During the 1960's, Czechoslovak cinema was strong, and it was used as a means to convey social criticism. The cinema in Czechoslovakia had been around long before World War II began, and had already established a tradition in that country. Closely Watched Trains (1966), by Ji Menzel, based on a novel, is part of what was referred to as The New Wave, which was a movement of young directors trained at the same school (FAMU), who joined this group primarily because the movement was a national political occurrence. During this period, the groundwork for liberalization was laid and it brought the Czech film industry into a recognizable position of great prominence.
Closely Watched Trains is a film that was made in a Communist-dominated country during the peak of the Cold War. The unusual aspect about this film is the way that it incorporated a light-hearted tone that was so uncommon during such dismal times. It made the viewer laugh beginning with the camera in the opening scene on Milos (Hrma Václav Neckár), a young man no older than seventeen, as his mother fitted him in his outfit for his job as a railway worker. The background given about his family was also quite humorous, particularly about his uncle, the hypnotist, who once tried to stop an army of soldiers coming after him by hypnotizing them. His father appears to be very lazy and has not moved from his chair near the window since he last worked at the railroad station several years back. Milos, on the other hand, is thrilled to be ready to begin his dream job in his railway town of Prague during the time of Nazi occupation.
The film showed Milos going through normal teenage events with a young girl, Conducteress Masa (Jita Bendová), he has feelings for, while trying to learn what was going on around him at his new job. The entire film takes place at or near a train station, and the location shots of the train itself, the loud chug-chug sounds coming from it, and the large white puffs of smoke escaping from the top of it make for an interesting set for the movie.
The film had several underlying themes going on beside the trains coming and going, and many were tied to a sexual theme. Milos worked with a man, Hubicka (Josef Somr), who spent much of his time on the job with women in a separate room while his supervisor, (Vladimír Valenta) did nothing about it. Another scene shows a group of nurses on a broken down train that later attracts the attention of an army of men walking to the next town. This scene leads Milos to become more curious about what is going on behind the train doors. He wants to move to the next step sexually with his girl friend, and display his manhood. However, he fails, and he takes it out on himself in a hurtful way.
His frustration with himself in this department leads to a scene that was hard to watch, particularly when it became clear that he was going to attempt suicide and slit his wrists. The camera shots at this point were very good staying on Milos in the bathtub, showing the knives on the stool and then taking the audience to a man (Václav Fiser) hammering on the brick wall on the outside of the room where Milos was lying unconscious in the bathtub. At this point it is hard to tell if he is alive or dead, and we quickly learn that he survives thanks to the man who was hammering and broke into the bathroom to save his life. This scene was an example of what Menzel did with humor throughout the film, but also added many touches of seriousness.
The director reminded the audience of the time that this film took place when he showed trains loaded with dead bodies or perhaps live victims on their way to work or to die in the death camps passing through the train station, and how Milos becomes involved in the Czech underground that eventually set out to blow up a Nazi train that was full of ammunition. When a guard on the train spots Milos and guns him down with several round from a machine gun, the director adds an element of surprise because Milos was the young, innocent, likeable character that was expected to get back to his romance with his girlfriend.
It is not surprising that this film won the Best Film award in the 1968 British Academy Awards and the American Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1966. It is beautifully shot, well acted, and very funny while it holds on to a taste of tragedy. It does not appear to be a film made in the early 1960's, but rather something that would have come out of the 1980's. It is apparent that Menzel was ahead of his time when he made this very enlightening foreign film.