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May 17, 2011


Closely-watched-trainsJiří Menzel's masterwork of the Czechoslovakian New Wave captures the country's distinctive cultural identity via a subversive wartime story based on a novel by the director’s frequent collaborator Bohumil Hrabal (see “Larks on a String”).

It's near the end of World War II and Germany is losing its grip on Europe. A shabby army supply cargo loaded on “closely watched trains” is passing through a small-town railway station. The event exhibits evidence of the Third Reich’s weakening powers. Young Miloš Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) follows in the footsteps of his family's notoriously indolent patriarchs by choosing to work at the station, where little effort is required. Though lazy, Miloš desperately wants to become a man. He wears his spiffy new train station uniform with pride. Meanwhile, the stationmaster is content to let the pigeons he raises poop all over him. A communal Czechoslovakian identity peaks through.

Menzel's empathetic camera takes a documentary-like approach. Inside the station, Miloš befriends a womanizing train dispatcher, Hubička (Josef Somr). Hubička takes his low impact job as seriously as his effortless gift for seduction. His use of official rubber stamps on a young telegrapher's posterior anatomy sets off a scandal sparked by the girl's outraged mother, who demands justice for the humiliation done to her hot-to-trot daughter.


Naive Miloš misses a golden opportunity for sensual conquest at the hands of an amorous young train conductor named Máša (Jitka Zelenohorská). His failure to perform sexually sends him on a tricky path to self-discovery and even martyrdom. The film's often-breezy tone belies a dark examination of the country's wounded subjective subconscious state during the Nazi occupation. There’s no escaping a pervasive sense of fear.

Like his celebrated filmmaking peer Milos Forman, Jiří Menzel graduated from the State film school in Prague. His keen sense of comic incidents occurring in naturalistic settings coincides with a sincere fascination for sensual expression and physically expressed passion. Humanity lives here.

"Closely Watched Trains" won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Although Menzel's presence as a key player in the Czech New Wave renaissance was diminished by the Soviet invasion of 1968, he continued to act in the theatre and make films in Prague. In 2006, he once again proved his gifts for satire and sensuality with his divine, picaresque film "I Served the King of England," which was also based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal.


Not Rated. 89 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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