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CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vaclav Neckar, Josef Stomr, Vladimir Valenta, Jitka Bendova, Jitka Zelenohorska
Director:  Jiri Menzel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

Film ***

Closely 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.

In 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 magazine centerfolds.

Of 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.

Milos 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.

His 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.

He 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

This 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.

Video ***1/2

This 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.

Audio ***

The 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.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Closely Watched Trains merits close watching.  It’s an intriguing story of sexual awakening and the effects of war on the psyche as well as the libido of one young train dispatcher.  The quality of the DVD transfer makes this disc from Criterion worth checking out, especially for foreign film fans.