Ostre sledované vlaky (1966)

CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS (Ostre sledované vlaky)

(director/writer: Jiri Menzel; screenwriters: Bohumil Hrabal/based on the novel by Hrabal: Jirí Sust; cinematographer: Jaromír Sofr; editor: Jirina Lukesová; music: Jirí Sust; cast: Vaclav Neckar (Trainee Milos), Jitka Bendova (Conductor Masa), Vladimir Valenta (Stationmaster), Libuse Havelkova (Stationmaster’s Wife), Josef Somr (Train Dispatcher Hubieka), Alois Vachek (Station Assistant), Jitka Zelenohorska (Telegraphist), Vlastimil Brodsky (Nazi Councilor Zednicek), Ferdinand Kruta (Uncle Noneman), Kveta Fialova (The Countess), Nada Urbankova (Victoria Freie), Jiri Menzel (Doctor Brabec); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Zdenek Oves; The Criterion Collection; 1966-Czechoslovakia-in Czech with English subtitles)

“Never letting one quite forget we’re in German-occupied Czechoslovakia and bad things are bound to happen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Czech New Wave director Jiri Menzel, in his directorial film debut, probably watched closely as his pleasing film received the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal and co-written by him with the director. The title is taken from the term used by the Nazis for the German munitions and troop trains that were given priority passage through their occupied country during World War II. The film starts as a lighthearted coming-of-age folk tale about a diffident young apprentice train dispatcher, Milo (Vaclav Neckar), in a sleepy backwater depot, Kostomlaty, in a part of Czechoslovakia where nothing important happens except for a few sexual dalliances until things gradually grow darker and darker.

Milo has a pretty young train conductor girlfriend, Masa (Jitka Bendova), but when they go to her photographer uncle’s studio to spend the night he’s impotent. The despondent lad tries to slash his wrists in a hotel, but that attempt fails and he’s told by the sympathetic doctor to find an experienced girl. The young pup is anxious to lose his virginity and comes to admire veteran train dispatcher Hubieka (Josef Somr), a real ladies man even though by looking at him you would never know it. Hubicka has never been promoted, but he has a lot of fun on a job that’s not too demanding and uses the arrogant stationmaster’s office sofa to entertain his lady friends. The stationmaster (Vladimir Valenta) is a pigeon-fancier who only appears from time to time to shout out Sodom and Gomorrah and then retreat back to his pigeons.

Things get more dicey when Hubicka secretly plans to blow up a German munitions train when it passes through the town. This brings a resistance fighter woman to town who goes by the underground handle of Victoria Freie (Nada Urbankova), and learning of the lad’s plight takes him to bed and makes his night by being the perfect teacher.

Menzel provides a good balance between Buster Keaton-like slapstick comedy (Hubicka rubber-stamping the backside of a peasant girl telegraphist and having a twerp-like Nazi councilor Zednicek discipline him for it) and tragedy (the blowing up of the train comes with a human price tag), never letting one quite forget we’re in German-occupied Czechoslovakia and bad things are bound to happen.