Closely Watched Commies*

         Closely Watched Trains concentrates nearly every moment of its ninety-three minutes on Milos (Václav Neckár), an apprentice train dispatcher looking toward a life of easy civil servitude in a German-occupied Czech town in 1942. He cares most passionately about losing his virginity, and engages one or another cohort in a plot to rid himself of the inexperience of boyhood. Trains is filled with wry moments of awkward seductions, white lies, and the gentle explorations of an innocent.

         The storm clouds of war loom ominously in the background until a plot surfaces to transport explosives. It then becomes clear that Closely Watched Trains has more on its mind than the gropings of a lovably feckless adolescent. The film simply refuses to treat wartime occupation as a tragic condition; director Jirí Menzel has not been called the Czech Woody Allen for nothing. But its upbeat wistfulness and attention to human frailties may have other roots. Czechoslovakia was an Iron Curtain state in 1966, and the gently satiric goings-on in Closely Watched Trains were no doubt a balm to a people capable of assassinating one of Hitler’s leading henchmen and suffering the consequences with the obliteration of Lidice. A country that has been sliced, diced, and annexed throughout the modern era learns how to bite back, and Closely Watched Trains reminds us of that not in its wit, but in its shattering finale.

         Without a doubt, one of the greatest "small scale" cinematic stories ever told. Every beautifully composed shot is a black and white work of art. The performances all around are sound. The direction is superb. Milos (the main character here) is not unlike the pigeons kept by the stationmaster and his wife: he is caged (repressed) and manages, with not some degree of awkwardness, to finally "break free" of his fetters... just in time for World War Two to literally come thundering down the tracks at him. "Everything flies that has wings," the "seduced" girl says, at one point. In the end, Milos finds his manhood in the ultimate release.

         Winning the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) holds up over the years as a fine example of comedy from the Czech New Wave, where political messages are subtly hidden under everyday situations and dry humor. Jiri Menzel's coming of age comedy is unlike most American comedies, derived from ridiculous contrived relationships and situations. Based on centuries of tradition, Czech humor gradually unfolds in off-hand manner.

Derek Owen

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