Closely Watched Trains
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Sometimes film can help change the political landscape, but it can also work the other way around. With the onset of a somewhat more lenient ruling body in the 1960s, Czechoslovakian directors were able, for the first time ever, to comment on the often harsh realities of Czech life without being tossed in jail for their trouble. The emotionally raw, do-it-yourself techniques of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, among several others, had a deep effect on these filmmakers; the French New Wave's daring approach to narrative seemed the perfect route to making genuinely liberated motion pictures in Czechoslovakia. Thus, the Czech New Wave was born.
Such directors as Vera Chytilova, Jaromil Jires, Milos Forman, Vojtech Jasny, Jiri Menzel, Evald Schorm, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos would soon jolt the Czech film industry out of its slumber, with a string of gutsy pictures that challenged the government's pre-set notions of what was best for its filmgoers.
Forman, the Oscar®-winning director behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), has enjoyed the most celebrated career of all the original Czech mavericks. But Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1966) is a pivotal example of this particular form of East European cinema. In fact, Menzel's sardonic coming-of-age story -- which was adapted by Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal, from Hrabal's novel of the same name -- struck such a resonant chord with international audiences, it received the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Set during World War II, Closely Watched Trains stars Vaclav Neckar as Milo, a young man who lands a job with a railroad at the moment that the German Army begins its occupation of his hometown. Unlike most films of this sort, Closely Watched Trains doesn't immediately focus on the evils of Fascism. Instead, Menzel universalizes a political story by delving deeper into the psychology of his main character.
The audience is expected to piece together what makes Milo tick, as he pursues, for the most part, his goal of losing his virginity. Along the way, there are seriocomic interludes, including the story of Milo's grandfather, who was killed while trying to hypnotize German tank drivers into turning around and leaving. Milo, who, for much of the picture, seems downright apolitical, will eventually recognize the immensity of the horror that surrounds him and try to do something about it. His conversion lends poetry to a film that unfolds in the style of a documentary.
Menzel, who graduated from FAMU, the state film academy in Prague, is also an idealistic theater director and actor. He believes that the stage is just as artistically viable as film. 'Around the world,' he once said in an interview, 'directors stage plays that no one goes to see. They are usually staged at privately sponsored theatres. Then there are the commercial theatres -- they opt for averagely good pieces -- famous works and box-office hits, manifesting a bad taste, I would say...theatres now only stage plays that draw upon hatred for mankind. I simply do not accept this.'
This forgiving bent is on ample display in Closely Watched Trains one of the more moving debut features of the 1960s. Renowned film scholar Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films wrote, "Jiri Menzel's first feature recalls the work of [Milos] Forman in its elliptically funny, but tender observation of the quirks of humanity. Its funniest scenes are uproarious: the regular guard tearing up the stationmaster's couch in a moment of passionate abandon; the same guard rubber-stamping the backside of a peasant girl; the visits of a Nazi controller. But it is also marvelously perceptive both in its observation of everyday behavior and in the way it reveals the boy's maturation..."
Director: Jiri Menzel
Producer: Zdenek Oves
Screenplay: Jiri Menzel, Bohumil Hrabal, based on Hrabal¿s novel Music: Jirí Sust
Cinematography: Jaromír Sofr
Editing: Jirina Lukesová
Art Direction: Oldrich Bosák
Set Decoration: Jirí Cvrcek
Costume Design: Olga Dimitrovová
Makeup: Miloslav Koubek
Cast: Vaclav Neckar (Trainee Milos), Jitka Bendova (Conductor Masa), Vladimir Valenta (Stationmaster), Libuse Havelkova (Stationmaster's Wife), Josef Somr (Train Dispatcher Hubieka), Alois Vachek (Station Assistant), Jitka Zelenohorska (Telegraphist), Vlastimil Brodsky (Councilor Zednicek), Ferdinand Kruta (Uncle Noneman), Kveta Fialova (The Countess), Nada Urbankova (Victoria Freie), Jiri Menzel (Doctor Brabec.)
by Paul Tatara