Friday, March 13, 2020

Closely Watched Trains

Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains is the story of a young man working at a train station desperate to fall in love amidst the chaos of war and a growing resistance around him. Directed by Jiri Menzel and screenplay by Menzel and Hrabal, the film is a coming-of-age drama of sorts set during a tumultuous time in Czechoslovakia where a young man doesn’t just deal with his new job but also his own emotional and sexual desires. Starring Vaclav Neckar, Jitka Bendova, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodsky, and Vladimir Valenta. Closely Watched Trains is an engrossing and riveting film from Jiri Menzel.

The film follows the life of a newly-trained station guard who works at a train station during World War II German-occupied Czechoslovakia as he hopes to get laid as well as not endure real work amidst the chaos of the war that is miles and miles away from where he is. It’s a film that explore a young man trying to escape the realities of the world but is also hoping to experience love as he has a crush on a young conductor while he is surrounded by an eccentric group of people working at the station and other things happening around him. The film’s screenplay by Jiri Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal that is based on the latter’s novel does explore the world that Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) is in as his boss (Vladimir Valenta) is hoping to be promoted but his station is filled with misfits including the dispatcher Hubicka (Josef Somr) who often surrounds himself with beautiful women as he would try to help Hrma in winning over the ladies. Yet, Hrma also copes with trying to impress the young conductor Masha (Jitka Bendova) but his job eventually starts to be demanding due to the plans of Nazi-sympathizer in the train company councilor Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodsky).

Menzel’s direction is largely straightforward in its compositions while it does have some flair of style as it is shot largely in Lodenice area in the Czech Republic. While there are some wide shots to establish the locations and the train station where Hrma works at, much of Menzel’s direction is intimate in its usage of close-ups and medium shots. Notably in the way Hrma would interact with various people coming and going at the station including the women that Hubicka would have for himself and other people at the station. Notably as Menzel captures the lack of activity that goes on at a station where the stationmaster tends to his pigeons than the station while everyone else is messing around including Hubicka imprinting rubber stamps on the station’s telegraphist Zdenicka (Jitka Zelenohorska) in an act of mutual flirtation. It is among some of the humorous moments in the film though there are also some dramatic moments as it play into Hrma’s sexual awakening and his desire to get laid.

Especially as Menzel maintains this eerie tone about what is happening as it relates to the war and Hrma’s lack of involvement as he comes from a family of misfits with his father preferring to lay on a sofa than work. Even as there’s a scene of a bomb falling nearby where he’s sleeping as he and another station employee deal with what is happening as Hubicka suggests about doing something as it relates to the growing tension between the Czechs and Nazis. The third act doesn’t just play into Hrma’s reluctant involvement in the Czech resistance but also his chance for manhood upon meeting a resistance agent as it would force him to understand who he is and find meaning in his life. Overall, Menzel crafts an engaging and whimsical film about the misadventures of a young train station guard in Nazi Germany-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Cinematographer Jaromir Sofr does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white cinematography as it play into the gorgeous look of the daytime locations along with some stylish shots for a scene following a bombing and some interior low-key lighting for scenes set at night. Editor Jirina Lukesova does excellent work with the editing as it has some jump-cuts as well as straight cuts to play into the drama and some of the film’s humor. Art director Oldrich Bosak and set decorator Jiri Cvrcek do fantastic work with the look of the station as well as the home of the station master and the places that Hrma goes to.

Costume designer Olga Dimitrovova does nice work with the costumes including the uniform that Hrma wears as well as the ragged clothes including the prestigious uniform that the station manager is eager to wear. The sound work of Jiri Pavlik does superb work with the sound as it play into the sound of trains and some of the film’s natural moments as well as the sounds of bombs and explosions. The film’s music by Jiri Sust is wonderful for its orchestral-based score as it has some playful themes but also some lush string arrangements for some of the film’s somber moments.

The film’s terrific cast feature some notable small roles from director Jiri Menzel as a doctor diagnosing Hrma’s problems, Libuse Haveloka as the stationmaster’s wife, Nad’a Urbankova as a Czech resistance fighter, and Jitka Zelenohorska as the telegraphist Zdenicka whom Hubicka playfully flirts with as she enjoys his flirtation approach. Vladimir Valenta is superb as the stationmaster who is trying to run his station and hope to get a promotion while he tends to his pigeons. Jitka Bendova is fantastic as the conductor Masa as the object of affection for Hrma as she is eager to start a relationship with him while also doing her work.

Josef Somr is excellent as the train dispatcher Hubicka as a mischievous man who cares more about women than his work as he likes to have fun while guiding Hrma on how to woo women as well as wanting to stand up to the Nazis. Vlastimil Brodsky is brilliant as councilor Zednicek as a Nazi sympathizer who checks on the station as he sees great plans for the Germans but also puts down his own people as being inferior and need to improve themselves. Finally, there’s Vaclav Neckar in an amazing performance as Milos Hrma as a young man who becomes a train station guard as he deals with the boredom of his job and his growing appetite for sex as he’s eager to get laid while Neckar displays some of the uncertainty but also a growing awareness of what is happening around him.

Closely Watched Trains is an incredible film from Jiri Menzel. Featuring a great cast, a vibrant presentation, themes of growing up and understanding the idea of manhood, and a somber music score. It’s a fascinating coming-of-age film that explores the life of a young man working at a train station as he deals with not just his own sexual desires but also the world around him during a chaotic moment in time. In the end, Closely Watched Trains is a phenomenal film from Jiri Menzel.

Jiri Menzel Films: (Pearls of the Deep-The Death of Mr. Balthazar) – (Crime in a Music Hall) – (Capricious Summer) – (Larks on a String) – (Who Looks for Gold?) – (Seclusion Near a Forest) – (Those Wonderful Movie Cranks) – (Cutting It Short) – (The Snowdrop Festival) – (Chocolate Cop) – (My Sweet Little Village) – (End of Old Times) – (Beggar’s Opera) – (Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin) – (I Served the King of England) – (The Don Juans)

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