Closely Watched Trains

Released:  1966

Cast:  Vaclav Neckar, Jitka Bendova, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodsky, Vladimir Valenta

Oscar Wins:  Best Foreign Language Film (Czechoslovakia)  *This film wasn’t released outside of Czechoslovakia until 1967, so it won the Oscar at the ’68 Awards

SUMMARY:  During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II, Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) gets a job as an apprentice railroad station signalman.  Milos took the job primarily so that he could avoid labor-intensive work, and he seems to have chosen wisely.  The station only sees infrequent trains, leaving the various operators with plenty of spare time.  The stationmaster (Vladimir Valenta) raises pigeons, while the signalman Hubicka (Josef Somr) attempts to seduce every woman in sight.  Most of the excitement in Milos’s day comes when a certain train, carrying his conductor girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendova), passes through the station.  The only other thing that happens at the station is the periodic appearance of the councillor, Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodsky), who is a strong Nazi supporter.  He informs the men at the station that several “closely watched trains” (containing supplies for the German army) will be passing through the station.  When Masa invites Milos home with her for the weekend, he agrees.  However, when they are unable to consummate their relationship Milos grows extremely depressed.  The next day he tries to kill himself by slashing his wrists in a bathtub.  He is saved by a man working on the walls of the bathroom, and taken to a hospital.  There, a doctor explains that Milos’s problem is normal for men his age, and advises Milos to “think of something else”, and to find an older woman to gain some experience with.  Milos returns to his job at the station, where he asks his coworkers if they know any such women (they don’t).

One evening, Hubicka and the female telegraph operator are alone in the station when Hubicka manages to seduce her.  He then takes various rubber stamps and uses them on her legs and backside.  The ink used is extremely strong, so the young woman’s mother notices the stamps the next day and complains to the authorities.  Meanwhile, Milos has learned that Hubicka is part of the Resistance against the Nazis.  Knowing that a train full of ammunition is due to pass through the station in the near future, the Resistance plans to give Hubicka a bomb to plant on it.  The bomb is delivered by Viktoria Freie, a woman who was a circus performer before the war.  After she delivers the bomb, Hubicka convinces her to help Milos with his problem.  The next day, Milos has regained all of his self-confidence.  The ammunition train is due to pass through that day, but just before its arrival Zednicek and the authorities arrive to question Hubicka about the rubber-stamping incident.  Hubicka is trapped in the office, and Milos realizes that he will not be able to plant the bomb.  He decides to plant the bomb himself, and manages to sneak the device out of the office, right under Zednicek’s nose.  He then climbs a semaphore gantry, which hangs out over the train, and drops it onto a car as the train passes.  A soldier in a following car sees Milos do this, and shoots him.  Milos falls off the gantry and onto the top of one of the train cars.  Inside the office, the hearing has been concluded, with Zednicek mocking the Czechs as “laughing hyenas”.  As everybody walks outside, the bomb detonates, blowing up the train and nearly knocking everybody off their feet.  Hubicka begins laughing, as Masa picks up Milos’s hat, blown into the station by the force of the explosion.

MY TAKE:  When I saw the blurb for this film, saying that it was about a man joining the Czech Resistance, I expected it to be a very exciting, tension- and action-filled movie.  Instead, nothing happens for a long time.  Apparently this was a very out-of-the-way train station, because the staff have enormous amounts of free time on their hands.  Aside from the occasional visit from the councilor, there really isn’t much mention of the war either.  The country is occupied, but the people at the station really don’t seem to be feeling too many effects of that.  I really don’t know why Milos’s sex life was a such a big part of the story.  In the end, it didn’t actually further the plot, other than to apparently give him the confidence to plant the bomb on the passing train.  The rubber-stamping part, while an interesting take on seduction, didn’t really have much to do with things either, except that a hearing was held at the same time the train was passing, which meant Hubicka couldn’t plant the bomb.  For me, things were pretty boring until the end of the film.  About the time that the scene changes to the morning of the train’s arrival, it got interesting.  I didn’t like that poor Milos got shot, but seriously, did he expect the Germans to run a train full of ammunition through an occupied country without any kind of guards?  I know he was planting the bomb on the sly, but he should have picked a better spot to hide, or at least gotten the hell out of there once he dropped the bomb.  It must have been a heck of a bomb, too, because the blast managed to blow everybody back at the station (some distance away from the explosion site, and around the side of a hill) nearly off their feet.  It went on for several seconds, too.  I’m amazed Milos’s hat made it out intact.

RATING:  Disappointing.



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