Winning the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) holds up over the years as a fine example of comedy from the Czech New Wave, where political messages are subtly hidden under everyday situations and dry humor. Jiri Menzel's coming of age comedy is unlike most American comedies, derived from ridiculous contrived relationships and situations. Based on centuries of tradition, Czech humor gradually unfolds in off-hand manner.
Protagonist Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) narrates his family background, telling how his great grandfather made people jealous by living off a pension and was killed after making fun of some workers. His grandfather was a noted hypnotist, who attempted to stop the Germans from entering the town with hypnotism—it seemed to work for a brief spell, but the German tanks soon rolled again, decapitating the poor man. His father is one of the fortunate, who now lives off a pension after serving as railroad dispatcher for twenty years. The goal of everyone in the community is to achieve subsistence wages by doing as little as possible, so to live off a pension is truly divine. His father lounges hourly on the sofa, rising up only on schedule to gaze at the trains passing. Now Milos wants to follow in the family tradition rather than seek labor intensive work, and he has a job at the train station, consisting little more than watching the trains go by and setting an occasional switch—not a bad situation for anyone living under socialism.
The year is 1944 under Nazi occupation, but the locals at the Kostomlaty rail station carry on their daily duties without regard to the war situation. The Nazis are losing the war at this point, so they don't play a significant role in local politics even though they are the specific subject referred to by the title—the "closely watched trains" containing Nazi soldiers and supplies. Milos is mostly interested in carrying on the family tradition as a train dispatcher, and in the sexual conquest of Masa (Jitka Bendova), a train conductress he usually only gets passing glances of. Milos' inexperience with women becomes a constant source of comedy, and his feelings of inadequacy will lead him to an eventual suicide attempt.
Other characters play off young Milos effectively, notably train dispatcher Hubicka (Josef Somr) and station manager Max (Vladimir Valenta), an overweight man obsessed with his uniform's appearance and jealous of Hubicka's womanizing successes. Max warns Milos to copy his ways if he wants career success, but it's obvious that Milos would opt for Hubicka's gifts with women if given a choice. Even the nameless Nazi platoon has its way with the railroad women, causing more sexual frustration for the curious and bewildered youth.
The slowly paced 93-minute film isn't for everyone, but if you enjoy character development with fine touches of humanity, beautiful black and white cinematography, and subtle political criticism, you'll find a great deal of pleasure in Closely Watched Trains. The comic tone ends abruptly with a shocking tragic sharp turn that goes against the general tone of the film; however, these events are foreshadowed in the opening and continually exist just beneath the surface, justifying the shift artistically.
For anyone interested in examining Czech New Wave cinema, this relatively light-hearted film (along with Milos Foreman's Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman's Ball) can serve as a worthy introduction to the genre. The Criterion Collection DVD version is bare bones as far as extras are concerned, but the video transfer is clear and sharp, keeping with their tradition of preserving important foreign films as perfectly as possible. Filmed in minimalist style, it's far more interesting visually than most cluttered and clunky modern Hollywood fare, so it's worth watching closely.