If there ever was a case for "less is more," Trains would be a prime example. Little happens here, and what does, happens in the lowest-key imaginable. Yet the director Jiri Menzel does not indulge in academic posturing here; it's a coherent short story of a film, modest to a fault, with black-and-white photography anything but flashy, but done as exquisitely as a piece of sushi by a good Japanese chef. At the same time (unlike Life is Beautiful, which sought to win you over with brilliant artifice) it has a perfectly natural feel to it.
Milos, the "hero" of the film, is played by Václav Neckár, who has full lips and a pair of eyes that brim with melancholic longing. Milos takes a job as a trainee railroad dispatcher, where he is guaranteed a modest income, a dashing uniform, and long hours of idleness. It is a family tradition: his father was a conductor, who retired at 48 and now spends long hours in stupor on the couch. (Amazing what technology does! Nowadays Milos’s father would merge with his remote control, an easy target of social derision; but in TV-less Czechoslovakia in ’44, people like him were allowed to look almost philosophic.)
Boy-meets-girl, boy-has-premature-ejaculation, boy-finds-woman… the plot revolves around Milos’s attempts to lose his virginity, and halfway through opens up a parallel track of the guerrillas’ attempt to blow up one of those "closely watched" trains that carry ammo to the German army. The story is as old as the world, and, though some might find the ending a surprise (all right, I won’t tell), it is in fact perfectly logical and seemlessly connected to the plot.
Czech directors excel in creating a clever organic mix of attitudes. (In Kolya, this mix was covered with sentimental varnish; Trains feels more authentic). Superficially, Closely Watched Trains is cynical; until the very end, its supporting characters are the kind who stand on the sidelines of any parade and jeer, rather than march or applaud. Even a German official, played with farcical flair by veteran actor Vlastimil Brodsky, calls them "sneering idiots." No wonder: the French literary heroes may be D’Artagnan, but his Czech counterpart is the Good Soldier Schweik, who will never hesitate to choose a good Pilzen lager and a helping of shpikaczky, the national Czech dish, over fighting for any flag. Being a small country means submitting to your big neighbor, be it Russia or Germany, but it also means that no Czech war film can conceivably be as operatic as Saving Private Ryan. But ultimately Closely Watched Trains turns out to be sweet (though not sugary) and romantic. But in a war, it’s hard to be a romantic.
The Shop on Main Street, the other Czech DVD release from Criterion (they both won Oscars as Best Foreign Films), is a more traditional effort – well, technically it came out in 1965, before the Spring. The exposition that takes place in a Slovak village in ’44 is lengthy and leisurely and abounds in realistic detail. The "hero," Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is another "little" man who ekes out a living as a carpenter. He is mercilessly nagged by his wife, who demands that he ask his brother-in-law, a Gardista (local proto-Fascist policeman), for a better job. Brtko is an older version of Milos – a man thoroughly broken by life, a man who would rather drink and vent frustration than fight.
Not in a war, Tono. Soon, the orders are blared: the Jews are to line up on the main square, right outside the store, and to be put on the "transports." Anyone who hides a Jew will be executed. Mrs. Lautman has no idea what is going on. What do you do, Tono? Abruptly, black comedy changes into the blackest of dramas.
The film came out long before the Holocaust was co-opted by the film industry, in a country where the wounds of Stalinism were still raw, so it is less a Holocaust drama than a reflection on moral choices. It is as conventional and stage-y as Arthur Miller, but the unbearable mix of sadness and cruelty in Tono’s drunken eyes as he struggles to reach for a spark of humanity in his lost soul make it all worthwhile.
Closely Watched Trains and The Shop on Main Street are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Both films are presented in a new digital transfers. And both DVDs include original U.S. theatrical trailers and new subtitles with improved English translation. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out Criterion Collection Web site.