Jirí Menzel, Czechoslovakia, 1966, 93 min.
Before: I’ve heard of this classic of the Czech New Wave for a long time but have never watched it. It’s supposed to be a comedy but I think I’ll probably find it more interesting than entertaining. We’ll see!
After: Closely Watched Trains is unconcerned about story. Instead, it focuses on the small moments that make up the big picture. The humor found in everyday life. The people and what motivates them to perform deeds big and small.
The film takes place in Czeckoslovakia during World War II. It’s a quiet place not yet touched by the war. We open with our hero narrating the history of his family. But Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) really shouldn’t be described as a hero. His goal, like his father and grandfather before him, is to skate through life by doing the smallest amount of work possible.
So he gets a job at the local train station, which will allow him the luxury of doing basically nothing while still making a living. He’ll also be close to Masa (the lovely Jitka Scoffin), the girl he’s keen on.
A series of events unfold that show what Milos’s life is like, what’s going on with his coworkers, and tangentially, what is going on with the war effort. The film doesn’t have a traditional arc, but the episodic events begin to paint a picture and stories emerge.
A personal story for Milos, who finds he isn’t much of a man in the bedroom and seeks an older woman to “tutor” him. And the larger story of the war effort, which Milos may or may not end up a part of.
The style is what shines here. The camera stays on scenes that shouldn’t be interesting but end up so because of Menzel’s great sense of timing and composition. See the above image for an example. And even fifty years later, these moments can be very funny, or oddly tragic depending on your point of view.
Closely Watched Trains came out at a time when the new guard was trying to break the old rules of cinema. It doesn’t quite smash them to pieces like Godard was doing, but it does bend and shape them enough to be one of the most pleasant and entertaining films to come out of the New Wave, and one that was a joy to watch.