Closely Watched Trains’ was made in 1966 and was one of the major Czech New Wave films, winning the Academy’s Oscar that year for the Best Foreign Film. During the same moment of mid 60’s, a sudden wave of Czechoslovakian films suddenly burst into the World arena, catching many film-goers off-guard. Most of the films were very small in scale, and its stories focused mostly on ordinary, regular people, who were viewed with a tender and sweet human affection. These types of films were completely different in tone carved a niche among Italian neorealism, or the French New Wave. Czech film’s beauty is very simple and loosely structured, and often shot in the streets and on provincial back-roads, acted frequently by amateurs. Their lack of formality seemed all the more remarkable since they are even more extraordinary and poignant than on my first viewing
Closely Watched Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky) was directed by Jiří Menzel, and one of the best-known products of the Czechoslovakia then, and rendered as a wave of fresh breeze, with a coming-of-age story about a young man working at a train station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. The film is based on a 1965 novel by Bohumil Hrabal. It was produced by Barrandov Studios and filmed on location in Central Bohemia.
I recall seeing it in the theater in mid-1990’s, but could not have described any of its scenes until reviewing it last evening. Looking at a bizarre sarcasm about them, Jiri Menzel’s coming from a fresh new generation of filmmakers, completely comic and sly in tone, giving a subtly refreshing commentary on the warrior mentality from a small geopolitical unfavored nation, offering what they could in the way of resisting their surrounding bullies. These attitudes and subtle comic incongruities mostly derived and formed during the Nazi Occupation of World War II, with these ideas sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period.
This portrayal of Czechoslovakia ( today’s Czech Republic) was mended together from a place where private problems, situational difficulties always took precedence over public issues, as these stories seemed delightfully casual about their comic themes coming from the products of an Iron Curtain country, as the chief figures of this sudden renaissance included such directors as Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jiri Menzel, and all the other graduates of FAMU, the famous state film school- their objectives were to make films to “make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.” Many critics and fans were extremely indebted for these spontaneous and lovable films which most famously included Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blond, The Fireman’s Ball, Ján Kadar and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on Main Street, and last but not least Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains.
The film centers on a young man, Miloš Hrma (wonderfully performed by Václav Neckář), preparing for his first day working as a newly trained station guard in a small railway station during the Second World War and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. He admires himself in his new uniform, and looks forward, like his prematurely-retired railwayman father, to avoiding real work. The sometimes pompous stationmaster is an enthusiastic pigeon-breeder with a kind wife, but is envious of the train dispatcher Hubička’s success with women. Miloš holds an as-yet platonic love for the pretty young conductor Máša. The experienced Hubička presses for details of their relationship and realizes that Miloš is still a virgin.
Milos is a kind of mamma’s boy, revealed through his mother’s lovely attention to the uniform she has made for him as a stationmaster’s assistant, Miloš, living in a small backwater town, sets off into the world with a job, mostly, of slowing down and speeding up trains, saluting them as they pass. A true innocent lad as the director describes himself as dry bachelor, and his gawky figure who looks somewhat like a child dressed up for a new job, seems to fit in nicely to the laid-back atmosphere of the train station, where the elderly stationmaster living upstairs, raises pigeons with its noisy cooing and the other important character of a Train Dispatcher Hubicka ( Josef Somr), who’s always in her seducing mood…..Milos in his usual shy, painfully uncomfortable around his train-riding girlfriend (a “nice girl” he reassures his colleague), Miloš looks up to Hubička with a kind of reluctant admiration. When he, himself, attempts to have sex with the willing girl, he fails, doubtless because of his sexual inexperience. So far, the film has revealed itself, accordingly, as a comedy, with Miloš serving as a kind Buster Keaton figure, while the rest of the eccentric gathering underline Menzel’s sly Eastern European wit.
The film establish a subtle, rustic cruelty in the Stationmaster’s pigeon-shit covered clothing, the killing of a rabbit right the pairing with another rabbit, and the apparent fear these simple villages face daily in their wartime region controlled by the Nazis and lives are never easy and in the scene when Miloš awakens from his night of sporadic love, a bomb suddenly goes off, tearing away a part of the house in which he has slept. And soon after, the ungainly young man checks into a brothel, sans partner, to cut his wrists. Exposed just in time, the boy is taken to a nearby clinic, where an eager young doctor (played by Director Menzel himself) convinces him that the problem is “premature ejaculation”, something which, he admits, he himself suffers from. While there is no outward evidence that that is the problem, the doctor’s advice, which the gullible boy takes plainly, is probably for the better: “Find an older woman who can take you through the process and thus Menzel introduced into this, at first, seemingly comic work, a series of surrealist acts representing the utter chaos and brutality of war, and the desperateness of young people facing the broader world of social relationships and sexual activity treated as a harsh comedy, and innocence of the times where people lived in those hamlet far from the glitter of the World
This particular moment makes Milos to approach the Stationmaster’s wife, who sits with describes as “an ailing” goose between her legs, Milos indicates that he would like her to help him with his sexual afflictions. In itself it is simply another visual comic gag, a sort “Leda and the Swan” nudge into surrealist facto and in fact the woman is not stroking the goose’s neck to nurse it, but is force-feeding the poor animal- So here is another comedy and cruelty are conjoined in this tale….To make matters clear, the Czech resistance sends Victoria Freie with a bomb so that Hubička might blow up an ammunition train soon to pass through the station. Exhausted from her trip, this beautiful older woman retreats to the station’s back room, therein embracing the young Miloš in her arms and introducing him to the bliss of sexual fulfillment.
Hubička has taken his young assistant into his confidence, asking the young man to slow down the train just enough so that he might drop the bomb onto its roof. But just a few moments before the train is scheduled to arrive, the local Councilor shows up with railroad authorities and the telegrapher’s angry mother to question Hubička about his sexual activities with the girl. Miloš must take the bomb alone, climb the train stanchion, and drop it into a passing railway car. In his successful act, an unexpected guard on the train witnesses his actions and shoots him dead. The train moves on down the tracks, a few minutes later blowing up in a whirlwind of debris that reaches back to the station, returning the poor boy’s hat. The film ends with Hubička’s empty laughter, in delight for having achieved his ends, but certainly without the knowledge that it has destroyed his young assistant’s life. Ironically, the young man who wanted an uneventful life has become an unidentified hero.
What’s extremely clever about the film is how brilliantly Menzel deceives its audience into believing that the film is nothing more than a sly and subtle sexual comedy. And despite the fact that the film is eventually short in length, it is highly rich in character’s and comic situations, including an iconic sequence which involves a rubber-stamp and a bare woman’s buttocks, which makes for one of the most original and slightly erotic moments in all of film history.
Closely Watched Trains is simply a movie about masculine innocence, that touch us to the thoughtful result of tragedy which is endearing about Director Menzel’s craft, let alone sparks the genius of Keaton or Chaplin, the probable of inevitability is all around anybody and in this kind of cul-de-sac’ is a very rare…………
Absolutely a fine experience as this film won many accolades and awards with distinction of Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Grand Prize at the 1966 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film festival, A nomination for the 1968 BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Best Soundtrack, A nomination for the 1968 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures and a nomination for the 1967 Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film
- Screenplay and Directed by Jiri Menzel
- Produced by Zdeněk Oves
- Based on the Novel ‘Closely Watched Trains; by Bohumil Hrabal
- Starring: Václav Neckar; Jitka Bendová; Josef Somr; Vlastimil Brodsky & Vladimir Valente
- Music by Jiří Šust
- Cinematography: Jaromír Šofr
- Editing by: Jiřina Lukešová
- Studio: Barrandov Studios and Ceskoslovensky Film
- Distributed by Ústřední půjčovna filmů
- Release date: 18 November 1966
- Running time of 92 minutes
- Country : Czechoslovakia
- Language: Czech & German