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.