Combustible Celluloid
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With: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Vladim�r Valenta, Alois Vachek
Written by: Jirí Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal
Directed by: Jirí Menzel
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Czech, German with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 11/18/1966

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Train of Fools

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While Milos Forman fled for America and a celebrated career, another Czech filmmaker stayed and faced obscurity. Fortunately, the works of Jiri Menzel have persevered. (He received the San Francisco International Film Festival's Akira Kurosawa award for directing in 1990.)

Menzel's works contain a more visible style than Forman's -- a semi-sweet lightness with a penchant for silence and sustained humor. Critic-turned-screenwriter Paul Attanasio once said of a Menzel film "it might have been directed by a teddy bear." But that's without forsaking the political undercurrent that runs through all the New Wave works.

Meznel's greatest work, and indeed the pinnacle of all Czech New Wave films is Closely Watched Trains (1966, Criterion Collection, $29.95). An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the film takes place almost entirely at a train station. A young platform guard (Vaclav Neckar) longs for two things -- to lose his virginity and to keep out of World War II. The movie explains to us that the young man's father and grandfather are both eccentrics who also managed to escape the service. The other train station workers are equally bizarre. One man raises birds while another continually seduces young ladies -- in one hysterical sequence, he rubber stamps one girl's naked behind. (He's later prosecuted, not for any sexual misconduct, but for improperly using the German language.) Closely Watched Trains unfolds with the rhythm of a breeze, managing to be both funny and poignant in such an understated way that it doesn't even seem to be trying.

DVD Details: Criterion's DVD preserves the lovely black-and-white picture but the skimpy extras include only a trailer.

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