“The entire town knows that I want to be a train dispatcher for the simple reason that I don’t want to do anything?just like my ancestors?but stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work, while others have to drudge and toil.” – Milos Hrma
Director Jiri Menzel made an auspicious feature film debut with his 1966 Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky), claiming only the second ever Best Foreign Language Film Oscar? won by a Czechoslovakian, following Jan Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), which took the first, two years earlier. A graduate of the Czech film school FAMU, Menzel was instrumental the the 1960s Czech New Wave, both as a director and as an actor in films by his contemporaries. His films focus on the “nobody,” examining the paradoxes that make up the common man, with a wry wit and tragic humor; but unlike some of his fellow graduates such as Jan Nemec, Milos Forman, and Ivan Passer, his tone was much less cynical. His film career was suspended in 1969 after the Soviet invasion, and Menzel was forbidden from making films until 1975, when he was forced to renounce the “mistakes” of earlier films. The cause, his Larks on a String (Skrivanci na niti) and its anti-communist theme, was banned by the authorities for 21 years. Menzel would come to the attention of the Academy again in 1985 with another Best Foreign Language Film nomination for My Sweet Little Village (Vesnicko ma stoediskova).
Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who would become his frequent collaborator, Closely Watched Trains takes place in 1944, at a remote country rail station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Here, young Milos Hrma (V?clav Neck?r) takes a job as a rail guard trainee, following a long family tradition of avoiding laborious work. His father was a conductor, retired early and now living off a pension; his grandfather was killed when he, single-handedly, tried to stop the German advance into Prague through hypnotism. Now, Milos will learn the trade of train dispatcher, making sure the trains don’t crash, and being especially careful with the “closely watched” trains carrying troops and munitions to the German frontline.
Despite his country being entrenched in war, the concerns Milos has are centered around his unsuccessful relationship with women. Though Milos has the attentions of a young conducteress (Jitka Bendov? as Masa), he is fascinated by the ability of train dispatcher Hubicka (Josef Somr) to seduce and behave around women, as much as this behaviour vexes the stationmaster, Max (Vladim?r Valenta). Milos is at a loss to understand how he should perform in the presence of the opposite sex, especially after a particularly embarrassing incident that leaves him quite distraught. His awkward attempts to rectify the situation result in a series of mishaps, engaging all around him, who themselves are absorbed in their own personal business, seemingly unaffected by the global conflict being waged only a few miles up the tracks. The outside world fails to derail the young boy’s focus on losing his virginity, which is the only cause with any significance in his existence.
Menzel does a fantastic job of maintaining a credible yet incredible plotline intact (look for his cameo as Dr. Brabec). V?clav Neck?r’s innocent involvement in the events in his life are portrayed without flaw, as are those of his accomplices. The black & white cinematography is wonderful, despite being limited to scenes mostly in and around the station. The film’s music perfectly underscores the mood on screen. The pace is very easy going, and the editing maximizes the comic potential, without over doing it. Closely Watched Trains is littered with humor, from the local German authority, Counselor Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodsky), explaining the brilliance in strategy of German retreat from all fronts, to an incident involving office supplies and a young telegrapher at the station?surely a first for seduction cinema. The deceptive cheekiness of the film belies what will eventually unfold, but we are witness to the absurdities of daily life from which Milos hopes to extract the rules of being an adult. Where his journey will take him is not obvious from the start, but the getting there makes for some very amusing cinema.
Review By: Jeff Ulmer
* Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovan? vlaky) holds up over the years as a fine example of comedy from the Czech New Wave, where political messages are subtly hidden under everyday situations and dry humor. Jir? Menzel’s coming of age comedy is unlike most American comedies, derived from ridiculous contrived relationships and situations. Based on centuries of tradition, Czech humor gradually unfolds in off-hand manner.
** The slowly paced 93-minute film isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy character development with fine touches of humanity, beautiful black and white cinematography, and subtle political criticism, you’ll find a great deal of pleasure in Closely Watched Trains. The comic tone ends abruptly with a shocking tragic sharp turn that goes against the general tone of the film; however, these events are foreshadowed in the opening and continually exist just beneath the surface, justifying the shift artistically.
*** It is 90 minutes of cinematic perfection: funny, sad, exquisitely shot, beautiful to look at (watch it twice, so that the second time around you can focus on Menzel’s genius in composing his shots), and insightful–profound, even. Its structure will make any film student drool with envy. The acting is flawless, particularly the performance by Josef Somr as train-dispatcher Hubicka. And for anyone fond of, or interested in, Czech culture–this movie teaches you just about everything you need to know about the wonderful people who live there.
**** Gorgeously filmed in black and white, each frame by frame echoes of a past when life was still mired in concealment and innocence.
***** For anyone interested in examining Czech New Wave cinema, this relatively light-hearted film (along with Milos Foreman’s Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball) can serve as a worthy introduction to the genre.
Part of the review by John Nesbit.
Another review with much much more info about Menzel, Bohumil Hrabal and not only: http://www.ce-review.org/01/9/kinoeye9_kosulicova.html by Ivana Ko?ulicov?