Closely Watched Trains (1966): July Blind Spot

Closely Watched Trains (also known as Closely Observed Trains) was integral in leaving its former Nation quite the legacy. A Czechoslovak film released in the country’s New Wave Movement, it was essentially a coming-of-age film about a young man disguised as a war film. It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968 only two years after another Czechoslovakian film The Shop on the Main Street (1965) took home the trophy. Loves of a Blonde was nominated in 1966, as was The Fireman’s Ball in 1968.

Though I have heard of The Fireman’s Ball, why the hec don’t I know move about Czechoslovakian film?! It was obviously totally awesome in the 60s!

© The Criterion Collection
© The Criterion Collection 

The Czechoslovak New Wave (according to the reliable source that is Wikipedia) was described as the ‘Czechoslovak film miracle.’ Not dissimilar to other movements, the direction of films was born out of the frustration from the communist regime at the end of the 1940s. Traits of these films included dark, satirical and mocking humour, long dialogues and non-professional actors to be more representative of the Czechoslovak people. The directors of this New Wave came from strong financial backgrounds and therefore had access to the funding required to get their films made. Most of the directors went to the Prague film school, therefore the majority of the films were shot in the Czech language.

Closely watched Trains seems to follow this manifesto of new wave film to the letter. The film is set during the second world war when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. The narrative follows Miloš Hrma, a young man about to begin his ‘easy’ job as a train station guard. The film opens with him describing the long line of lazy, work-shy and oddball men in his family that he descended from and getting ready for work. Had this film been shot 50 years later, it would looked like classic indie-film fodder.

It’s soon discovered that Miloš has a crush on conductor Máša, and thus begins his plight to woo her. Sadly, with his inexperience, he is unable to perform and this deeply, deeply depresses him.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to know where to start. It’s clear from the very beginning this isn’t your usual war film that you might have been accustomed to spewing out from the US and UK post-WWII. It’s not usual for characters of war to happily describe themselves as someone who would like to avoid real work as much as possible.

We aren’t kept in the dark about what Miloš really care about, however. Women. One woman in particular it seems; the allusive Máša. The tease, the girl-next-door, the one that leans to kiss you from a moving train only to let it roll away before she gives you what she wants. Bitch.

Their relationship is far from smooth, and Miloš takes drastic measures to numb the pain and get through his problem. I won’t spoil what it is as it will ruin the whole film viewing experience for you should you come to watch Closely Watched Trains. But believe me, how Miloš ‘numbs the pain’ and ‘gets through his problem’ are both unbelievable and mouth-openingly crazy.

The third narrative strand to this film is WWII. The station is regularly visited by German soldiers throwing their weight around, the Nazi regime being the catalyst for film’s climactic moment. The reaction to the event by the Nazi soldiers is at once both harrowing and a deep, real shame.

The visuals for the film are absolutely beautiful. This film could easily have succeeded as a silent film and enabling the graphic images to get the story. Alas, we have words. But if that’s the only real negative, then I don’t think that’s half bad at all. The narrative is punchy, entertaining and sickeningly funny at times. A film about trains was never so daring.

Have you ever seen Closely Watched Trains or another film I mentioned from the Czechoslovak New Wave movement? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

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Closely Watched Trains is a Czech film set in World War II, but it's not your average war film...
© The Criterion Collection

Rebecca

I'm the human and hair behind Almost Ginger. I'm a cinephile travel obsessive vegetarian currently residing in Manchester.