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Sunday, 21 January 2007

Closely Watched Trains (1966) Jiří Menzel

The French New Wave, that shook up how film was used in the early sixties, was run by names I'd heard of even before I'd ever seen anything they made: François Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. After them came the Czech New Wave, which apparently was pretty influential on its own, but this time I'd only heard of one of them, Miloš Forman, and then only because of work he did after fleeing to the States after the Soviets ended the Prague Spring, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. There are others and this is one of the major films from one of them, Jiří Menzel, major enough to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1966.

We're in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II and we focus on Milos Herma, a young man who has followed in his father's footsteps by landing a prestigious job as a train dispatcher at the local station, Kostomlaty. It's important, as he tells us at the beginning of the film, because he won't have to do anything. It seems that avoiding hard work is the primary function of his family, including his father who is the envy of the locals because he retired early and will collect a pension for decades for doing precisely nothing at all.

Herma can enjoy standing on the platform saluting passing trains, changing the signals and doing not much else except learning about life from his puritanical boss, his lech of a supervisor and those characters who pass through his station: the local Countess, retreating soldiers, a train car load of nurses, SS officers and victims of partisan bullets. It's Milos's coming of age that is our real story.

The film is based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, which (and who) I haven't even heard of, let alone read, so I have no idea how faithful an adaptation it is. If it's faithful then I'm sure the author got into trouble with the Communists too, for all the insight into the mindset of the idle sex crazed youth who like the protagonists of other Czech New Wave movies care far more about their own immediate problems than any grand ideological crusade. Propaganda posters of taloned Soviet hands descending on Czech towns don't help either, of course. Even when something does happen for what might seem to outsider's eyes like a cause, it's really just a reassurance of masculinity and nothing ostensibly ideological at all.

Jiří Menzel has a poet's eye for composition but a filmmaker's eye for budget, and this is a real treatise on how to make things happen without spending huge amounts of money on them. There are scenes of blissful tenderness between lovers, deep sadness when things don't work out and wry humour like the scenes where the telegraphist's mother shows off her backside covered in railroad stamps to everyone she can find to complain to. There are beautiful images conjured out of steam and motion.

Most refreshing to my mind is the fact that all these are real and believable people. Just like in Forman's Loves of a Blonde, the characters are no great beauties in any traditional supermodel sense, but they carry a real beauty that transcends that sort of fakery. Jitka Bendová, unfortunate surname notwithstanding, and Jitka Zelenohorská, the young ladies who play Milos's girlfriend and the stamped telegraphist respectively, are far more sensual in my eyes than any random handful of Hollywood starlets.

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