For a few short years in the late sixties, Czechoslovakia produced a crop of outstanding films and filmmakers that made
statements on the precarious position that their country held during World War II and the first few decades of the Cold
War. Then the Soviets clamped down on expression and effectively ended the film movement. Luckily, during that time Jiri
Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1966) got produced and released in the US. It won an Academy Award and has
remained a favorite of its era ever since.
The genius of the film is that it is deceptively innocent. Like the employees of the train station it depicts, Closely Watched
Trains seems pretty disinterested with the Nazi activity passing through. Trains carrying ammunition and soldiers (the
"closely watched trains" of the title), as well as other Nazi supplies, roll through the humble train station but trainee Milos
Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) is more interested in doing as little work as possible while developing his romantic manhood. (The significance of trains as a method of transporting the doomed to concentration camps is never explicitly mentioned, but the imagery is always there. Czechs talk about the cattle and other livestock crammed into train cars without any thought given to their well-being. Even though the film mostly has a light tone, the darkness is never far from the surface.) He
feels impotent with Masa (Jitka Bendova) and watches jealously as Dispatcher Hubika (Josef Somr) parades his non-stop
lovers through the office into the lounge. Milos fumbles a couple of attempts with Masa and has a doctor diagnose him as
being prone to premature ejaculation and prescribe that he think about football instead. Milos often says that he knows
he is a man but that he cannot prove it with Masa and the stress of being impotent gets to him. Without giving away too
much of what happens, Milos goes through ups and downs, only to emerge near the end of the film feeling invigorated,
manly, and invincible.
That's when the film suddenly seems to change gears. Closely Watched Trains has one of the
most surprising endings I've ever seen. It's surprising for many reasons. It seems to go against the style of the entire film
up to that point. It is also played in such a matter-of-fact way that it actually magnifies what happens. This is a film of great
humanity and the fate of Milos is strongly felt.
It's also a very sensual film. You can almost feel the textures: The thick material of the uniforms, the leather of the furniture, the metal of the trains, skin, hair. Beautiful cinematography and lighting help create this atmosphere with a few simple details. At times you can see a similarity with Schindler's List. Surely Spielberg has seen Closely Watched
Trains many times.
The actors are natural and low-key, but the drama of their lives is real. The film has a wry, dry comedy but still there is
suffering. I would imagine that watching it a second time is a completely different experience, knowing the full story. In a
way it reminded me of Renoir's Grand Illusion, since it presents regular, simple characters and pours a lifetime of
heart and pain into them.
Criterion's transfer here is very beautiful. The film is full-frame, black and white, and there are a good number of scratches.
Still, there is beauty to the simple, yet extremely sophisticated, images. Frame compositions are gorgeous: Each image could
be a fantastic photo.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is fine. The music is pretty robust and the dialog is clear. It is in Czeck with removable
Only the lame American art-house trailer is presented on the disc, but a four page essay on the film from film critic Richard
Schickel is included in the booklet. This piece is invaluable. I wish he could have done a commentary track, too.
There is always talk about whether or not Criterion's bare-bones releases are worth the bucks. People are confused by high
prices for films they've never heard of. Well, thoughtful film fans will definitely not be confused by Criterion's releasing
Closely Watched Trains. It is a wonderful film that fits perfectly in with many other releases in their catalog
(Grand Illusion, Wages of Fear, Coup de Torchon). The print is far from flawless but the film isn't. It is a
terrific look at a specific place and time even as it perfectly embodies emotions and struggles that affect everyone.