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The Criterion Collection presents
"The entire town knows that I want to be a train dispatcher for the simple reason that I don't want to do anything—just like my ancestors—but stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work, while others have to drudge and toil."
DVD ReviewDirector Jiri Menzel made an auspicious feature film debut with his 1966 Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky), claiming only the second ever Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® won by a Czechoslovakian, following Jan Kadar's The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze), which took the first, two years earlier. A graduate of the Czech film school FAMU, Menzel was instrumental the the 1960s Czech New Wave, both as a director and as an actor in films by his contemporaries. His films focus on the "nobody," examining the paradoxes that make up the common man, with a wry wit and tragic humor; but unlike some of his fellow graduates such as Jan Nemec, Milos Forman, and Ivan Passer, his tone was much less cynical. His film career was suspended in 1969 after the Soviet invasion, and Menzel was forbidden from making films until 1975, when he was forced to renounce the "mistakes" of earlier films. The cause, his Larks on a String (Skrivanci na niti) and its anti-communist theme, was banned by the authorities for 21 years. Menzel would come to the attention of the Academy again in 1985 with another Best Foreign Language Film nomination for My Sweet Little Village (Vesnicko ma stoediskova).
Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who would become his frequent collaborator, Closely Watched Trains takes place in 1944, at a remote country rail station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Here, young Milos Hrma (V·clav Neck·r) takes a job as a rail guard trainee, following a long family tradition of avoiding laborious work. His father was a conductor, retired early and now living off a pension; his grandfather was killed when he, single-handedly, tried to stop the German advance into Prague through hypnotism. Now, Milos will learn the trade of train dispatcher, making sure the trains don't crash, and being especially careful with the "closely watched" trains carrying troops and munitions to the German frontline.
Despite his country being entrenched in war, the concerns Milos has are centered around his unsuccessful relationship with women. Though Milos has the attentions of a young conducteress (Jitka Bendov· as Masa), he is fascinated by the ability of train dispatcher Hubicka (Josef Somr) to seduce and behave around women, as much as this behaviour vexes the stationmaster, Max (VladimĖr Valenta). Milos is at a loss to understand how he should perform in the presence of the opposite sex, especially after a particularly embarrassing incident that leaves him quite distraught. His awkward attempts to rectify the situation result in a series of mishaps, engaging all around him, who themselves are absorbed in their own personal business, seemingly unaffected by the global conflict being waged only a few miles up the tracks. The outside world fails to derail the young boy's focus on losing his virginity, which is the only cause with any significance in his existence.
Menzel does a fantastic job of maintaining a credible yet incredible plotline intact (look for his cameo as Dr. Brabec). V·clav Neck·r's innocent involvement in the events in his life are portrayed without flaw, as are those of his accomplices. The black & white cinematography is wonderful, despite being limited to scenes mostly in and around the station. The film's music perfectly underscores the mood on screen. The pace is very easy going, and the editing maximizes the comic potential, without over doing it. Closely Watched Trains is littered with humor, from the local German authority, Counselor Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodsky), explaining the brilliance in strategy of German retreat from all fronts, to an incident involving office supplies and a young telegrapher at the stationósurely a first for seduction cinema. The deceptive cheekiness of the film belies what will eventually unfold, but we are witness to the absurdities of daily life from which Milos hopes to extract the rules of being an adult. Where his journey will take him is not obvious from the start, but the getting there makes for some very amusing cinema.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Despite a few signs of age, Criterion delivers a wonderful-looking transfer, with beautiful grayscale rendition. The worst source defects are in the beginning, with a persistent bit of streaking, after which the image gets progressively better. Grain is tight and natural, detail is crisp without being over enhanced. There are a few aliasing issues due to the complexity of some of the shots, but overall this looks fantastic.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Besides one or two instances in which the score begins to distort, the mono soundtrack sounds fitting for a film of this vintage. Hiss and other major defects are minimal.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: One of Criterion's movie-only discs, the US theatrical trailer is the only on disc extra. An essay on the film is included in a bright yellow leaflet.
I would note that, at least on my player, subtitles default to "off" when the film is started.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsAnother worthy addition to the Criterion Collection, Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains is a funny and fascinating slice of life, following the escapades of a young rail station trainee in a wonderful coming of age film. Rich characters and situations that border on the absurd, fill this sweetly humanistic look at German-occupied Czechoslovakia. If this is in any way indicative of Menzel's work or other Czech films, I look forward to discovering more. Recommended.
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