Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant is no expert on Czech cinema of the '60s, the movement that was more or less stopped by the
Soviet crackdown of 1968, but if Closely Watched Trains is a typical title, it's time to see them all.
Creative and clever, it's also very warm and human. The subject is sex within an environment steeped
in conventional thinking, warped by outside political pressure - the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
No wonder it made the Communists squirm.
Railroad Trainee Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) follows in the family footsteps but has
grievous problems finding his sexual identity. Smitten by every girl he sees and flabbergasted by the
wanton excesses of his dispatcher colleague Hubicka (Josef Somr), Milos tries to find his footing but
is terminally shy, especially with the ready and willing conductress Masa (Jitka Bendova). His efforts
to counteract his personal sexual problems lead to more embarassing, and serious, misadventures.
Closely Watched Trains begins with such grey and naturalistic notes, it's not immediately
apparent that anything is going on underneath, yet good humor and affection for human weaknesses subverts
the literal text at every turn. Milos comes from a long line of 'unusual' Czech citizens, including a
Grandfather who died trying to turn back the German invasion with hypnosis. Likewise, Milos has no
faith whatsoever in his personal normalcy, and in the crazy world he lives in, he's not likely to
find anything normal to use as a yardstick.
The occupation mostly manifests itself in passing German troop
trains and visits by an idiotic railway official who concocts hilarilous denial-laden
military reports in which German forces are performing clever strategic withdrawals on all fronts.
This insanity makes total sense when one's main boss keeps showing up for meetings in a uniform covered with
Milos sees so much illicit sex going on around him, he fears that he's not
a man. His partner on the train platform seems to be getting it on with every female who works at or
wanders into the station. Even some scraggly German soldiers score bigtime with a group of scrubbed
German nurses that ever-shy Milos was afraid to even approach. The pressure grows inside Milos until the unexpected
but amazingly obvious double-conclusion. When one is free of one kind of socio-political restraint,
one is 'liberated' to pursue another. The atmosphere at the station turns from sex to sabotage,
and the Czech brand of natural rebelliousness comes into play. Even as an absurd game with dire
consequences, it all makes sense in the flow of personal expression that comes when the bonds of
Nazi repression are loosened.
Visually, director Menzel is a genius at stating his hidden themes with wit and subtlety. For every fairly
explicit sex joke (I'm thinking of the obscene image of the stationmaster's wife plucking the goose's
neck) there are delicate relational subtleties. The railway boss'es entrance and exit (backwards!)
in a car running on the train rails really helps establish his basic ridiculousness. The most famous
scene in the show is when the womanizing Hubicka seduces an incredibly willing telegraph helpmate by
stamping rubber stamps up the back of her legs, and finally on her bare rump. Really sexy stuff, that,
and both original and witty.
Closely Watched Trains has a fondness for its richly drawn characters. Nobody is a stereotype, and Milos'
personal sex problems find sympathy with almost everyone he encounters. It's all just so humiliating,
but funny. Jitka Bendova, as Masa, is simply adorable, the girl we all met too early to get
the benefit of her amorous generosity. She has a positive attitude and a laugh for everything.
The women all seem so liberated, in the political sense that they own their own bodies and will
use them to express themselves. Milos' burst of self-expression, after finally having success (with
an underground partisan, no less) can only be seen as an act of political liberation inspired by his
Criterion's DVD of Closely Watched Trains is a handsome flat transfer of this Czech feature, with
a nice liner essay from Richard Schickel to help place it in historical context (all news to this viewer) and a cheesy
American 'art movie' trailer which tries to make it seem like a bawdy sex romp. That makes sense when
you realize that the American distributor was Sigma III, an outfit also responsible for unleashing
The Horrible Dr Hichcock on US audiences. Technical quality and presentation
are up to Criterion's usual high standards.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Closely Watched Trains rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 12, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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