Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is arguably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.
Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was the first Czech movie I saw, long before I emigrated to Brno, and on first viewing I couldn’t help but notice a basic similarity to an old British sitcom, On the Buses.
On the Buses was a bawdy comedy focussing on the exploits of Stan and Jack, a bus driver and his mate, who spend most of their time trying to “get their leg over” with the various “birds” who work at the depot. Their shenanigans usually incurs the wrath of their nemesis, the frustrated, uptight Inspector Blake, or “Blakey” as he became known in British popular culture.
Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains)Directed by: Jiří Menzel
Starring: Václav Neckář, Josef Somr, Vladimír Valenta, Jitka Bendová
Closely Watched Trains follows a gormless young man, Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckář) who gets a job as Station Guard at a sleepy village train station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. There’s not much to do, and under the tutelage of an older man, train dispatcher Hubička (Josef Somr), he pursues the female rail staff in the hope of – to use On the Buses parlance – “getting his end away” for the first time. Their shenanigans usually incurs the wrath of their uptight, frustrated Station Master boss (Vladimír Valenta), who has a touch of Oliver Hardy about him.
Beyond the basic set up, On the Buses and Closely Watched Trains don’t have too much in common, but give an interesting contrast between Britain and Czechoslovakia at a specific point in time. On the Buses debuted a year after the film’s Academy Award vistory, and around six weeks after Jan Palach set himself alight in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
On the Buses was cheap, smutty, old-fashioned, sexist, racist, and deeply conservative, a good representation of Britain at the time, an ailing country still recovering from World War II. Closely Observed Trains, from a young director of the Czech New Wave, was fresh, breezy and lightly subversive, made against the backdrop of social upheaval and ill-fated rebellion against Communist rule and Soviet intervention. Like many Czech films, it is also preoccupied with sex and has a leisurely narrative until Miloš’s late, sudden decision to be a resistance hero against the Nazis.
Co-written by the director and Hrabal, Closely Observed Trains is a fairly light-hearted romp, without any overtly political rabblerousing. However, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to draw an analogy between the Nazis and the Soviets, and the film’s overall message seems to be: “If you don’t like it, man up & do something about it!”
In the logic of the film, Hrma (by the way, hrma is old Czech for the Mons Veneris, or the Mound of Venus) can only be a man once he’s lost his virginity, and after an embarassing moment with a pretty conductor, eventually gets deflowered by a foxy resistance agent. Manhood achieved, Hrma is ready to take on the Nazis.
The film pokes fun at the crumbling Nazi regime, which a pompous local collaborator tries to pass off as a masterful tactical retreat by the Führer. Hrabal’s voice is most recognizable in the opening scenes, describing Hrma’s family of layabouts and charlatans, including a phoney hypnotist who formed the countries last line of defence against the invading forces. In those moments, the ghost of the Hašek’s Švejk lingers at the edge of the frame.
Closely Watched Trains is beautiful to look at, lensed in lucid black and white by Jaromír Šofr. I love the contrast between the wintry outdoor scenes and the softly lit indoor shots. To me it looks as if everything is slightly stained by soot from the passing locomotive’s furnaces. The loose comic tone is assisted by Jiří Šust’s score.
As with many Czech films, the pace is leisurely, driven by characters and situations rather than plot. I think the episodic, anecdotal nature of movies from this country is partly the reason why foreigners sometimes have difficulty taking to Czech cinema.
If you’re raised on largely plot-driven movies like me, following a roughly three act structure, the change of pace can be jarring. Whereas most mainstream British and American films have a Beginning, Middle and an End, Czech films often feel like all Middle with a little bit of End.
Closely Watched Trains is a charming, amusing and undemanding movie, perfect for anyone looking for an introduction to the films of the Czech New Wave of the Sixties.
The DVD Ostře sledované vlaky with English subtitles can be obtained online and at news stands.
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