CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Vaclav Neckar, Josef Stomr, Vladimir Valenta, Jitka Bendova, Jitka
Director: Jiri Menzel
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: Theatrical Trailer
Length: 93 Minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2001
Watched Trains is either a sex comedy set against the dreary background of war, or a
war picture told through the eyes of some minor characters dealing with the
unpleasantries through their own self absorption. Either way, it is a unique and compelling film, even if the
comic and dramatic aspects work like oil and water.
a small Czechoslovakian train station, young Milos Hrma (Neckar) works as a
dispatcher, dreaming of becoming a man and retiring with a pension ridiculously
young, as did his father and grandfather before him. He is at the age where he is obsessing with women and losing
his virginity. In the cold climate
of his country, women are generally very well wrapped, but you wouldn’t know
it based on the men’s reaction to them…they respond as though they were
dramatic interest, even if only seemingly marginally connected to the story and
characters, is the fact that World War II is happening just a distance up the
tracks from where the station is. Some
of the trains that come through are so-named “closely watched trains”,
bringing supplies and hardware to the Reich.
Various characters come and go with these trains, including a councilor
who is silly enough to boast about the brilliance of the latest German retreat.
has his own problems…he learns he suffers from premature ejaculation, thus
causing his troubles with women, and actually inspiring a failed suicide
attempt. (His superiors only react
by warning that he could be arrested for self-mutilation in order to escape his
duties). He is in love with Masa (Bendova),
a pretty young conductor. In a
sequence that reminded me of Buster Keaton, the two try to consummate their love
in her uncle’s photo studio. An
air raid cripples the building, but the dour and expressionless Milos merely
dresses and leaves as though nothing were happening.
station friend Hubicka (Somr) is a ladies’ man, despite not looking anything
like one. His sexual escapades are
funny and daring, resulting in the movie’s most memorable scene, where he
stamps the telegraph girl Virginia (Zeleohorska) with mail stamps all along her
thighs and buttocks, much to the anger and outrage of her mother later.
and Milos candidly plan the destruction of a “closely watched train”.
Why? Are they morally
opposed to Hitler and the Germans? Is
it in the name of Czechoslovakian freedom?
Or are they just bored out of their minds?
The most fascinating aspect of the movie is that Milos’ mission of
sabotage seems less related to war or politics than it does his own sexual
dysfunction…a pretty female agent (Urbankova) delivers not only the device
necessary for destruction, but in more ways than one, makes Milos potent enough
to carry it out.
climax, which I won’t reveal, has been much discussed over the years.
It doesn’t deliver much of an emotional impact, in my opinion, because
of the somewhat strange hyper-real quality of the film and the way director Jiri
Menzel chose to approach his subject matter.
It is a heroic act stripped down so that we have to struggle to think of
it in those terms.
black and white photography seems an unusual cinematic choice, at first, because
it makes the comedy and sexuality in the picture seem a little cold, sterile and
unreal. The look of the picture,
which is the story of sexual awakening against the backdrop of war, reflects
perhaps the very nature of war drawing the color out of everyday life.
film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1966, and rode a wave of popularity
Czechoslovakian films during that era. It’s
still a picture that continues to intrigue and fascinate some 35 years later.
is a remarkable transfer from Criterion, beautifully rendering the crisp,
expressive black and white photography by Jiri Menzel and cinematographer
Jaromir Sofr. The grayscale range
is full, with remarkable detail, and clean crisp whites and true blacks.
A few aging artifacts are noticeable from time to time; a scratch here, a
mark there, but far less than one might expect, and nothing distracting.
Overall, a quality effort.
mono soundtrack is clean, and though the dialogue is in the original Czech,
there seems to be no lack of clarity with it.
Dynamic range is quite good, as certain scenes carry a good audio punch,
and quieter moments aren’t disrupted by undue noise. One problem of note…the English subtitles do not come on by
default; they must be deliberately activated if you want them.