CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS (1966)
“OSTRE SLEDOVANE VLAKY”
P R O L O G U E
CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS was filmed in a sleepy Bohemian town—which is in Czechoslovakia—sort of. During WWI, this country was still an important part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1918, after the war there was a minor uprising against Hapsburg rule—paralleling the more famous Russian Revolution happening further east. The country was called Czecho-Slovakia—and it became a democracy. The former Czech Republic and Slovakia combined—even though they had separate languages. But in 1938, after the democratic dream had only lasted 20 years, Adolf Hitler got the bright idea that he could conquer first Europe, then Russia, and then the rest of the world.
For that halcyon double decade, Czechoslovakia had worked hard at maintaining its democracy and industrialization. As a country, it was bordered on the west and northwest by Germany—north and northeast by Poland—due east by Rumania, later the Ukraine—due south Hungary—and to its southwest was Austria. It was like a fat beautiful goose waiting for its turn to be dinner. On the border with Germany, there was a thick swath of German settlers—and they called their area “The Sudetenland”. By 1939, the Germans firmly occupied the country, and while they were readying themselves to invade Poland—they renamed Czechoslovakia. They dubbed it “The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”—reusing the older names for the region. After WWII, from 1945-1948, all the German citizenry were expelled—three million of them.
After a short political sigh of relief, and some needed reorganization—they held a national election in 1948. Unfortunately for the country, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was elected into power. They reached back out to snag Slovakia and with that re-annexation; they made them both Soviet satellite nations. They were renamed as the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. They became the western-most border of the massive Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—and what a honor that was. They were labeled as “federal republics” which is as much an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp”—or God help us, “government intelligence”. Democracy was choked to death and the strong economy took a nose dive.
Interestingly enough though, midst the belt tightening and the collectivism—art flourished. Writers still wrote and filmmakers still made films. By late 1965, while civil rights were awakening in America, while the United States was immersing itself deeper into the quagmire of the Republic of Viet Nam—Prague Spring emerged and the bright moments of the Czech New Wave came into being. For over two years Czech films and Czech literature made a tremendous international impact. Then in desperation, the Czech Communist Party called in the Warsaw bully boys to restore a sense of “order”. So Soviet troops rolled in and gleefully enforced the “Rule of One”.
Decades later, in 1989, the Communists were finally defeated, and the Soviet troops were sent home to have to deal with the disintegration of their own countries’ collectives—and the bellicose re-emergence of divers “independent” Balkan nations. The two Socialist Republics peacefully split back into their original two halves—experiencing what has been called “the Velvet Divorce”. The larger was dubbed the Czech Republic, with Prague as its capital—and it loomed lovingly over the smaller portion re-dubbed, Slovakia. The flag, the coat of arms, for the Czech Republic is red, white, and blue.
Like Michael Constantine as Gus Portokalos in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002), who always was bragging about the glories and virtues of Greece—likewise some Czech baker or tailor might have said in a quaint pub in Prague,” Did you know that the sugar cube was invented in 1843 in the Czech town of Dacice—that the word robot comes from the Czech word “robota”—to work hard—that the prehistoric settlement of Dolni Vestonice in Southern Moravia is the oldest town in the world—dating back to 27,000 BC—during the Ice Age—that Sigmund Freud was born in the old Czech Republic—that Prague Castle is the largest castle in the world—and that the Czech Republic is one of those countries with the highest density of castles that you can find?”
Jiri Menzel was born in Prague in 1938. Prague has always been a city of great culture, art, and education—much like its neighbors Vienna, and Budapest. He was the son of Josef Menzel, who was a writer and journalist. After high school, at 18, he got a job as an assistant at a local television studio. He studied at the Czech Film School (FAMU) in Prague. His classmates were men like Milos Foreman, Ivan Passer, and Jan Kadar. From 1962-1965 he worked on state-produced newsreels.
Then from late 1965 through 1968—the Czech artists found themselves immersed in the joy, exuberance, and triumphs of Prague Spring. This was the golden period often referred to as the Czech New Wave. Menzel was busy working on his film, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS. It was produced during that fleeting artistic moment when the Communist regime held their lockjaw gaze elsewhere. He had already met the radical poet and novelist, Bohumil Hrabal. They had collaborated on one earlier small film—and they would become life-long friends. In early 1967, Menzel made his debut as a theatre director with a well-received production of LA MANDRAGOLA.
Dragan Antulov wrote,” The long tradition of Czech humor, forged through centuries of foreign rule, proved to be too big a challenge, even for the most diligent Communist censors. Czech comedies—with their focus on the ordinary life of individuals—used an indirect approach to criticize the state of society.”
Jiri Menzel once said,” Czechs see the other side of everything, and are quick to spot a paradox. We can always see Mr. Brezhnev in his underwear.” Menzel was a gifted actor as well, and he has appeared in 48 films since 1964. He appeared as Dr. Bravbec in TRAINS. He has directed 24 films since 1960—and TRAINS was his sixth film.
Czech humor is the sadness of clowns—their smiles are painted on—and they found ways of delivering levity surreptitiously—poking fun at the bayonets and rifle butts that were aimed at their heads. CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign film of 1966. The year before another Czech film, Jan Kadar’s THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET had won the Oscar for best foreign film. The “New Wave” was gathering momentum. In 1967 Milos Foreman gave us THE FIREMAN’S BALL. So until Warsaw tanks clanked into Wencelas Square in Prague and a polished jack boot was placed squarely on the necks of all the country’s artists and intellectuals—the world was applauding Czech Cinema.
Baby boomers, like myself, born out of the sexual frenzy of World War II America—who grew up in the 1950’s Eisenhower era—can barely imagine how Jiri Menzel felt as a preschooler, watching a ring of SS troops gather around his playground and around his country—or Jan Thomas (Milos) Foreman felt after his parents were both killed at Auschwitz—or how Roman Polanski felt, with his parents taken off to a concentration camp [his mother died there]—having to live with various Catholic families in the Polish countryside—having to walk to school past piles of dead bodies stacked up like cordwood alongside the roads.
Michael Jon Stoil wrote,” Jiri Menzel was 27 years old when he completed CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS—and only 29 when he won the Oscar. What Menzel accomplished in this film was to comment on 60’s Czech society by disguising the contemporary aspects to illustrate “ideological fatigue”—which was a rejection of the constant propagandist harangues by the Socialists. Menzel wisely transformed the Marxists into Nazis. To criticize the drabness and austerity of modern Czechoslovakia—he has disguised these conditions with images of wartime shortages and controls. So the hated Russian presence was changed into the despised Wehrmacht soldiers and officials.”
Menzel was immediately ordered by the Czech Communist government to return his “capitalist prize”. Menzel clung to his gold-plated Oscar. He refused to return it. During that tense and dangerous time—Milos Foreman and others fled the country. God knows what motivated Menzel to stay—patriotism—fear for his family’s welfare—love of the motherland? But stay he did. He had already finished and released CAPRICIOUS SUMMER (1968)—before he was forced into a tightly censored near silence. In early 1969, he had made his debut as a TV director. In late 1969, in order to be allowed to stay in country—he had to sign an official document renouncing his “subversive” earlier works—and he had to make public speeches to support his conversion—and he had to make a “repentance” film which would extol the praises of collectivism. Ironically, though—with these two ambitious films—TRAINS & SUMMER—he had already created a reputation that both transcended and survived the awful gray dullness of Czech productions within the censored 70’s.
Between the years 1969 through 1974—Menzel was not allowed to direct any films—or he chose not to. In 1974 he was allowed to return to work on a probationary basis. Curiously, during that dark time he was allowed to work as an actor—which he did. He was employed to take roles in nine government controlled and supervised films.
Menzel has been quoted as saying,” We all know that life is cruel and sad. But what’s the point of demonstrating this in films? Let us show we are brave by laughing at life—and in that laughter—let us not look for cynicism but rather reconciliation.” Gosh—I wonder how closely some comrade stood to him as he delivered these sentiments?
The most interesting and colorful character to emerge from my research for this film was the maverick poet and writer, Bohumil Hrabal. Born in 1914, he was 49 years old before he published his first work—a short story called A BORING AFTERNOON—in 1964. A man of many trades, Hrabal had been a student during the German occupation. After the Nazis had closed down the universities, he took a temporary job as a dispatcher in a small town railway station.
Hrabal has been called “the Czech James Joyce”. He introduced a new syntax—words and phrases actually used by the people—and proletarian poetics into his writing—that captured many experiences from his own life. Radko Pytlik wrote in his book, THE SAD KING OF CZECH LITERATURE,” Hrabal showed a deep empathy for his characters, who were living on the periphery—and he developed a lyrical and tragicomic sensibility to describe their lives.”
Looking at Hrabal’s novel, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, I found this lovely paragraph: “By 1945 the Germans had already lost command of the air space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact—and for that matter—the whole country. The Allied dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extant that the morning trains ran at noon—and the noon trains in the evening—and the evening trains during the night. So now and then it might happen that the afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time table—but only because it really was the morning passenger train running four hours late.”
Hrabal met Jiri Menzel in 1965, and they discovered that they were spiritual siblings of the same creative source—they hit it off famously. It has been said that,” They achieved an almost symbiotic relationship.” Hrabal provided those strong tales of tragicomic mundane absurdity, and Menzel brought them to the screen with his own,” poetic vision—full of humanity and lyricism.” Their first collaboration was on Hrabal’s PEARLS OF THE DEEP in early 1965. They shared the writing chores on the script for CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS. Before Hrabal and Menzel fell into political disfavor in 1968—they had already bonded for life. Menzel did not direct films from 1969-1974. Likewise Hrabal was banned from publishing anything from 1969-1974—when he finally relented and was forced to publish a “proclamation of his government support.” Regardless, over 3 million copies of his books have sold in Czechoslovakia—and his works have been translated into 27 languages. They collaborated twice more—once in 1980 with CUTTING IT SHORT, and then in 1990 with LARKS ON A STRING.
Bohumil Hrabal died in 1997 at 82 years old. His death was as much a tragedy as huge portions of his life had been. Synchronicity asserted itself strongly in the surreal mix of things. He fell to his death from a fifth floor window at Bulovka Hospital in Prague. Witnesses said that he was trying to feed some pigeons on his window sill—when the table he was standing on toppled over and he was pitched out the window. But many people have wondered—was his death a tragic accident, murder, or suicide? Oddly, his apartment in Prague was located on the fifth floor. Moreover—the act of committing suicide by leaping from the fifth floor reoccurred several times in his writing—and he had spoken several times to his friends about his fear of falling from a fifth floor. Did he pull a Hemingway? Was it really a poetic lethal gesture? Or was it an old adversary from the dark and despised days—who had finally found an opportunity to forever silence his strong voice of dissent? It was written,” Ultimately, his “exit” made an appropriate ending point for an exceptionally vital and powerful career.”
CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS was shot in crisp black and white—giving it the look of a newsreel or a documentary. It was filmed in and around the Bohemian train station of Lodenice—called Kostomlaty for the movie. The film ran 92 minutes and it is considered a comedy/drama. It opened with a comically charming scene—where the protagonist’s mother was dressing him for his first day of work on his new job—as an assistant dispatcher at the town train station. He was provided with a snappy uniform—complete with a short cape. The mother dressed him in layers—like a handler would prepare a prize fighter or a bull fighter—all ritual and respect. If she could have added some sequins or brocade to that plain starched uniform—she certainly would have. The uniform appeared to be a powder gray in color. I think that even if the film had been shot in color, that uniform would have been drab gray. The lad’s name was Milos Hrma—and he was played by Vaclav Neckar.
Milos provided us with an opening narrative voice-over—complete with his humorous family history. One grandfather had been in the Army. He had been wounded and then was pensioned off as disabled. His father had been a well know train conductor, and while on medical leave for a back injury—he was mistakenly pension off at 48 years old. He never questioned it. He loved to laze around all day lying on the couch, wearing his old uniform—only to rise up several times a day to salute a passing train. His other grandfather was a celebrated hypnotist—who one fine day decided to give the performance of his life. He put on his old costume and suddenly appeared directly in front of the first line of German tiger tanks that had approached the town. He stood tall and waved his spangled wand—demanding that those”Hessian Behemoths” disappear. The tank in front actually did stop—for a moment—before it lurched forward crushing the hypnotist to death. Based on that funny prologue—the movie felt like it was going to be pure satire—like Milos Foreman’s THE FIREMAN’S BALL (1967).
Reporting for duty, Milos was greeted immediately by the station master, Max—played by Vladimir Valenta—emerging out of a pigeon coop—cursing at the problems of keeping a flock—with his uniform open garrulously and with bird droppings on his hat and shoulders. Ah yes, I thought—more delicious satire. Then Milos met his mentor—the randy dispatcher, Hubicka—played by Josef Somr. Milos learned quickly that his duties consisted mostly of standing tall on the station platform, and smartly saluting as various trains chugged by—and he was allowed to pull down a track lever every hour or so.
Vaclav Neckar was 23 years old—playing 18 in TRAINS. It was his first film. He has appeared in 11 others. He worked with Menzel again in 1990 when they filmed Hrabal’s LARKS ON A STRING. Neckar’s Milos Hrma was a young man excited about doing nothing—who got to wear a uniform and actually got paid for it too. He was wide-eyed, shy, nervous, and naïve. Watching the absurd antics of Max and Hubicka helped him to block out the harsher realities of the war and Nazi occupation.
Josef Somr played dispatcher Hubicka—an odd-looking bespectacled balding short man—who lived hedonistically in the moment—who was a surprisingly successful local Lothario by day—and a freedom fighter by night. TRAINS was his second film. He has been a very successful working actor for over 40 years. He has appeared in 124 films since 1964.
Vladimir Valenta was a successful theatrical actor when he was cast in TRAINS—and this was his first film role. He was a very outspoken politically active kind of person—who was imprisoned for several years during the worst of the Warsaw occupation. His stationmaster, Max, was a wonderfully comic, bumbling, blustering, sad sack of a bureaucrat—who was also very envious of Hubicka’s myriad sexual conquests. Often Max would lapse into a kind of moronic moralistic double-speak—which gave some confusing depth to his comic sadness. As a stationmaster, he was a joke. He couldn’t tell pigeon crap from vanilla frosting. After Valenta’s release from the Communist prison—he fled the country. He settled in Canada in 1972. He did appear in 15 films over his career—and most of them were Canadian and American. He was living in Canada when he died of cancer.
Jilka Bendova played the nubile and seductive conductress, Masa. All she really had to do was appear several times and show an interest in Milos—and she managed to do that sensuously well. Oddly, this was her only film. In that scene where she and Milos puckered up for a first-time kiss—leaning toward each other—both with their eyes closed—her on a train and him on the platform—and just before their young trembling lips could meet—her train rumbled away—pulling her willing mouth into steam clouds of missed opportunities. Hubicka suddenly appeared in the frame, and he shoved a whistle into the puckered lips of Milos. This frozen moment of an almost caress—of non-closure—of misalignment—represented all those missed out on goals in life. It became the icon for the film—the movie poster—and ultimately the primary symbol for both the film and the novel. We all have been the victims of that fickle vicious vein of tragic descent ion.
Matthew Kennedy of BRIGHT LIGHTS FILM JOURNAL wrote,” Young Milos was looking forward to an easy life of civil servitude. This film is filled with wry moments of awkward seductions, white lies, and a gentle exploration of innocence. Menzel refuses to treat war time occupation as a tragic condition. He has been called the “Czech Woody Allen”.”
Roger Ebert wrote, giving it 3.5 stars,” This is a quiet, charming, very human film. This is a movie about innocence. Milos is naïve and not very bright—and he is forced to be heroic. But the saving grace of Love—reshapes his destiny.”
Sam Adams of the PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER wrote,” This odd little film is on one of AFI’s several 100 Best Lists. The movie’s wry mix of sex, adolescence, moral dilemma, and Nazis—helped pave the way for such recent films as EUROPA, EUROPA (1990). Admittedly—there is a climax that is too abrupt to pull off as much needed black humor—so though it is not a satisfying whole—it is more fondly remembered than better films of its time.”
Matthew Kennedy wrote further,” The film is just not as wonderful as we want it to be [I felt the same way about Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997), and Robin Williams in JACOB THE LIAR (1999)—both of them searching for that elusive humor hidden in the Holocaust. A better blend of humor and tragedy was achieved in the earlier German film, JAKOB—DER LUGNER (1975). For my money, director Billy Wilder came closest to a synthesis of those opposing emotions with his STALAG 17 in 1953.] Many of Menzel’s comedic moments feel “directed”—not spontaneous. The beloved status conferred on the film over the years seems borne out of the underdog status of Czech filmmaking—done in the 60’s under Communist creative oppression.”
In 1966, when I saw CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS at the Guild 45th Theatre in Seattle—just before I was drafted and dragged out of college—I admit that I was not very impressed with it. It seemed shallow, silly, and non-focused. Seeing it again, now almost 40 years later, I am pleased to report that in 1966 I just was not fully prepared to appreciate its subtlety. I was probably thinking about my compulsory conscription and that nasty fracas over there in Southeast Asia. I guess I was not receptive to embracing the humor of war. After I returned though, I was more than ready to fully embrace Robert Altman’s film MASH (1970), and the spin-off television series, M.A.S.H. (1972). And actually the same principles of political slight-of-hand were employed that the Czechs used in the 60’s. The war in Viet Nam was the target, and they used Korea and the Korean Conflict as symbolic stand-ins.
Derek Malcolm of the GUARDIAN UNLIMITED wrote,” The triumph of this film is to show us that our petty differences are inextricably linked to bigger events outside our lives—and that we can never escape them. That director Menzel does this with such tenderness, charm, and guile—as well as producing an extremely funny film—is a measure of its appeal. Some say the film lacked “real bite”. Marxists called it bourgeois—but running through it is a desperate seriousness which hardly precludes politics.”
Jiri Menzel said,” In my opinion—the true poetry of this movie—if it has any—lies not in the absurd situations themselves, but in their juxtaposition with obscenity and tragedy.”
Yvette Biro wrote,” No one has been able to portray the boredom—the void of everyday life in a small town’s railway station—the longing for exciting adventures—the gentle eroticism of adolescence—as Menzel did—and he did so in sharp contrast to the presence of brutal war.”
Menzel had quite a balancing act—up there walking on a thin rope a hundred feet above the crowd—and he had to do it while still hammering home the strong dissident sentiments he and his compeers felt. Of course
“Service Comedies” have been around since the inception of cinema—like Charlie Chaplin in SHOULDER ARMS (1918), Laurel and Hardy in TWO TARS (1928), Buster Keaton in TARS AND STRIPES (1935), Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in BUCK PRIVATES (1941) & IN THE NAVY (1941), Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950) & JUMPING JACKS (1952), and Bill Murray & John Candy in STRIPES (1981)—literally hundreds of hilarious romps showing insolence, stupidity, and insubordination as graces. But those films never really aspired to include “dramatic” scenes—or dangerous moments where people actually got hurt in them, or killed.
I remember being put off by Menzel’s choice to keep an obvious distance between his characters and the tragedy of WWII that kept passing by that tiny railway station numerous times a day. At one point, Milos experienced a bombing raid while at work. But as soon as it abated, Milos and Hubicka returned to their high jinks almost before the dust settled. In another scene, Milos was on the platform as a train pulled in, and he was forced to look at several dead bodies stacked up on the cars. As a viewer, I seemed more affected by that scene than Milos did.
Another bone I have to pick with Menzel had to do with the trains themselves. They were supposedly the strongest motif in the story—and yet mostly they were treated as mere passers by. I love trains. I wanted them to have more focus—to have a more realistic appreciation of their bulk and their steaming belching tar-encrusted selves. Trains have appeared in other WWII movies and they were treated more respectfully—like in John Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (1964), or rolling under Frank Sinatra in VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965). Menzel’s trains just passed blindly, dumbly, routinely—without personality or power. Then to use a train as the actual instrument of denouement seemed incongruous to me. I still harbor some masked resentment.
Sitting in the theatre, watching this movie for the first time, I remember thinking,” Hell—this is just a thinly veiled sex comedy.” The sexual antics were pretty tame for its time—but much of the plot seemed focused on young Milo’s quest for the loss of his virginity. There were a number of scenes depicting Hubicka’s conquests. The most semi-erotic one had to do with him chasing around the station receptionist late one night, and then when she allowed him to catch her—he began to stamp her bare thighs with the station rubber stamps. She seemed to like it, so he pulled her panties down and stamped several times on her bare buttocks. So in my mind, this film never was a “war movie”—rather it was a comic satire that just used the Nazis and the war as a foil and backdrop—a kind of CATCH 22 meets HOGAN’S HEROES. But after accepting that premise, why was it that toward the end of the film things began to turn dark?
Masa had talked Milos into staying overnight with her at her uncle’s house. He was an eccentric photographer. The scenes with the uncle taking photographs were comically reassuring. The premise was still being promulgated. Even after Masa snuck into Milos’ bed, ready to be serviced—he still had his hat on as he tried his adolescent best to be a man, and all he could manage was premature ejaculation and then stressed-out impotency—we still saw the “humor” in the circumstances. In the middle of all that fumbling there was a bombing raid, and the photographer’s house was hit. The next morning the young people were able to scamper out from under the rubble—dressing themselves as they fled. The uncle sat up in his bed—seeing that it was the only thing left standing—and he lapsed into fits of hysterical laughter. This was a nice symbol for the random and mindless destruction that people suffer after a bombing. Still, in true comic tradition—no one got hurt.
It was in the very next scene that the darkness began to descend. Milos had not returned to his parent’s home. He had checked into a hotel—and the landlady mentioned that he had the room for a couple of hours. What a smart young pup, I thought—was he arranging for another rendezvous with sweet Masa? But he drew a bath, climbed into it, and promptly slit his wrists. Shame and adolescent angst had driven him beyond despair. Still, I could hear strains of the tune, “Suicide is Painless”, from Altman’s MASH. He was discovered, saved, and carried off to a physician’s office in time to save his life.
The young doctor who treated him and then gently counseled him on the “facts of life”—was played by Jiri Menzel. Milos was advised to seek out an older more experienced woman who could initiate him. Returning to work, his wrists healed up, he was reprimanded by his Nazi superiors. The young man was charged with “self-mutilation in order to avoid the duties of service for the protection of the Reich.”
Mired in his curiosity and naiveté—Milos approached Max, the stationmaster—asking him if he might know any older experienced women. Max couldn’t think of anyone, so Milos asked him,
“Then what about your wife?” The absurdity of that possible union did start a grin spreading. Max ran him off, but later while the stationmaster was gone on an errand—Milos paid the older man’s wife a visit. She was dressing out a goose that she had killed—and she was busy plucking it. Milos told her of his plight, and she smiled knowingly—but she too turned him down. Yet all the time they were talking, she was working the short feathers off the goose’s long neck—stroking it up and down in a very clear masturbation symbol.
At another point, Milos stood staring at a passenger car that had been side railed—full of fetching Nazi nurses. Several German soldiers, lost and retreating, noticed the nurses too. With a quick exchange of hurried looks, the soldiers quickly climbed aboard—and soon that railroad car got to “rocking”. Milos, with his curiosity and hormones raging, climbed aboard as well. It took a moment for one of the nurses to notice him, and he was pushed aside. He left more confused than ever.
Having sex in a war zone—when every moment of pleasure could be one’s last—must be a form of erotica second to none. It brought to mind that touching scene in ENEMY AT THE GATES (2001)—where that young couple made love while lying in a hallway surrounded by their sleeping comrades. Of course, those sexual urges are all too often loaded down with rage and fear—and the sexual act becomes one of rape.
Later Milos talked to Hubicka about his “situation”, and the dispatcher began to formulate some possibilities. But a more pressing matter—an act of sabotage--weighed heavy on his thoughts. He shared the plan with Milos. The dispatcher showed the lad the tower that he himself was supposed to climb, and drop a homemade bomb down onto a munitions train. Later that evening when the package was delivered, it was in the hands of a fetching woman named Victoria. Hubicka consulted with her, and she graciously consented to initiate the lad into the luscious secrets of love-making. Later that night, on the stationmaster’s couch, she seemed to enjoy every minute of it. Milos, who was not anxious this time--performed more effectively.
The next morning Milos was all smiles—strutting around like a pleased rooster. The target German munitions train was expected soon. It was one of those trains containing troops or munitions that had to be “closely watched”. But at the last minute a carload of Nazi and Bohemian officials drove up, with the willing receptionist—and her irate parents—in tow. They had it in mind to reprimand Hubicka, but the young woman, when she was given leave to speak, explained to her parents and to the officials—that he had never forced her to participate—that she had enjoyed the sexual horseplay and the rubber stamping. But in the meantime, the munitions train was approaching—and Hubicka couldn’t get away.
Boldly, Milos snatched up the package, climbed the tower, and waited for the train to pass beneath him. He dropped the package down onto a loaded flat car and it all seemed to go well—until suddenly there was machine gun fire from the train. One of the guards had spotted the lad on the tower, and saw him drop something. As Milos fell forward, and hung crazily from the boom of the tower—he had a strange look of confusion and surprise on his face. Then he lost his grip and he fell down onto the train. The game had turned deadly and it had cost him dearly.
The huge explosion happened around the bend, out of sight. All we saw was the smoke, and witnessed the force of the blast hurling past Hubicka and Masa who were standing on the platform—and then black out and the credits rolled. Each of us watching the film felt very uneasy. Menzel really had sucker-punched us.
Jan Zalman wrote,” Sexuality is really the central theme of CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS—not World War II. Even though the film contained some sultry eroticism—it is a far cry from the other “sex epics” of the 60’s [like I AM CURIOUS YELLOW (1967)]. Sexuality, as treated by Menzel, was filtered through shyness and naiveté—and relieved by an understanding compassion. Menzel does not appear to be interested in sexual obsession or violence.
The young woman who initiates the boy into love is the same one who brought the bomb that was intended for the destruction of the munitions train. This daring link between the sexual theme and the sacred subject of the fight for national liberty gives both Hrabal’s original story and Menzel’s film their absurdist dimension. The hero’s “brave” deed comes unexpectedly—and it is presented in an extraordinarily unheroic manner.”
Roger Hillman from SENSES IN CINEMA wrote,” We see lots of loveable bumbling Czech provincials, who keep the war at a distance—but this all proves to be illusory—and we are left with an unexpected act of heroism—thus there proves to be an equation between sexual and political liberation.” As if Czech sexuality was counter pointed against Nazi/Soviet repression—quite a feat—that absolutely pivotal nature to procreate versus the equally base nature man has to control and destroy his fellow men.
I think that there is something in the heart of this film that represents a clarion call to all artists—and to all malcontents. We are shown that art will flourish even under the iron heel of oppression—and we are reminded that it has always been this way. Literature that illuminates the “truth” will manage to get itself published—whether in basement or attic—and that truth will always dare to expose the excesses and crimes of any repressive regime. Films will be made that are both entertaining and politically enlightened. Liberty is something worth fighting for, and sacrificing for—from the mundane need to progress beyond masturbation and virginity to the more liberated and mature forms of love—to the need we all have to exist in a climate, in a country—where we can not be imprisoned for speaking our minds—or muzzled—or threatened. In this day and age, as I look around me in the “land of the free”—these truths sear into my soul like a red hot stiletto. When I was a lad of 22 years, viewing this fine film for the first time—I was ill-prepared for even comprehending the enormity of all this. Today as I watch the media’s coverage of the news, and I sniff deeply searching for the stink of inequity, injustice, and the almost undetectable misdirection and spin of events—I realize that by simply viewing this little film again, I stirred up an emotional knot in my guts. CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS may be flawed and less than perfect—but more importantly it also is truly a vibrant fragrant flower that managed to bloom midst the turgid turds of totalitarianism.
I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2005