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May 17, 2011

Closely Watched Trains - Classic Film Pick

Closely-watched-trains Jiří Menzel's 1966 masterwork of the Czechoslovakian New Wave captures the country's unique cultural identity via a subversive wartime story based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal. 

It's near the end of World War II and Germany is losing its grip on Europe. Evidence of the Third Reich's weakening powers are exhibited by shabby army supply cargo on "closely watched trains" passing through a small-town railway station. 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 new train station uniform with pride. Meanwhile, the stationmaster is content to let the pigeons he raises poop all over him. 

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 behind sets off a scandal sparked by the girl's outraged mother, who demands justice. Naive Miloš misses a golden opportunity for sensual conquest at the hands of an amorous young train conductor, 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 subjective sub-consciousness during the Nazi occupation.

Like his celebrated filmmaking peer Milos Forman, Jiří Menzel graduated from the State film school in Prague. His sense of comic incident in a naturalistic setting coincides with a sincere fascination for sensual expression. "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 keen sense of satire and sensuality with his divine, picaresque film "I Served the King of England," which was also based on a novel by his frequent collaborator, Bohumil Hrabal.


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