Oscar Movies: Closely Watched Trains–1967 Winner

(Ostre Sledovane Vlaky)

Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, the winner the 1967 Oscar Award for Best Foreign-Language Picture, is a lyrical tragicomedy about the attempts of a naive apprentice train-dispatcher at sexual initiation. The (anti) hero of this wry yet tender Czech film is a shy, scared youngster who comes from a long line of patsies and fools.

The first film to be directed by Jiri Menzel is based on the well-known ironic novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who collaborated with Menzel on the scenario. Born in 1914, Hrabal, one of the most popular Czech writers, was older than Menzel by 24 years, but he reportedly liked the film better than his novel. Set during the German Occupation, most of the narrative takes place at a village railway station. It’s a modest sort of film that shows human concern and compassion for its characters, without judging them. A sophisticated, elliptical folk tale, Closely Watched Trains contains many quirky moments that reflect small-town passion. One sequence, in which an assistant stationmaster rubber-stamps a female telegrapher, is particularly funny.

Marking a turning point in history of Czech cinema, “Closely Watched Trains” could not have been made after the Soviet invasion of August 21, 1968, which ended the liberal climate that had prevailed in Czech arts and letters in the 1960s.

Menzel not only co-wrote and directed, but also played in the movie the pivotal role of the doctor. In l974, Menzel recanted his political beliefs, which enabled him to work, but he resumed his initial political activism in l989.

Among his other movies are: Capricious Summer (1968), Larks on a String (1969), Those Wonderful Men with a Crank (1978), and the international hit My Sweet Little Village (1986). Running Time: 89 minutes