Blu-Ray Review – Closely Observed Trains

Closely Observed Trains or Closely Watched Trains as it’s often called as well is one of the best known and well-loved films to come out of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the ’60s. It’s one of only two Czech films to ever win the best foreign language film at the Oscars, the other was The Shop on Main Street. Funnily enough after the Soviet invasion in 1968, it was suggested the director Jiří Menzel should return the Oscar to be a good little Commie.

The film is based on a short novel by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal who came to fame in his native land due to the film anthology The Pearls of the Deep based on his first collection of published short stories. Jiří Menzel besides Closely Observed Trains would adapt more of Hrabal’s work including Larks on a String which was banned till 1990. Franz Kafka is often considered “the” Czech writer and rightfully so but in his native land Hrabal is held in equally high esteem. Closely Observed Trains remains his most well-known work and his most translated due to the international success of the film.

It’s all set in the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the protagonist is Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckář) who comes from a long line of alcoholic train station workers. He is in his late teens and for the most of the film it’s about the fact he keeps ejaculates prematurely but in the source there are stronger themes of suicide but it’s greatly reduced in the film even though Miloš does attempt suicide. The film is a strange crossbreed of sex comedy, WW2 film, surrealism (Hrabal was heavily influenced by surrealism) but also social realism which at times even recalls the later British film by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.

It’s all in all what is basically a sex comedy but with the Nazis in the background and even the Czech resistance to the Nazis plays a crucial role in the last act in more ways than one. The film might be too naturalistic for my own tastes of Czechoslovak New Wave I prefer the out-and-out surrealism of Daisies or The Cremator than this crossbreed of naturalism with tiny brush strokes of surrealism. It’s still a key film to come out of the Czechoslovak New Wave and should be seen by anyone who has a passing interest in this fascinating period of cinema. It’s also very funny and the ending is classic.

Arrow had previously released Closely Observed Trains on a barebones DVD years ago so it’s a welcome upgrade. The disc also includes an interview Peter Hames who is the expert on Czechoslovak cinema, he wrote “the book” after-all. It also includes a short segment of a documentary on Czechoslovak New Wave which is about Closely Observed Trains. The real meat on the disc is Arrow’s producer discusses Hrabal and Menzel’s many collaborations and how it fits in the grander scheme of the New Wave. Finally there is a booklets with numerous writings on the film old and new commissioned.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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