Closely Watched Trains is one of the best movies ever made, and yet few have heard of it. It was only about a month ago that I finally watched it after putting it on my to-do list repeatedly. If you’re a serious movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the new-wave film movement in Europe, and you’ve probably watched dozens of French/Italian/ and Spanish films from that period. If you’re anything like me, you probably absent-mindedly overlooked the films of eastern Europe. Closely Watched Trains is a Czech new wave film by the auteur Jiri Menzel. Similar to his more famous peer, Milos Forman (who started his career in the Czech Republic before receiving the boot after making the audacious–and funny–film The Fireman’s Ball) Menzel had only a low-budget to work with and was constantly rubbing government censors the wrong way.
Why, out of all the movies in the world, do I call this one necessary viewing? It’s a beautifully filmed movie for one thing, and if you find the Criterion collection edition of it, it’s transfered onto DVD with great clarity. It’s funny, and by funny, I mean quality humor, the type you’ll remember long afterwards and not feel the least bit guilty for laughing at. It won’t have you in stitches, but you’ll appreciate the humor greatly.
It’s probably not a good movie to watch with kids. There’s a small amount of nudity and the main conflict revolves around sex. The protagonist is an awkward, coming-of-age, Czech young man who works at a train station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslavakia, but who is more concerned about his burgeoning libido than anything else. He watches the amorous exploits of the other station workers with awe and envy. Even when Nazis are staring at him in the face, he seems to be detached and daydreaming about women.
It’s a movie that fits into the pantheon of classics where large portions of the movie are meant to represent the lead character’s mounting frustration with his base urges. Others like this include the Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe film Niagara (complete with crashing waves and waterfalls in the backgroud, and you know what psychologists call that), North by Northwest (its use of the train symbol is similar to Closely Watched Trains) and the Michael Powell classic The Small Back Room.
So for quirky humor, good laughs, beautiful shots, and a tremendously wonderful ending, make sure to watch Closely Watched Trains.