Think of this film as the original Trainspotting, except that in this version, trains are actually spotted instead of bare arms. Closely Watched Trains became only the second film produced in Czechoslovakia to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and thrust its director, Jiri Menzel, onto the world stage. Making this achievement all the more impressive is that Closely Watched Trains was Menzel’s very first directorial effort at making a feature film. The movie is based on the novel by the same name by Bohumil Hrabal who just two years earlier in 1964 had five of his short stories adapted into the anthology film Pearls of the Deep.
Closely Watched Trains defies easy categorization as it swings in an elliptical manner between lighthearted comedy (much of it highly sexual in nature) and melodrama; often combining the two extremes at the same time to underline its theme of how heroism is all too often confused with virility. Set during World War II and shot in glorious black and white, the often almost surreal balancing act between comedy and drama along with its quite pointed focus on the sexual tension that connects these two emotional register, Closely Watched Trains manages to avoid the documentary-like feel of other post-WWII movies that look back upon that global engagement. One scene unlikely to be found in many World War II docs is the one in which comedy and dramatic tension are both captured in the rubber stamping of a girl’s legs from thighs to buttocks.
The honor from the Oscars certified Closely Watched Trains as one of the iconic entries in Czechoslovak New Wave which gave America future Oscar-winning director Milos Forman as well.