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Savant Short Review:

Closely Watched Trains

Closely Watched Trains,
1966 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 92m. / Ostre sledované vlaky
Cinematography Jaromír Sofr
Production Designer
Art Direction Oldrich Bosárk
Film Editor Jirina Lukesovár
Original Music Jirí Pavlik, Jirí Sust
Writing credits Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel from a novel by Hrabal
Produced by Zdenek Oves
Directed by Jirí Menzel

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 pigeon guano.

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 sexual breakthrough.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 12, 2001

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