Czechoslovakia, 1944.Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) is a sad case from a family of sad cases. His father has retired from his job as train driver in his forties and now lies in bed all day. His grandfather, a hypnotist, tried to use his craft to turn back the invading tanks and got run over for his trouble. Milos takes a job as a despatcher’s apprentice at a lonely country railway station. While the war is still on, and the local resistance is mobilising, Milos has a far greater concern on his mind: his virginity, and how to get rid of it.
Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky; known as Closely Watched Trains in the USA) won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film, and along with Milos Forman’s early works The Fireman’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde, remains the best-known example of Czechoslovakia’s cinematic New Wave of the 1960s. It was a film revival that was cut short by the Prague Spring of 1968. Unlike his compatriots Forman and Ivan Passer who moved to Hollywood, Menzel stayed behind in his home country. He’s continued to work – his most recent film as a director was a segment of 2002’s portmanteau film Ten Years Older: The Cello – but Closely Observed Trains remains his best-known film.
Shot in grainy, contrasty black and white that resembles newsreel footage, Closely Observed Trains is certainly a comedy, but it’s one with a distinctly European bittersweet flavour. What impresses straight away is the film’s command of tone, which moves seamlessly from warm, humane comedy to melancholy and back again. It also manages to convey the reality of the times – at one point, a trainload of corpses goes past – without descending into sentimentality or tastelessness. The railway station where most of the film’s action takes place is several miles behind the front line, but we don’t forget that there is a war still going on. And there’s the ending, which I won’t give away here.
The 1960s were a boom time for cinema in languages other than English. The usual reason given was that several of the cinema’s greatest directors were still alive and working at their peak. That was certainly true, but the other reason why many people went to see European movies was that they were far more liberal in sexual content. Only a couple of years earlier, the Hays Office, after much huffing and puffing, had allowed the American public the sight of a woman’s breasts (and full female nudity from behind) in The Pawnbroker. That’s a fine film without a doubt, but its credentials as Serious Drama helped it make its censorship breakthrough. Sex was either deadly serious or the subject of juvenile smut. Yet, Closely Observed Trains and other films like it treated sex with a non-judgmental, certainly more adult viewpoint, as all part of life’s rich comedy. It certainly rings true: although the seriousness of the war and resistance would not be in doubt, you can certainly believe there were many young men like Milos, desperate to get laid above all else. You can’t imagine an American or British film of the period dealing with Milos’s premature ejaculation with the delicacy it’s dealt with here. This also applies to the film’s best-known scene, where Milos’s colleague Hubicka (Josef Somr) seduces Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska) by finding a novel use for rubber stamps. This was X-certificate stuff in its day, and to the BBFC’s credit it was never cut; it’s still worth a 15 today. It’s funny and erotic at the same time, and that’s not as easy as it might sound.
Arrow’s region-free disc has a full-frame transfer, which corresponds to the correct Academy Ratio (1.37:1). This format was still being used in much of Europe, especially Eastern Europe in the mid 1960s. There’s no doubt that this is the intended ratio of Trains: Menzel often frames scenes with the actors’ heads right at the top of the frame, and the images would look unduly cropped even in 1.66:1. The grainy, contrasty look of the film is deliberate. The original materials from which this transfer were made are in good condition, bearing in mind the film’s age, though there are scratches and flecks visible, especially near the beginning. Some of the scenes are a little dark and in some scenes the blacks bleed a little into the whites, but there’s nothing too distracting here.
The sound is mono, as it always has been, and there are no great problems with it. Dialogue is clear, and the music score by Jiri Sust sounds fine. There are nineteen chapter stops and the English subtitles are optional.
There’s only one extra, the trailer, which is also full-frame and runs 1:54. It’s an American effort which uses a lot of familiar arthouse-movie promotional tactics. Notice the lack of original dialogue, to avoid putting off audiences with subtitles. In fact, there’s one word from the original soundtrack, and you can hear the ambience change when it’s spoken. The rest of the trailer soundtrack is provided by an English-language voiceover which hedges its bets by a mixture of “one of the year’s ten best” quotes and playing up the film’s sexual content.
The film is released in the USA by Criterion under the title Closely Watched Trains. The only additional extra on that release is a four-page essay by Richard Schickel. Leaving PAL/NTSC issues aside and given fluctuations in the exchange rate and available discounts, there may not be much to choose from between the Criterion’s RRP of $29.95 and the Arrow’s of £17.99.
Closely Observed Trains was an arthouse hit of its day, and it still stands up very well, though its pacing may be a little too gentle for some. Nevertheless, the film is a delight, and this DVD is a good way to make your acquaintance with it, or to revisit it.
Gary Couzens has reviewed Arrow's UK Region 0 release of Closely Observed Trains, a bittersweet Czech comedy set in the dying days of World War II. The 1968 Oscar winner for Best Foreign-Language Film was an arthouse hit of its today and still stands up very well now.