23 July 2005 | Ham_and_Egger
"Do you know what Czechs are? Laughing animals."
It's amazing just how many visual sex metaphors director Jirí Menzel managed to cram into 92 minutes, without ever becoming ridiculous or losing the plot. It makes Hitchcock's train going into the tunnel shot from 'North By Northwest' look like the work of a rank amateur.
Ostensibly 'Closely Watched Trains' is the story of Trainee Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) starting his job at the local train station during the Nazi occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia (only I guess it wasn't, because it was officially absorbed by the Reich). Throughout most of the film the war, complete with what the local Nazi functionary describes as "beautiful tactical withdrawals," is a long way off and Milos has more important matters to attend to. Specifically he's trying to lose his virginity and deal with another problem common to young men everywhere, one which the local doctor advises him to solve by thinking about football during critical moments.
Made in 1966, when some Czechs were clearly already looking ahead to 1968's Prague Spring, the film slyly uses the Nazis as a stand-in for the Soviets. As proof of this, and the Hollywood establishment's anti-Communist bent in the late 60s, 'Closely Watched Trains' won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. It is, however, imminently deserving of the win on its own merits.
History lessons aside 'Closely Watched Trains' is beautifully shot, well acted, and absurdly hilarious, while still tasting of tragedy. Excellent.