213. Closely Observed Trains ( Czechoslovakia 1966)

 Director: Jiri Menzel

 Starring: Vaclav Neckar, Josef Somr, Jitka Bendova*

 Cinematography: Jaromir Sofr

 Young Czechslovakian man tries to lose his virginity during World War 2.

It looks like a bit of a chin-stroker this one, and like all Czech films it can be difficult to follow because besides ‘robot’, there are no Czech words that sound remotely like their English counterparts. And ‘robot’ is Czech for ‘robot’ so that doesn’t count.

To give you some indication of how difficult the language is, the Czech word for ‘fart’ is ‘pouštet vĕtry’

I remember seeing a dubbed version of ‘Bless This House’ in the early days of BSB and when Sid James (as ‘Sid Abbott’) dropped one after coming home from The Red Lion with his best mate Trev, Diana Coupland tore a strip off him with: “Slyštĕ, Sid! Ktery pouštĕt vĕtry vonĕt jako zasly klobasa!” (which almost literally translates as: “Fuckin’ hell, Sid! That fart smells like old sausages!”

There was a spontaneous round of applause from the audience, because in terms of Czech comedy, this was the Del Boy Jason falling through the counter of the wine bar. Yes, it was THAT good.

Closely Observed Trains starts with a potted, ironic biography of lead character Milos Hrma’s family history. The cutting and counterpointing of this brilliant opening is a little at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film, but it quickly establishes the back story and was clearly an obvious influence on the writing style of future Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin (who were both very keen European film buffs).

Milos follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and joins the Czech rail service, oblivious to the momentous, but rarely seen events of wartime occupation. Milos spends his time worrying about how he’s going to sink the pink, despite having a willing partner in the shape of the pretty conductress Masa (Bendova – etc….).

Eventually, after numerous picaresque happenings, Milos is forced (by loin power) to follow his destiny and he is coerced into performing a dangerous and life-threatening act.

Closely Observed Trains has many of the characteristics of a typical mid-sixties European new wave film. The tone is uneven and often flippant, but there is a sense of modernity, wit and playfulness which shows a director and cast at ease with the medium and it has a nice sense of irony rarely found in American film of the time.

The film was sold to European markets as a sex comedy, and although there’s a for its time) ‘frankness’ about its subject matter, don’t watch the film in the hope of a saucy night in. There’s definitely a woman’s arse in it, and there’s a hint of bare breastage, but let’s face it, ‘C.O.T’ is no ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’.

But then again, what is?


 Closely Observed Trains: a woman's arse. And some biro on her leg.

*It really is! I wouldn’t want to make any jokes about ‘funny’ foreigners’ names, but Jitka is the saucy minx in the film and her name is a bit Ben Doon/Phil McCafferty/Phil McCracken.  

I’ll stop now.