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It's amazing just how many visual sex metaphors director Jirí Menzel
managed to cram into 92 minutes, without ever becoming ridiculous or
losing the plot. It makes Hitchcock's train going into the tunnel shot
from 'North By Northwest' look like the work of a rank amateur.
Ostensibly 'Closely Watched Trains' is the story of Trainee Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) starting his job at the local train station during the Nazi occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia (only I guess it wasn't, because it was officially absorbed by the Reich). Throughout most of the film the war, complete with what the local Nazi functionary describes as "beautiful tactical withdrawals," is a long way off and Milos has more important matters to attend to. Specifically he's trying to lose his virginity and deal with another problem common to young men everywhere, one which the local doctor advises him to solve by thinking about football during critical moments.
Made in 1966, when some Czechs were clearly already looking ahead to 1968's Prague Spring, the film slyly uses the Nazis as a stand-in for the Soviets. As proof of this, and the Hollywood establishment's anti-Communist bent in the late 60s, 'Closely Watched Trains' won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. It is, however, imminently deserving of the win on its own merits.
History lessons aside 'Closely Watched Trains' is beautifully shot, well acted, and absurdly hilarious, while still tasting of tragedy. Excellent.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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
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!)
Closely Watched Trains is my favorite movie ever. 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. Please resist any impulse to see it as a "political" film--it is nothing of the sort. It's just a beautiful work of art. Note: Closely Watched Trains won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1967.
This film adds a quirky resonance to the history of Neo-Freudian interpretation of human sexual psychology in film that rivals Bertolucci's "The Conformist". Gorgeously filmed in black and white, each frame by frame echoes of a past when life was still mired in concealment and innocence. The story centers around a train station in a Czech, German occupied small town and an apprentice train watcher, Milos Hrma, who is confused about his place in the world. He is a young man and is approaching an instance in his life when sexuality is flourishing all around him and yet he can not comprehend it. Scattered throughout the film are leitmotifs that represent sex: the train blowing steam, a horse with a woman riding it, a skinless rabbit being fondled by a woman cook, etc. He is under the tutelage of a train dispatcher who seems a zealot when it comes to seducing women. Although he notices that the train dispatcher is a sex fiend, he does little to elicit help from him. The general thought of the males is that a young man should be bestowed with the foreknowledge and insight at birth. Thus, his inability to perform when his girlfriend Masa is in bed during a bombing causes him great existential crisis and leads to his attempted suicide. In fact, the war was subliminally to blame for his impotence. This isn't a political film but uses subtle innuendos to trace the history of a young man into adulthood. Scattered throughout the film are affable characters such as a pigeon loving, crap covered Train master, a noble, aristocratic woman, a benign, slightly insane, photographer uncle of Masa, and a Nazi ideologue who refuses to believe that the Reich is in ruins. The sexual metaphors are spread in gusty humorous episodes such as when the train dispatcher 'stamps' a girl's buttocks in a moment of ecstasy. In the finale, the boy is finally cured of his 'impotence' by a big bang, I won't give it away, you'll have to see this delightful film.
I saw this film at film-school. Ever since, I have rated this film as one of
the very best, its beauty, seriousness, sensualism and cinematography. It is
all black and white, but so full of life.
I am myself a cinematographer today.
Try to watch it.
Closely Watched Trains is a a film to be watched again and again.
It's a coming-of-age type story that delves into the viewers psyche, young Milos who has some troubles with his girlfriend, seems to have this dwell on his life. And the world around him reacts, from the woman riding a horse to steam coming out of the train, the woman working her baking, and simply the movement of young Milos becoming a man in his own sense.
But this film isn't just a sexual innuendo, smart comedy presides through it all which most anyone can pick up on, a lot of it is sexual but not all. Making it a surprisingly upbeat film throughout, a rarity not just in a War film, but Czech cinema in general. This may make it sound a bit too happy but it definitely isn't. It's still a moving piece that demands repetitive watches.
Recommended for anyone with an interest in classic European cinema. If you are going to start watching Czech films, start with Closely Watched Trains.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Young railway trainee Milos follows in the steps of his forbears all of whom
were not particularly devoted to their vocations and found reason to retire
early. To become an assistant station master does not excite Milos, but he
undertakes the traineeship because he is persuaded that the uniform commands
a certain respect. He also decides it will be nice to watch the trains go
This rather quirky comedy set on a railway station somewhere in Czechoslovakia during World War 11 ridicules the rules and regulations of the railway system where responsibility is passed down the line to the trainee who pulls the levers but who is not authorised to use the rubber stamps nor to use his hot moist breath to ensure a good print out.
A lot is made of the authorisation stamp in this film and much of the humour revolves about its use. Some of the characters believe that stamping a woman's bottom is going too far and such an act should be brought before the courts. This hilarious situation is typical of the somewhat suggestive humour throughout the film.
Milos knows nothing about the sexual act and gets very depressed. His doctor confides that he should educate himself by finding a mature woman who can help and advise him. Unsmiling Milos finds little success as shyly he asks every woman he meets including the station master's wife to help him. There is a quiet humour in every scene. Milos gains our sympathy even though we feel he needs a bit of a push.
The final scene is so unexpected. Milos will not be saluting the trains any more as they roll by with their German passengers.... I suppose life is like that.
Imagine coming of age in a time when you are surrounded by sexual
images. This Academy Award winning film can be the Czechoslovakian
version of so many of the Judd Apatow films we see today.
Brilliantly photographed in black and white, it shows Milos (Václav Neckár) trying to become a man. His first opportunity with his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová) ends in disaster and he attempts suicide. His doctor advises him to get a more experienced woman to teach him, so he goes on a quest to find one.
This all takes place during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, so there are many political overtones to the film. It is hilarious as Milos works at a train station where his coworker Hubicka (Josef Somr) doesn't seem to have problems getting action whenever he wants.
He does manage to arrange help for Milos, but tragedy strikes before he is able to use his new found knowledge with his girlfriend.
An excellent picture and a real funny story that manages to avoid the crudity of modern tales of the same sort.
I have had the extreme luck of not only seeing this film in the cinema but even finding a copy of the screenplay here in Prague. Jiri Menzel is still, I am happy to report, directing films that are fantastic. Unfortunately, none is the jewel this one is. It was one of Neckar's best, too. I might suggest that if you like this film you try "Larks on a String"-Skrivanci na Niti. It was another Menzel-Neckar gem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Without a doubt, one of the greatest "small scale" cinematic stories ever told. Every beautifully-composed shot is a black and white work of art. The performances all around are sound. The direction is superb. Milos (the main character here) is not unlike the pigeons kept by the stationmaster and his wife: he is caged (repressed) and manages, with not some degree of awkwardness, to finally "break free" of his fetters... just in time for World War Two to literally come thundering down the tracks at him. "Everything flies that has wings," the "seduced" girl says, at one point. In the end, Milos finds his manhood in the ultimate release.
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