Closely Watched Trains (1966)


Why Did I Watch It? Jiri Menzel passed away recently and i had never seen this, his acclaimed masterpiece.

Cast, crew, etc.

In the depths of World War II, young Czech Milos gets a job working at the local railway station. He is of little ambition and thinks he has found his dream position; safe from the war, not overly busy, comfortable and secure. He also comes under the wing of Hubicka, a more worldly platform attendant who tries to teach the younger man what he knows about women.

The town’s female population are bored and listless, and find Hubicka’s cynicism appealing. He beds both an attractive traveller, and the station’s young stenographer; to the chagrin of the station master who fancied both himself, but who has the unfortunate handicap of a wife. Milos tries to replicate Hubicka’s approach, and catches the eye of train guard Masa. But their night together ends in premature ejaculation and embarrassment; Milos feels so bereft he even attempts suicide. His psychologist tells him to find an older woman to show him the ropes; which leads him to a mature German lady who is passing through. She is happy to give Milos the benefit of her experience, but there is a catch; the war is actually not as far away as everyone thought.

The Czech New Wave was a film movement that arose in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. The state, a Communist satellite of the USSR since the end of World War II, had been an oppressive totalitarian regime, that had started to liberalise as the decade developed. A new generation of film makers, the most famous of which became Milos Foreman, took advantage of this evolving climate to produce edgy films that would not have been allowed previously. These dared to criticise the Government, and portray Czech society as corrupt, degenerate, directionless.

Jiri Menzel was among a later crop of New Wave directors and this, his first film, is a caustic and expertly filmed black comedy. Setting the familiar coming of age story against the backdrop of the war is amusing in itself. The characters are self absorbed, concerned only with their own immediate needs, and are able to ignore the epic conflict their country is involved in. Apart from the odd soldier asking for directions, or the occasional news bulletin, the war does not intrude on their lives. Meanwhile, the local pro Nazi apparatchik pops in from time to time, to explain how each German retreat is only bringing them closer to victory. This is droll stuff, and very funny.

Menzel has a precise visual style. He mostly keeps the camera still, but uses careful editing to give the movie energy. His DP, Jaromir Sofr, shoots the film with a high contrast, which creates some striking black and white images. All of the details of the train station, the levers, the alarms, the tickertape machine, are captured in detail, which turns what in actuality is a fairly dull work environment, into a visually interesting location. Doubly so the photographic studio, where Milos tries to woo Masa. This threadbare establishment, where a cartoon plane backdrop is the most exciting thing on offer, becomes a lively, borderline surreal, setting in the hands of the film makers. An amazingly designed movie, and directed with real confidence; remarkable when you consider Menzel was only 28.

The film takes a turn at the end. Milos’ kindly sexual instructor is working for the resistance, and she convinces him – with no difficulty – to plant a bomb on a German train. Milos does this successfully, but is spied by a guard and shot. He falls to his death, right as the train explodes. This seems to be a comment on the viciousness of war, but also on the leaders that take countries to war. Milos is a naive innocent, and essentially apolitical; a useful tool for the resistance, who have no compunction in taking advantage of him for their own ends. While the resistance is generally depicted as heroic, this is a cold blooded act. But it is only a short line to connect this, to leaders of the era like Hitler and Stalin, who were likewise comfortable manipulating, and sacrificing, millions for their political objectives. War is a dirty business, and exposes the worst of human nature.

A bold and rich movie. Jiri Menzel passed away recently, which triggered my watching of this. I have not seen many Czech New Wave movies, and am keen to catch some more.

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