One of the film's topics is shown in the credit sequence: from above we watch the tracks made in the snow by people in the street. Eventually we see the beaten tracks that people don't leave. Then the camera moves down and we watch the people who made the tracks- a policeman prominent among them- as they walk around greeting each other. Until the snow melts only two people- the central character and his girlfriend- consider leaving the tracks.
The actual story involves Klima, an art historian and theorist, scientifically- as he persistently says- oriented. His principles mean that he cannot- or will not- help others. His girlfriend wants to be a model and travel (the film is set in Prague in the early 1960s), but he will not recommend her. Another friend or acquaintance- an artist- needs official confirmation of his quality from a critic. Klima will help neither. Only Zaturecky- an older would-be art critic- gets any help and that is because Klima has lost the thesis Zaturecky sent him to read and will not admit he has not read it and sends him a noncommittal but polite letter. When he does read the thesis he hates it- we never know whether his contempt for this is justified or not. As a result of his attempts to evade the consequences of his action Klima makes a mess of his life- he loses his girl to the artist and learns that his neighbours watch him persistently and many dislike him. One of the most chilling scenes comes after he has been denounced and insulted at a Communist Party-led neighbours' meeting: the neighbours who denounced and insulted him are friendly now. He is one of them. The big problem with the film is Klima's character- we know nothing about and so we cannot understand his actions- is he an arrogant opportunist, a man of principle, a coward, a mixture? Perhaps he doesn't know either, but it means there is something of a void at the film's centre. It's worth seeing, though, as there are some fine comic turns, especially when Klima's girlfriend teases a nosey neighbour- another chilling touch comes at the end: the party official who led Klima's denunciation is talking to one of the neighbours about the nosey woman who is persistently hanging out her washing at odd times and who mentioned that Klima's girlfriend had moved in with him without permission- "How do you know it's her laundry?" he asks, and says they'll watch her too.