Director: Jirí Menzel
Screenplay: Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel
Based on a Novel by: Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I’m rather late to the party in checking out the films of the Czech New Wave, with my introduction being Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball only last month. I liked that film quite a lot as my 4.5 rating will attest, so I was delighted to hear that Arrow were following that release up with Jirí Menzel’s Oscar winning Closely Observed Trains (a.k.a. Closely Watched Trains or, in it’s native country, Ostře sledované vlaky), one of the most well loved films of the movement.
Closely Observed Trains is set on a small rural train station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Young Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckár), our main protagonist, has just become a station guard and is fixed on living up to his family reputation of being a lazy shirker. In his words, the job will allow him to “do nothing except stand around on the platform with a signal disc while they (the people) spend their lives working themselves to the bone”. His colleagues seem to embody this description with Hubicka (Josef Somr) spending his time seducing anything in a skirt, particularly the more than forthcoming telegraphist Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská). Their stationmaster Max (Vladimír Valenta) takes his job more seriously, yearning to be promoted to station inspector, but in actuality spends most of his time tending to his pigeons and jealously damning Hubicka’s actions.
The film loosely charts the misadventures of the staff in a fairly episodic fashion, with Miloš’ ongoing quest to lose his virginity becoming the overall crux of the story. This takes a turn for the serious when he attempts suicide after failing to ‘do the deed’ when given the chance with his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Scoffin). His doctor (played by Menzel himself) tells Miloš not to worry, he’s only suffering from fairly common premature ejaculation and should try to find a more experienced woman to show him the ropes and put him at ease. So for the rest of the film Miloš is determined to remedy his problem, letting everyone know about it so that they may help. As he moves closer to ‘becoming a man’, he also gets talked into joining a sabotage mission against the Nazis by Hubicka, who in the meantime has been getting into trouble after going too far with Zdenka.
Well, with this and The Firemen’s Ball I’m quickly becoming a fan of the Czech New Wave movement. I enjoyed Closely Observed Trains a lot. First and foremost is the humour. Right from the offset, as Miloš describes the actions of his eccentric slacker family, I was giggling away. The film has a wonderfully offbeat humour that seems ahead of its time and wouldn’t feel out of place in a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson film.
The film this most reminded me of though was Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H made 6 years later in 1972. Like that, Closely Observed Trains sets itself in a grim time and place, but finds the characters paying little attention to the war around them and instead focussing on their childish day to day antics. In both films the plots are pretty flimsy, but they subtly have much to say about the problems at the time and the human condition in general.
Like Altman’s film, Closely Observed Trains has a naturalistic approach to performance and setting, but this is visually composed more carefully in sumptuous black and white and also peppered with vaguely surreal moments here and there. One instance of this is when a bomb destroys the house Miloš is sleeping in, but leaves him and the owner untouched in their beds. The latter wakes to see what has happened and merely laughs. This unusual reaction is matched in the surprisingly tragic finale too. The film switches tones like this a couple of times, but effectively so, making for an unpredictable and original experience. There’s even an effectively erotic sequence in the infamous buttock stamping scene, which caused quite a stir on release.
Like The Firemen’s Ball, some of the subtext may have been lost on me due to my poor knowledge of history and politics, but the message of having to ‘man up’ to solve your problems is clear and the film remained very enjoyable through its offbeat humour. The film is very classily produced too with the aforementioned beautiful cinematography and a handful of memorable performances, particularly Josef Somr as the lecherous Hubicka. So I find it easy to recommend the film to anyone, even if like me their experience of the Czech New Wave is pretty minimal. I’ll certainly be on the look out for more releases from the movement.
Closely Observed Trains is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. I saw the Blu-Ray version and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is fantastic.
For special features you get an ‘appreciation’ by Peter Hames, author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, archival interviews with director Jirí Menzel, cinematographer Jaromír ofr and film historian Jan as well as a piece called ‘Closely Observed Films’, where Michael Brooke explores the six-film collaboration between Menzel and novelist Bohumil Hrabal. These are all very insightful and the two new pieces both fairly substantial so it’s an impressive release.
And as with all Arrow releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative as always.