job?
These are not pleasant questions, but sometimes fascinating art comes from exploring such unique life-and-death circumstances within specialized professions. Take the nihilistic South American airmail pilots in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Their response to the stresses of such a deadly job is to literally pretend that pilots killed on duty never existed in the first place. The point is that human beings are adaptable: if we can’t change our circumstances, we change ourselves to accommodate them. And for the train conductors in Milos Radovic’s new Serbian film Train Driver’s Diary, hitting passersby is so ordinary that the first time becomes a right of passage. At least that’s what Sima (Petar Korac), a wannabe train conductor, believes. Ever since he was rescued from killing himself and subsequently adopted as a child by elderly conductor Ilija Todorovic (Lazar Ristovski), he’d dreamed of being one. And for over a decade Ilija tried to talk him out of it. Over the years Ilija has accidentally killed dozens of people—the film itself opens with him hitting and killing a 6-member “gypsy brass band” whose car stalled on the tracks. But Sima remained adamant. But after several months on the job, he’s reached a crisis point: he hasn’t hit anybody. He can’t sleep. He can’t eat. All he can think about is killing his first passerby. And it’s driving him crazy.
Train Driver’s Diary balances itself precariously between tragedy and comedy. At times reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki, the film captures the Finnish director’s deadpan absurdism while tempering it with a surprising human warmth. Told primarily from Ilija’s perspective, it’s just as much a film about the bond between father and son as it is about the culture of train conductors. Beaten down by a life of blue-collar toil and tragedy—he watched the love of his life get hit and killed by a train—he’d come to reject love as a commodity that train conductors couldn’t afford. But the entry of Sima into his life changed all that. Though still a grouchy curmudgeon, Sima changed him into a man who could feel once more.
Watching Train Driver’s Diary, I was impressed by how Radovic managed to juggle the inherent pessimism of Ilija’s profession with absurdist humor without succumbing to maudlin melodrama on the one hand or surreal whimsy on the other. All of the emotions feel grounded and organic, even during ridiculous sequences seemingly ripped from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—chief among them a preposterous conversation where Ilija confronts a suicidal man on a bridge and offers to pay him €100 to jump in front of Sima’s train.
“What do I need with money? I’m going to kill myself.”
“Yeah, but you were about to throw it away for free, so…”
Most films would have devolved into farce after such an exchange. But Radovic never loses sight of the humanity behind his characters, even as they complain that they haven’t killed anybody with a train yet.