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A young man follows his father's footsteps and joins the railway company, where he learns the job and has his first affair. Set in the country, during the German occupation. Written by
Michael Crew <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The "Closely Watched Trains" are those that are carrying supplies to the German army in and through occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. That is why they are closely watched--so that they run on time. But they are also closely watched by the people of Czechoslovakia, especially dispatcher Hubicka (Josef Somr) and his trainee Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) for another reason, which will become apparent as the movie ends.
Not that Milos and Hubicka are especially diligent workers. On the contrary. What Hubicka is especially adept at is seduction of females while Milos is distracted by his worries about becoming a man. He has what must be seen as a problem demanding comic relief (if you will). He has trouble pleasing his girl friend because of premature ejaculation. He is so consumed by this embarrassing failure that he seeks quietus in the warm bath of a bordello. Meanwhile Hubicka is able to please the pretty young telegraphist Virginia Svata (Jitka Zelenohorska) by playing a kind of strip poker with her and rubber stamping her pretty legs and butt much to her delight and to the consternation of her mother when she finds out. The German Councilor Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodsky) who tolerates no hanky-panky when it comes to keeping the trains moving conducts an investigation and comes to the conclusion that Hubicka is guilty of misuse and abuse of the great German language because he stamped German words onto Virginia's body! This is the tone of the film, wryly ironic, irreverent and mildly comedic, employing in a sense a kind of off-center "theater of the absurd" treatment. Director Jiri Menzel, who appears briefly in the film as Dr. Brabec who diagnoses Milos's "affliction," spun this off from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, but it could easily have come from a novel by Jaroslav Hasek, who wrote the celebrated Czech classic, "The Good Soldier Svejk," so alike in treatment and tone are they, and so very characteristic of the Czech national mind-set vis-a-vis all the horrors of the European wars. Menzel concentrates on the petty affairs of day-to-day peasant life, sex, the raising of pigeons and geese, the boredom of bureaucratic jobs as he works toward the culminating scene in which the heroics seem almost light-hearted and to come about more from happenstance than from careful planning.
Some of the scenes in the movie are absolutely unique in the world of cinema and suggest a kind of cinematic genius. The creepy goose-stuffing (for foie gras pate) scene in which Milos seeks help with his "problem" from an older woman is riotous--or would be riotous if we were not so amazed as what she is doing while talking to him and what it LOOKS like she might be doing! The scene in which Stationmaster Lanska is torn between the prospect of seducing a voluptuous woman and the chance that he might miss supper reminded me of a little boy at play with his mother calling him home for dinner. The final scene in which it looks like Menzel may have employed a wind machine is just so perfectly presented, combining as it does the stark realism of the war and a delicious (but soon to be mixed) personal triumph of the resistance.
This is one of the classic films of all time. But prepare to put aside ordinary viewing habits and to concentrate with an alert mind. The subtleties of Menzel's little masterpiece will be obscured by inattention, preconceptions and faulty expectations. (Or at least that is what they'll tell you at film school.) See this Oscar winner (Best Foreign Film, 1967) for Jiri Menzel who survived oppression and censorship by the Soviets and is still making movies.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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