An Oscar-winner in 1968 for Best Foreign Language Picture, "Closely Watched Trains" is a very enjoyable Czech-language picture about the coming-of-age of a young trainyard worker while World War II is happening. Milos Hrma (played by Vaclav Neckar) is about to follow the rest of his family and work for the government instead of what would likely be a more labor-intensive line of work.
Although the War is raging just a short distance away, the film mainly focuses on the smaller universe of characters at the train station. Milos has some problems that keep him from getting closer to his love interest, Masa (Jitka Bendova). There's a hilarious sequence early in the film where he's about to recieve a kiss from her while she's standing on a train. They close their eyes and...the train pulls away, taking the two apart. There's a few other characters that populate the rather barren landscape, as well - an older train conductor who, suprisingly, does fairly well with the opposite sex as well as Milos's boss, who keeps an eye out that the trains remain on schedule and his employees remain at work.
"Closely Watched Trains" does not have a great deal of plot, but it does function well enough simply on characters and their events alone. There's not too many trains (aside from the "closely watched" ones that are delivering supplies to the German army), so the characters who work in the station become more concerned with their own proceedings than what's going on all around them. Most directors would have likely had a hard time with material like "Closely Watched Trains". The film's light comedy mixes with some rather heavy drama at times, and even the funny moments have somewhat of an underlying sense of darkness. I think the rather gritty looking (although occasionally beautiful, in its own way) black and white photography is partially responsible for keeping the comedy grounded.
Although the majority of the film mixes drama and comedy, the film's ending, which I won't discuss, turns decidedly dark. The film's 93 minute running time occasionally passes by rather slowly, but it certainly still kept my interest, with the film's well realized characters and strong performances, especially Neckar in the lead.
VIDEO: "Closely Watched Trains" is presented by Criterion in the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. A new digital transfer, the presentation was mastered from a composite 35mm fine-grain master positive made from the original camera negative. The film is now about 35 years old, and although I'm not aware of the history of the elements, the presentation generally looked very good, although there were specific sequences that would appear flawed. Sharpness and detail were very good, although they could vary at times; close-ups generally looked well-defined, while some other moments looked a bit softer by comparison, but never "hazy".
As expected from a 35 year old picture, there are some minor instances of print flaws throughout the movie. What I found interesting was that these instances were not consistent throughout the movie; a sequence would show some minor speckles and marks, then the movie would go along quite cleanly for a while before another scene would show some wear. Unfortunately, the wear wasn't the only problem - although there weren't any instances of pixelation, I did notice some minor edge enhancement at times.
The black and white presentation looked rich and strong throughout the film, as I didn't find any moments that appeared "faded" or otherwise problematic. The presentation shows some minor blemishes, but otherwise, the pros certainly outnumber the cons in this nice effort from Criterion.
SOUND: The audio is Czech mono and although some elements are enjoyable, there are a few problems of note. Both dialogue and gereral ambient sounds are clear and crisp. There are the occasional touches of music, on the other hand, that sound thin and edgy. Otherwise, no distortion or other problems were heard.
MENUS:: When Criterion choses to do animated menus, they have a gift for presenting menus that are subtly animated, yet elegant and an enjoyable intro to the particular film. "Closely Watched Trains" is no different, as the film's main menu nicely uses clips and music from the movie.
EXTRAS:: A rather basic Criterion effort, this disc just includes the trailer and an essay in the insert by Time critic Richard Schenkel.
Final Thoughts: "Closely Watched Trains" wasn't consistently engaging, but the majority of the film did provide strong characters, dialogue and beautiful cinematography. Criterion has provided fine audio/video quality, but it's unfortunately one of their generally film-only packages.