Closely Observed Trains, a directorial debut by Jiri Menzel, is one of the definitive films from the Czechoslovakian New Wave movement. A film blessed by the nuance of subtlety, Menzel’s first picture is a bildungsroman tale set at a train station during the WWII Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The film isn’t engrossed with the nature of war though; Closely Observed Trains is more an exploration of human nature and interactions.
The narrative, adapted from a novella by Bohumil Hrabal, is one of relatively linear simplicity. Young Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) takes a job as a trainman at a remote railway station that acts as a direct pass-through for German trains hauling ammunition and supplies to aid the war effort. Milos is desperate to lose his virginity with a pretty conductor and prove he is a man but there is one little problem, he suffers from premature ejaculation. This is pretty much the story of the film; Milos is trying his hardest to get some. Comically, sex is all around him - whether it be blatant like the carnal exploits of his co-worker Hubicka (Josef Somr) or in subtle visual metaphors like the phallic images of a woman stroking a goose’s neck or the constant pulling of levers, the film is drenched with erotic undertones. This theme of sex isn’t extraneous though, the concept of sexual liberation is directly related to political liberation. The characters attempts to be free and happy under the oppressive Nazi regime are evocative of the resistance movement. The interactions at the remote station can be seen as a microcosm of the war and it is evident that the Czechs would much rather seek tail than help the Germans.
In essence, it is Menzel’s superb characterisation that makes the film what it is, and by satirising much of the Nazi regime, the significance of the war in the plot is diminished in favour of a focus on these tender and genuine characters. Both humorous and touching, the film explores the beauty of ordinary people by utilising its minimalist milieu to focus on conversations between those few frequenting the station.
This provincial tale is an earthy comedy, shot in a restrained yet refined style that cleverly harnesses the occupation of Czechoslovakia as a lens through which to view human nature. Milos is a hero in the most unconventional of senses and only in a delicate film like Closely Observed Trains could this be achieved. An understated classic…
CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JIRI MENZEL / SCREENPLAY: JIRI MENZEL, BOHUMIL HRABAL / STARRING: VACLAV NECKAR, JOSEF SOMR, VLASTIMIL BRODSKY, VLADIMIR VALENTA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW