tue 05/03/2024

DVD: Closely Observed Trains | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Closely Observed Trains

DVD: Closely Observed Trains

Oscar-winning masterpiece from the Czech New Wave

Close: Václav Neckář and Jitka Bendová in 'Closely Observed Trains'

There’s never been any agreement about translating the participle. Its victory as 1968’s best foreign film is listed on oscars.org as Closely Watched Trains. The novel by Bohumil Hrabal is generally known in English as Closely Observed Trains, and that is the phrase that, in the subtitles, issues from the lips of an official who warns the railway guards in a Czech village station to do their best for the Reich. In either translation it’s a misnomer.

Jiří Menzel’s masterpiece, and perhaps the greatest monument of the Czech New Wave, is really about men closely observing women.

Václav Neckář plays fresh-faced young station guard Miloš in wartime Czechoslovakia. Like all his colleagues he’s obsessed with the search for sexual opportunity, embodied for him in the lovely Masa (Jitka Bendová) who is pulled away from their first kiss when her train leaves the station (main image). Later, his inability to perform prompts him to slit his wrists in the bath. The deeply touching scene is filmed with astonishing precision but, typically of Hrabal’s taste for chaos, tinged with farce.

As Czech film scholar Peter Hames explains in the extras of this DVD/Blu-ray release, Hrabal’s short novel was written soon after the war. He co-adapted a script which had to wait for the Prague Spring before it could be shot. In Menzel he found the ideal interpreter of his rambunctious, warm-hearted Svejkian world view. His shot selection is astonishingly graceful, and all the sharper for being in black and white. The screen teems with fluffy livestock, doughy Slavic faces and the clanking roars of rolling stock. Rarely can an outright masterpiece have exhibited such headlong, lascivious enthusiasm for the female form. It’s well worth watching, and observing again.

Rarely can an outright masterpiece have exhibited such headlong, lascivious enthusiasm for the female form


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters