Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966), by Jiří Menzel.
Closely Watched Trains was the first Czech movie I saw, years before the idea of visiting the country even crossed my mind, let alone immigrating here. I’d heard about it because of its Oscar win in 1968, but I was pretty underwhelmed on first viewing.
It was when I was first getting heavily into film, after the treble-whammy of Pulp Fiction, Seven and Trainspotting made me aware that there was a director behind the camera making decisions resulting in the movie I saw up on the big screen.
I could handle the nonlinear structure of Tarantino’s early efforts, but I struggled with the rhythm and pace of my first Czech movie. I was brought up on a diet of largely British and American films, usually with a distinct beginning, middle and end, so Closely Watched Trains seemed like it was all middle with a little bit of end.
I was also distracted by a basic similarity to an old British sitcom, On the Buses. It was a bawdy comedy following the exploits of Stan and Jack, two bus drivers who spent most of their time trying to “get their leg over” with the various “bits of crumpet” working at the depot. Their shenanigans invariably incurred the wrath of their nemesis, the frustrated, uptight Inspector Blake, or “Blakey” as he became known in British popular culture.
Closely Watched Trains follows the exploits of a naive young man, Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckář), who gets a job as a station guard at a sleepy village railway station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. There’s not much work to do, so under the tutelage of senior colleague Hubička (Josef Somr), he pursues the female rail staff in the hope of – to use On the Buses parlance – “getting his end away” for the first time. Their shenanigans invariably incurs the wrath of their uptight, frustrated station master boss, (Vladimír Valenta), who has a touch of Oliver Hardy about him.
Beyond the basic setup, On the Buses and Closely Watched Trains don’t have too much in common, but give an interesting contrast between Britain and Czechoslovakia at a specific point in time. On the Buses debuted a year after the film’s Academy Award victory, and around six weeks after Jan Palach set himself alight on Wenceslas Square in Prague.
On the Buses was cheap, smutty, old-fashioned, sexist, racist, and deeply conservative, a fair representation of Britain at the time, an ailing country still recovering from World War II. Closely Observed Trains, from a young director of the Czech New Wave, was fresh, breezy and lightly subversive, made against the backdrop of social upheaval and ill-fated rebellion against Communist rule and Soviet intervention. Like many of Menzel’s films, it is also preoccupied with sex and has a leisurely narrative until Miloš’s late decision to become a resistance hero against the Nazis.
Co-written by the director and Hrabal, Closely Observed Trains is a light-hearted romp, without any overtly political rabble-rousing. However, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to draw an analogy between the Nazis and the Soviets, and the film’s overall message seems to be: “If you don’t like your situation, man up and do something about it!”
In the logic of the film, Hrma can only become a man once he’s lost his virginity and, after an embarrassing moment with a pretty conductor, he eventually gets deflowered by a foxy resistance agent. Manhood achieved, Hrma is ready to take on the Nazis.
The film pokes fun at the crumbling Nazi regime, which a pompous local collaborator tries to pass off as a masterful tactical retreat by the Führer. Hrabal’s voice is most recognizable in the opening scenes, describing Hrma’s family of layabouts and charlatans, including a phony hypnotist who formed the country’s last line of defence against the invading forces.
Closely Watched Trains is a beautiful film to look at, lensed in feathery black and white by Jaromír Šofr. I love the contrast between the wintry outdoor scenes and the softly lit indoor shots. To me, it looks as if everything is slightly stained by soot from the passing locomotive’s furnaces. The loose comic tone is assisted by Jiří Šust’s cheerful, sarcastic score.
As with many Czech films, the pace is leisurely, driven by characters and situations rather than plot. I think the episodic, anecdotal nature of movies from this country is partly the reason why foreigners sometimes have difficulty taking to Czech cinema.
Closely Watched Trains is a charming, amusing and undemanding movie, a nice introduction to the films of the Czech New Wave.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.