Directed by: Jirí Menzel » Written by: Bohumil Hrabal and Jirí Menzel, 1966 » Region/Time: Czechoslovakia, black & white, 92 minutes
Starring: Václav Neckár as Trainee Milos Hrma » Josef Somr as Train dispatcher Hubicka » Jitka Bendová as Conducteress Masa » Vlastimil Brodský as Counselor Zednicek » Vladimír Valenta as Stationmaster Max » Jitka Zelenohorská as Zdenka » Nada Urbánková as Viktoria Freie.
“I don’t want to do anything but stand on a platform while others drudge and toil.”
In the late 1960s, a group of filmmakers, including Jiri Menzel and Milos Foreman, exploded out of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Typically, their films told small, humanist stories about the everyday man or woman with a sly, satirical bent. Closely Watched Trains is no different and tells the coming-of-age story of Milos Hrma, who wishes nothing more than to become a) a train dispatcher and b) a man.
Taking place during the latter days of World War Two, the young Milos is constantly confronted by people having sex, which he never seems to get. In fact, he can’t even get a kiss from his conducteress girlfriend, Masa. Milos idolizes his immediate supervisor, train dispatcher Hubicka, a prankster who seems to be able to have any woman he wants. An abandoned train full of nurses seems like the Promised Land, but they take in a troop of soldiers and turn him away. Milos eventually gets time alone with Masa, but, embarrassingly, suffers not only from crippling shyness, but also premature ejaculation. Masa is not impressed.
Milos comes to the conclusion that he is not a man, and so rents a room at a brothel to kill himself. He wakes up in hospital, wrists bandaged, and it is hard to tell if he is relieved, angry or disappointed that he is not dead. A helpful doctor (played by the director) tells him to find an experienced older woman to help him out. Meanwhile, Hubicka has creates chaos by seducing the telegrapher, Zdenka, and stamping her bum with the station stamps. Zdenka’s mother is outraged and takes her to every authority figure she can find to show them Zdenka’s bum covered with stamps. Of course, they are all male and each spends a great deal of time getting a closer look. All the while Zdenka has a curiously amused expression on her face.
In the final act, it turns out that Hubicka is not as harmless as he appears, as he gets a hold of a bomb from the resistance for blowing up a Nazi munitions train. The bomb is delivered by a female resistance fighter, Viktoria Freie. Hubicka convinces her to take Milos’ virginity (on the Stationmaster’s couch, naturally). When the time comes to drop the bomb on the “closely watched” train (one containing supplies for the German army), Hubicka is busy being reprimanded for stamping Zdenka’s bottom, and so it is left to Milos to be a hero and destroy the munitions train.
It may not sound like it from the plot summary, but this is one of the funnier films on this list, although it serves up a potent punch in the final minutes. The film is full of eccentric characters, such as the Stationmaster, who spends all his time feeding his pigeons and allowing them to foul his uniform, and is obsessed with his couch he bought in Paris (which is despoiled by Hubicka and various women throughout the film). The local Nazi commandant, Zednicek, is full of earnest zeal, even as he describes in great detail the series of “beautiful tactical withdrawals” the German army is conducting all over Europe or punishes Hubicka for defiling the German language by stamping it all over Zdenka. Masa, the beautiful young conductress, is so forward that Milos is terrified of her, although she frequently seems to be amused at the same time. The movie is also filled with wry anecdotes such as Milos’ grandfather having tried to stop the German tanks from entering Prague by hypnotizing them (it didn’t work) and his father being the envy of the village, having retired at age 48, now lying in bed with a stopwatch, timing the trains as they pass by his window.
Of course, if you are so inclined, the whole movie can be seen as a symbolic rebel cry against the Soviet occupiers (represented here by Nazis), with Milos being the Czech every man turned hero and Hubicka as the “spirit” of the Czech people. However, this could lead to people calling you things like “overly analytical” or “pretentious”, so I advise against it.
Beautifully composed and photographed, Closely Watched Trains garnered critical and audience accolades and went on to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Another key film from the Czech New Wave is Milos Foreman’s Loves of a Blonde. However, unlike Foreman, who went on to direct acclaimed motion pictures in USA (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus), Menzel toiled in obscurity in Czechoslovakia. Shortly after the release of this film, Soviet tanks rolled through Wenceslas Square and the brief lifting of the Iron Curtain was over. There is a happy ending, though: Menzel and writer, Hrabal, released a quite excellent movie last year – I Served the King of England – that may or may not be available in a video store near you…
Up Next in the Film Canon: In Defense of Chick-Flicks.