Blu-ray review: Closely Observed Trains

Starring: Vaclav Neckar, Josef Somr
Director: Jiri Menzel

Following swiftly on the tails of The Firemen’s Ball, another classic of the Czech New Wave comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, Jiri Menzel’s delightful Oscar-winning feature debut is like an inspired mash-up of Kafka’s The Castle and Oh, Mr Porter! The central protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar), is a callow youth from a family of layabouts and misfits who seems all set to follow in their footsteps when he becomes an apprentice railway dispatcher at a sleepy, ramshackle rural train station. Further down the track, WWII is in full swing, but Milos has more pressing problems on his mind, such as trying to lose his virginity – something Masha, a sexy train conductor, would be only too happy to lend him a hand with, but he’s unable to keep up his end of the bargain.

Gradually, the war impinges. There are bombs, SS paratroopers, and visits from the railway supervisor, a card-carrying Nazi who tries to make them all into better servants of the Reich. But despite these rude interruptions the mood that prevails at the rambling stationhouse is one of cosy idleness, enlivened by moments of romance and lechery.

All of this is brilliantly evoked by Menzel in scenes that are a triumph of whimsical, melancholic atmosphere. Throughout, the director’s touch is feather light, and he’s helped enormously by black-and-white location cinematography that is still achingly fresh and present. Intricate editing gives the movie a spry, almost musical quality, with carefully choreographed comedic business playing out against still lifes of clunky, decaying station equipment, remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of release, the film’s unheroic view of the Czech people had subversive political undertones which got it into trouble, but more lastingly it serves as a potent metaphor for that all too common feeling that life is passing you by. And it brims with magical vignettes that would make it into any showreel of the best moments in 1960s world cinema, such as the little scene where Masha leans down to kiss Milos, only to be whisked away in a puff of steam. Sometimes coarse, occasionally heart-stoppingly romantic, Closely Observed Trains is one of those rare films that seems as vivid and mercurial as life itself. 10/10

Presumably because of the location shooting, some of the scenes retain a little grain in this transfer, but on the whole the picture is very good, with pin-sharp detail to many of the medium and long shots and a finely etched quality to the exteriors of the station. There’s a satisfying inky texture to the more shadowy sequences, such as the famous one where the station’s young female telegraph operator gets marked on the rear with a rubber stamp. Overall a transfer that reflects and enhances the film’s mixture of lyricism and earthiness. 8/10

Enjoyable 23-minute piece with critic Peter Hames who talks about Menzel’s career and his close collaboration Hrabal and also reveals that Vaclav Neckar, who plays Milos, was a Czech pop star. ~ Wide-reaching 47-min introduction to Bohumil Hrabal by Michael Brooke which provides an extensive bio of the celebrated Czech author and looks at the various film adaptations of his works (with some interesting clips). Given how often the author is overlooked when doling out credit for a much-loved movie, this piece is particularly commendable and worthwhile. ~ 9-min “making of” in which the director has some interesting things to say about writing the script and casting the film. 9/10


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