By Daniel Barnes
*Originally published on the old E Street Film Society blog, this review is a combination of two separate reviews, both written as part of the Best Foreign Film Oscar Winners of the 1960s festival of February 2010. That festival also included Through a Glass Darkly and A Man and a Woman.
Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly displayed the Academy’s tendency at the time to value staginess higher than more purely cinematic forms, and also a (somewhat) valuable tendency to reward The Masters. A Man and a Woman showed the Academy’s significantly less valuable tendency to reward populist fare, especially since Claude LeLouch’s lightweight romance bested Pantheon-worthy nominees in Battle of Algiers and Loves of a Blonde. Closely Watched Trains fulfills a third category that has proven irresistible to Academy voters – glib movies about Nazis.
Hollywood loves Nazis. Always has, always will. They make the perfect movie bad guys, because they’re pure evil, they look sharp, they’re REAL, and their snootiness is built right into the practice and rhetoric of their villainy. Here is a small and incomplete sample of Best Foreign Film winners and nominees in the last decade or so that dealt with Nazis: Life is Beautiful, The Counterfeiters, Sophie Scholl, Joyeux Noel, and The Chorus. That doesn’t count movies about Fascism, post-Fascism, and proto-Fascism like Pan’s Labyrinth, Divided We Fall, Belle Epoque, The Lives of Others, and The White Ribbon.
I recently finished Mark Harris’ Pictures of a Revolution, an extremely smart and well-researched book about the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards, and how they represented the significant shift that was about to occur in American film. The “New Hollywood” was represented at the Oscars that year by Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, and the fading “Old Hollywood” by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle. The difference-splitter (and thus, the Best Picture winner) was Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, an old-school genre film elevated by superior acting and a revisionist-enough racial perspective. In many respects, I feel like Closely Watched Trains was also a difference-splitter at that same awards ceremony. It has the anti-establishment absurdity and sexual curiosity of the hippies, but it’s also coy and cute and a little bit safe.
Closely Watched Trains may not be particularly difficult or deep, but I imagine it was a major influence on Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H *. Both films follow similar groups of horny, ideologically withdrawn slackers forced into semi-service during wartime (in this case, they are uniformed train station workers), as well as the lockstep prigs they take joy in deflating. Menzel’s film follows a milquetoast dispatcher named Milos who wants little more than to lose his virginity and maintain his family history of sloth and apathy, no easy task in Nazi-occupied Czechslovakia.
The movie walks the line between crass sex gags and political nonconformity, a formula that must have proved irresistible to the Academy at a time when the old standards of censorship were crumbling to dust. But is it a sexually progressive heir to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, with its slight “hero” haplessly pulled into anti-establishment action like a leaf in a swirling breeze? Or is it just an embryonic teen sex comedy, with the standard Nobs v. Snobs setup, only given artificial “heft” by placing it in a bleakly comic wartime world of collaborators and refugees?
Probably a bit of both, but even if the combination of sexual voracity and political apathy worked slightly better in his 2006 comedy I Served the King of England, Menzel is never at a loss for naughty-boy humor and morbid sight gags – an old man breaks up cigarettes into his pipe; a lecherous photographer cackles wildly as his house falls down around him; and the collaborative stationmaster attempts to take notes for Nazi officials while covered in pigeon poop.
For my taste, Menzel’s touch errs a little too far toward the precious, even when Milos and his oversexed conductor friend hatch a terrorist plot in the third act. It’s a good film with a lot of clever moments, but it doesn’t do much besides giggle at sex and cluck its tongue at Nazis and other jerks. I can do that on my own time.