I Served the King of England
Lucky Fool: I Served the King of England’s protagonist is blissfully unaware of the march of history.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if Forrest Gump took place in Czechoslovakia during the first half of the 20th century. Would Tom Hanks’ blessed fool have fared differently if he lived through the heights of Bohemian decadence, followed by Nazi and Communist takeovers?
Possibly not. Forrest’s dedication to his idealized sweetheart sees him safely from one misfortune to another. Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England offers a darker but comparable premise as it follows another naïve protagonist through the ups and downs of Czech history. Celebrating physical comedy and beauty, I Served the King of England presents a feast for the eyes even as it builds to a critique of moral blindness.
The film begins as diminutive Jan Dité leaves prison as an old man (played by Oldrich Kaiser). As he recalls his past, Ivan Barnev plays Dité as a younger man, and the first flashback emulates the style of a black-and-white silent movie. Dité serves hot dogs at a train station, which leads to slapstick mishaps. Barnev comes across as a natural heir to silent-movie comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, mastering the kind of body language that’s cartoonish and graceful.
Dité enjoys throwing coins to watch people (no matter how rich or dignified) crawl after them. But he aspires to be a millionaire, too, and fantasizes about bank notes drifting from the sky. He works his way up as a waiter in several establishments, including a corner pub, a rural hotel/brothel for rich guys and eventually a gourmet restaurant at Prague’s Hotel Paris. He also has success in the boudoir with gorgeous women, whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers and other adornments.
The film’s first half serves such frothy humor that you may not notice its darker implications. Dité, however gentlemanly, seldom thinks of women as more than sex objects, so he fails to register the character flaws of a young German named Liza (Julia Jentsch). They fall for each other when he saves her from Czech bullies, despite her staunch admiration for Hitler and belief in racial purity. Their consummation offers a raunchy metaphor for Germany taking over Czechoslovakia, and Dité, an unreflective collaborator, takes a job at an Aryan breeding facility until the history’s twists give him his just desserts.
Menzel, director of the Oscar-winning 1966 film Closely Watched Trains, gradually alters the film’s photographic style, with the soft, creamy cinematography giving way to earth tones and sharper focus as the waking nightmare of Nazi rule replaces hazy nostalgia. Overall, Menzel approaches the story with the sardonic wit of such fellow Czechs as novelist Milan Kundera and playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel.
Menzel’s film seems to exist on an exalted plane. Amélie may be the last European film I can recall that struck such a transcendent tone of whimsy and wisdom.
I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND (3) Directed by Jiri Menzel. • Starring Ivan Barnev and Oldrich Kaiser. • R, 120 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.