Closely Observed Trains

English Title: Closely Observed Trains

Original Title: Ostře sledované vlaky

Country of Origin: Czech Republic

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: Jiří Menzel

Producer(s): Zdeněk Oves, Carlo Ponti

Screenplay: Bohumill Hraba, Jiří Menzel

Cinematographer: Jaromír Šofr

Art Director: Oldřich Bosák

Editor: Jiřina Lukešová

Runtime: 89 minutes

Genre: Comedy/Drama/War

Language: Czech

Starring/Cast: Václav Neckář, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Jitka Bendová, Jitka Zelenohorská, Nad’a Urbánková, Zuzana Minichová, Alois Vachek

Year: 1966

Volume: East European

Synopsis:

In early 1945 a young man named Miloš Hrma begins a new job as a trainee dispatcher at a small train station in Western Bohemia. He fails in an attempt to lose his virginity with his conductor girlfriend Máša, and for guidance looks up to his older colleague and role model, Mr Hubička, who is always successful with women, as he is convinced that he lacks the qualities that are necessary to become a real man. After deciding that life is not worth a living, Miloš vainly attempts suicide, and after a stint at a hospital returns to the station, only to find out that Hubička is under investigation by his superiors for covering the naked behind of a female telegraphist called Svatá with the station’s official rubber stamp prints in a bizarre erotic game during a night shift. He also learns that Hubička is a member of the Czechoslovak resistance planning to blow up a Nazi ammunition train; and after becoming emboldened by a successful one-night stand with a woman (referred to as Viktoria Freie) who delivers to the station an explosive device that is meant for that train, Miloš also gets involved in the plot – with disastrous consequences.


Critique:

The film Ostře sledované vlaky/Closely Observed Trains is based on a cult book by Bohumil Hrabal - one of the most widely read Czech authors of the second half of the twentieth century - and merges the tragicomic aspects of the coming of age theme with elements of the war adventure. The book‘s experimental narrative structure concerns one day in the life of a train station, with occasional flashbacks, as described on the protagonist Hrma‘s behalf from a first-person perspective – which, given the narrator’s subsequent death, is a bold and unusual device. However, this is abandoned by Menzel and Hrabal in favour of an easily comprehensible linear construction, with certain scenes, such as those portraying Hrma as a loveable simpleton, being added that are contrary to the spirit of the book (which presents the character as a fairly sophisticated individual). Several new characters – such as Hubička’s cousin and the station assistant Novák – are also present, and are introduced either to illustrate Hubička’s track record as a womanizer or to replace him during the attack on the munitions train (Hrma cannot handle it alone and Hubička is too busy facing an investigative commission which arrives at an awkward moment to examine his moral and professional conduct).

 

Regardless of – or perhaps owing to – these concessions to the demands of a literary adaptation, and despite the impenetrability of many subtle but important details for non-Czech speakers (e.g. the hilarity of the characters‘ surnames: Hrma meaning mons veneris, Hubička a kiss, Svatá a saint, not to mention Viktoria Freie, whose name rather more obviously denotes victory and freedom), Menzel’s feature-length debut won him a number of prizes in and outside Czechoslovakia. In particular, his glut of awards culminated in an Oscar for the Best Foreign Film, only the second of the two sole Czechoslovak recipients of this prize after Obchod na korze/The Shop on Main Street (1966).

 

Menzel chose his cast not so much for their (not inconsiderable) acting abilities as for the image projected by their looks. Neckář clearly owed his assignment as Hrma to his boyish charm; Sofr, as Hrma’s sexual role model, to his instant on-screen sex appeal; and the avuncular Vlastimil Brodský was gleefully cast against type as a kind-hearted Nazi collaborator. This factors beautifully into a story of an unexpected, almost casual heroic action performed by the quiet and unassuming people who are primarily interested in hedonistic aspects of human existence. As such the film provided a refreshing counterpoint to the traditional, rhetorically overblown Communist tales of people‘s ascetic and self-sacrificial struggle against the Nazi oppression.

 

One scene in the film – the exposure of Svatá’s bare bottom – was deemed too revealing, and was thus excised. At the film’s unofficial premiere for the personnel at the Loděnice railway station near Prague, where the shooting had taken place in February-April 1966, the audience was asked if the scene should stay, and they voted in favour of keeping it, to which the Communist censors acquiesced as they did not dare to argue with the opinion of the working class. However, in 1967 the issue resurfaced again, when the question was discussed whether  to put a naked female posterior on a poster advertising the film’s Parisian release. Although the sexual revolution had already claimed a few victories by then, this time the decision was negative.

Author of this review: Andrei Rogatchevski