Check out these two favorites from Czech cinema’s Age of Camelot
Those who fondly remember grainy, popping, and cloudy prints of old foreign films will be happy to know that the Criterion Collection continues to dedicate itself to restoring and distributing bright new remasters from the flickering past. Worthy obscura on DVD keeps coming out on that fine label in a new industry otherwise determined to saturate the market with dreck. The Shop on Main Street (1965) and Closely Watched Trains (1966), two superb relics from the fluorescent era of Czech cinema known as Prague Spring, are very much in the Criterion tradition, though they are surprisingly light on extras. They have more in common than their Czechoslovakian roots. Both are sweetly humane, and both derive their power from the telling of common lives disturbed and destroyed by World War II. Both were shot in sharp-focus black-and-white, and both won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
Closely Watched Trains concentrates nearly every moment of its 93 minutes on Milos, an apprentice train dispatcher looking toward a life of easy civil servitude in a German-occupied Czech town in 1942. He cares most passionately about losing his virginity, and engages one or another cohort in a plot to rid himself of the inexperience of boyhood. Trains is filled with wry moments of awkward seductions, white lies, and the gentle explorations of an innocent. The storm clouds of war loom ominously in the background until a plot surfaces to transport explosives. It then becomes clear that Closely Watched Trains has more on its mind than the gropings of a lovably feckless adolescent. The film simply refuses to treat wartime occupation as a tragic condition; director Jiri Menzel has not been called the Czech Woody Allen for nothing. But its upbeat wistfulness and attention to human frailties may have other roots. Czechoslovakia was an Iron Curtain state in 1966, and the gently satiric goings-on in Closely Watched Trains were no doubt a balm to a people capable of assassinating one of Hitler’s leading henchmen and suffering the consequences with the obliteration of Lidice. A country that has been sliced, diced, and annexed throughout the modern era learns how to bite back, and Closely Watched Trains reminds us of that not in its wit, but in its shattering finale.
For all of its genuine charms, and the endearing performance of a properly bewildered Vaclav Neckar as Milos, Closely Watched Trains is not quite as wonderful as we want it to be. Many comedic moments feel directed, not spontaneous. Trains are among the most cinematic of inventions, yet Menzel hardly exploits their possibilities. The beloved status conferred on the film over the years seems borne out of the underdog status of Czechoslovakian moviemaking, done in the 1960s under creative oppression. After the film’s international triumph, Menzel was given limited freedom and control on film projects, and turned to stage directing under tighter supervision. Prague Spring was over almost before it began.
There may be whispered reservations about the merits of Closely Watched Trains, but there are none for The Shop on Main Street. The great epic filmmakers, from D. W. Griffith to David Lean, knew the simple rule of telling an intimate story amidst world events. Since The Shop on Main Street had a tiny budget, the sweep of world war could only be suggested, while intimacy could be indulged. The project began with a simple and great story of loyalty, betrayal, cowardice and heroism: Tono is a not too bright, not too ambitious peasant barely comprehending the conversion of his German-occupied Slovak town into a Nazi stronghold. In an apparent act of grace, his Nazi brother-in-law gives him jurisdiction over a button shop on Main Street owned by Rozalie, a elderly Jewish widow. When the Jewish population is threatened with deportation, she does not, or will not, fully understand Tono’s role as Aryan overseer, benefactor, and would-be savior.
The Shop on Main Street is filled with so many perfectly realized scenes, and so much lovingly observed human interaction, that it reminds us of the kind of honesty the best movies can achieve. The film’s two stars, Josef Kroner and Ida Kaminska, are unexcelled, and form the most charismatically mix-matched star team in memory. Kroner’s performance is miraculous, economical and tortured as Tono struggles against the coming devastation of his town, his friends, and his soul. Kaminska, a leading actress from Warsaw theater, convincingly put on more than ten years to play Rozalie, the kindly, stubborn, and devout button seller. Her weary but loving face is perfectly expressive, and we can’t help wondering if, in her shoes, we’d hide in a turtle shell, too.
Perhaps it was director’s Ján Kádar’s life that elevated The Shop on Main Street to greatness. He spent World War II in a Nazi labor camp, and his Slovakian Jewish parents and sister died at Auschwitz. “Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, in an article reprinted in the DVD box. “I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews … my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known.” Closely Watched Trains and particularly The Shop on Main Street remind us that most movies are emotional frauds, relying on tired tricks to wring feelings from an overstimulated audience. To see these two is to be in the company of artists who trust their material, and trust the imagination, intelligence, and compassion of their audience.