OSTRE SLEDOVANÉ VLAKY
(Closely Watched Trains)
Director: Jiří Menzel
Production: Smída-Fikar group for the Barrandov Film Studio; black and white, 35mm; running time: 92 minutes, English version is 89 minutes; length: 2509 meters. Released 1966, Czechoslovakia. Filmed 1965 in the Lodenice train station.
Presented by: Carlo Ponti; producer: Zdenek Oves; screenplay: Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal, from the novel Ostre sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal; photography: Jaromír Sofr; editor: Jiřina Lukešová; sound: Jiří Pavlík; art director: Oldřich Bosák; sets: Jiří Cvrček; music: Jiří Sust; costume producer: Ružena Bulickoa; advisers: J. Simák and Colonel Golyšev.
Cast : Václav Neckář ( Trainee Miloš Hrma ); Jitka Bendová ( Conductor Maša ); Vladimír Valenta ( Stationmaster ); Libuše Havelková ( Stationmaster's wife ); Josef Somr ( Train Dispatcher Hubicka ); Alois Vachek ( Station assistant ); Jitka Zelenohorská ( Telegraphist ); Vlastimil Brodský ( Councilor Zedniček ); Ferdinand Kruta ( Uncle Noneman ); Kveta Fialová ( The Countess ); Nada Urbánková ( Victoria Freie ); Jiří Menzel ( Dr . Brabec ).
Awards: Grand Prize, International Film Week at Mannheim, 1966. Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, 1967; Grand Prix, International Film Festival at Addis Ababa, 1967.
Closely Watched Trains: A Film by Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal , New York, 1971.
Whyte, Alistair, New Cinema in Eastern Europe , New York, 1971.
Liehm, Antonín, Closely Watched Films , New York, 1974.
Liehm, Mira, and Antonín, The Most Important Art: East European Film after 1945 , Berkeley, 1977.
Habova, Milada, and Jitka Vysekalova, editors, Czechoslovak Cinema , Prague, 1982.
Skvorecky, Josef, Jiří Menzel and the History of the Closely Watched Trains , New York, 1982.
Hames, Peter, The Czechoslovak New Wave , Berkeley, 1985.
Sarris, Andrew, "Movers," in Saturday Review (New York), 23 December 1967.
Kolodny, I., "The Man Who Made Closely Watched Trains," in Action (Los Angeles), May-June 1968.
Morgenstern, Joseph, and John Simon, in Film 1967–68 , edited by Richard Schickel and John Simon, New York, 1968.
Films and Filming (London), July 1968.
Levy, Alan, "A Promised Land . . . ," in New York Times Magazine , 9 February 1969.
Szigeti, L., "Tragizm i humor to bliznieta," in Kino (Warsaw), March 1991.
Hietala, V., "Tarkoin vartioidut junat," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 6, 1995.
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In 1963, Bohumil Hrabal, almost fifty years old, made his first contribution to Czech literature with a collection of short stories entitled Perličky na dne ( Pearls of the Deep ). These diminutive prose pieces, remarkable for concentrating on the destinies of little people on the edges of society, the original manner of narration, and a masterly use of most varied niceties and refinements of the Czech language, immediately gained popularity with both readers and critics. The stories also captivated film people. In 1965, a group of emerging directors shot a film based on Perličky . One of these was Jiří Menzel who was charmed by the world of Hrabal's characters to such an extent that he has returned to it throughout his creative career. In 1966 he completed Closely Watched Trains from Hrabal's book of the same year. In 1980, he made Postřižiny and soon worked on another picture inspired by Hrabal's work, Slavnosti sneženek ( The Feast of the Snowdrops ).
The adaptation of Hrabal's prose, based on an uninterrupted flow of speech, monologues in which the word has an enormous significance, is not a simple matter. Closely Watched Trains flows in several layers: ridiculous aspects of life are permeated by cruelty, tragedy, and pathos as well as tenderness; time is treated freely, the reader being led, without obvious transitions, into various depths of the past. Menzel succeeded in transposing this multi-layered story into an art with a visual foundation. He retained almost all the conflicts of the narrative but he translated the story into a linear time sequence, arranging the succession of events according to his own needs, and gave up a multitude of hrabalesque details which had literally begged to be expressed. He did not allow himself to be seduced by Hrabal's magical vocabulary and he consistently pursued a visual mode of expression.
Together with Hrabal, he leads the reader to a small railroad station at a time near the end of the Second World War. Life seems to flow without great excitement. The entire story is derived from the idea that human grief, fear, and joy has its place in times of profound peace as well as in the years of a cruel war. The story of a young clerk Miloš who has problems with his love life, as well as the petty destinies of the other characters who live and work at the railroad station, are therefore linked very factually and soberly with the overwhelming events of the Second War. Menzel reminds us of the war, at the beginning, by a view of military trains, but soon it seems as if it did not exist. However, he progressively develops this theme, first in the ridiculous form in a sequence where a supervisor explains to his employees how cunningly the German army victoriously retreats, then more and more intensively through Miloš's experience of a bombardment and the dead people in the train. Together, with the increasingly frequent and terrifying reminders of war, there unfolds Miloš's erotic suffering which culminates in his liberation in love but also in his death. The film unfolds at a slow pace which accelerates only at the conclusion by paralleling and alternating the investigation of dispatcher Hubiček's "immoral" act and Miloš's dispassionate acts of sabotage. The comical, obscene, and tragical alternate to create a peculiar mixture of pathos and tragi-comedy which represents a new concept in Czech film. Jaromír Sofr's camera work is understated; it stresses the lyric in contrast to hrabalesque naturalism. The film director himself expressed accurately the poetry of his film: "Film is too imperfect to be capable of recording everything that takes place in our fantasy when we read Hrabal's texts . . . It is necessary to compensate for the poetry of these imaginings. In my opinion, poetry of this movie s not the absurd situations themselves but in their juxtaposition, the confrontation of obscenity and tragedy."
In the 1960s, this picture was one of the most successful Czech films, both at home and abroad. This is demonstrated by many honors at both domestic and international festivals. It remains in the repertory of Czech movie theaters and still has not lost its audience.