Closely Watched Trains (1967): Jiri Menzel’s Brilliant Oscar Winning Film

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.

Our Grade: A (*****)

Closely Watched Trains
Closelywatchedtrains.jpg

Theatrical release poster

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.

Miloš Hrma, who speaks with misplaced pride of his family of misfits, is a newly trained station guard, who admires his new uniform, and looks forward, like his retired railwayman father, to avoiding any work.

The pompous stationmaster is an enthusiastic pigeon-breeder with a kind wife, but is envious of the train dispatcher Hubička’s success with women.

Miloš holds a platonic love for the pretty young conductor Máša, and when the experienced Hubička presses for details of their bond, he realizes that Miloš is still a virgin.

The idyllic life of the railway station is disturbed by the arrival of the councillor Zedníček, a Nazi collaborator. At her initiative, Máša spends the night with Miloš, but he ejaculates prematurely before achieving penetration and then is unable to perform. The next day, the embarrassed lad attempts suicide.

He is saved, and the doctor explains that “ejaculatio praecox” is normal at Miloš’s age. The doctor suggests to Miloš to “think of something else” (like interest in football), and to seek help from an experienced woman.

During the nightshift, Hubička flirts with the young telegraphist Zdenička, and imprints her thighs with the office’s rubber stamps. Her mother sees the stamps and complains to Hubička’s superiors, and the ensuing scandal aborts the stationmaster’s ambition to be promoted to inspector.

Meanwhile, the Germans and their collaborators are anxious since their trains are being attacked by the partisans. A glamorous Resistance agent (a circus artist in peacetime), code-named Viktoria Freie, delivers a time bomb to Hubička for blowing up large ammunition train. At Hubička’s request, the “experienced” Viktoria also helps Miloš to resolve his sexual problem.

At the crucial moment when the ammunition train is approaching, Hubička is caught up in a farcical disciplinary hearing over his rubber-stamping of Zdenička’s backside. In Hubička’s place, Miloš, liberated by his experience with Viktoria from his former passivity, takes the time bomb and drops it from a gantry that extends above the tracks, onto the train. A machine-gunner, spotting Miloš, sprays him with bullets, and his body falls onto the train.

With the Nazi collaborator Zedníček winding up the disciplinary hearing, dismissing the Czech people as “nothing but laughing hyenas,” the implicit retort to his jibe comes in a series of explosions that destroys the train. Hubička and the other railwaymen are laughing, expressing their joy at the blow to the Nazi occupiers. The wistful Máša has to pick up Miloš’s uniform cap, hurled across the station by the blast.

A modest sort of film, Closely Watched Trains shows deeply human concern and compassion for its characters, without ever judging them.

A subtly sophisticated, elliptical folk tale, the movie contains some quirky, even zany, moments that reflect small-town passion. The sequence in which an assistant stationmaster rubber-stamps a female telegrapher, and its aftermath, 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 cameo role of the doctor. Menzel took on the cameo only at the last minute, after the actor originally cast failed to show up.

For the lead, 15 non-professional actors were tested, before the wife of the poet Ladislav Fikar suggested pop singer Vaclav Neckar.

Locations shooting were used in and around the station building in Lodenice.

Menzel and Hrabal later collaborated on the script of the long-banned Larks on a String, shot in 1969 but not released until 1990.

In 1974, Menzel recanted his political beliefs, which enabled him to work, but he resumed in earnest his initial political activism in 1989.

Among his Menzel’s popular 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).

Title ( Czechoslovakia): Ostre Sledovane Vlaky

Credits:

Directed by Jiří Menzel
Produced by Zdeněk Oves
Screenplay by Jiří Menzel, based on Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
Music by Jiří Šust
Cinematography Jaromír Šofr
Edited by Jiřina Lukešová

Production company: Barrandov Studios, Ceskoslovensky Film

Distributed by Ústřední půjčovna filmů

Release date: November 18, 1966

Running Time: 89 minutes