I Served the King of England

Robin Clifford 
I Served the King of England
Laura Clifford 
Middle aged Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) is released from prison after serving 14 years and nine months of a 15-year sentence (he got out early for good behavior). The communist Czech government order him move into an old, abandoned German tavern left over from the Nazi occupation days. Taking to the task of getting things ship shape, Jan has time to reflect on a life that began, years before, with his unrelenting desire to be a millionaire in "I Served the King of England."

Jan Dite the younger (Ivan Barney) is diminutive, graceful and an ambitious waiter in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia. He steadily moves up the ladder, with cunning and occasion help from others, from one restaurant to another. He hones the wait skills that garner generous tips from his rich clientele. This culminates with the presentation of a medal by the even more diminutive Emperor of Ethiopia (Tonya Graves). As younger Jan's life desires are fulfilled, there is evil brewing across the border with Germany ­ the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Jan, more and more prosperous, does not see the threat that Germany imposes and, one day, protects a pretty German girl, Lise (Julia Jentsch), from some anti-Nazi Czech thugs. He immerses himself in all things Deutche, submitting to an Aryan screening to see if his sperm is worthy to impregnate Lise. Turning his back on his fellow countrymen, Jan takes advantage of his Nazi-approved status and reaches his goal of having millions. Throughout this chronicle of Jan's younger life we keep returning to his older, wiser and kinder persona.

Post prison Jan shares his hospitality with the other denizens of his little community, including a group looking for musical trees, trees that have what it takes to have their wood turned into musical instruments. One of their numbers, Marcela (Zuzana Fialova), is young, beautiful, feisty and attracted to Jan. The attraction is mutual. Older Jan's story is not as sweeping and grand as his younger one but its reflective, melancholy and hopeful tone provides a nice arc for his character.

The period portion following ambitious Jan through his fulfilling life is chockablock with lavishly staged fantasy dance scenes. Smaller, equally well-choreographed sequences include Ivan Barney's Jan nimbly carrying heavily laden trays of food through a busy restaurant and are marvelously fun to watch. Barney uses his size and physical ability to excellent comic effect. The rest of the characters surrounding Jan are richly cast, especially the older maitre'd (Martin Huba) who teaches him the ropes in being the best waiter. The older man;s back-story provides the film's intriguing, and meaningful, title.

Writer-director (and actor, but not here) Jiri Menzel adapts the novel by Bohumil Hrabal and gives us an often funny, whimsical, sometimes serious history lesson that is both food for thought and entertaining. The filmmaker uses powerful archival documentary footage from the Nazi era to punctuate the one-man saga to excellent affect.

"I Served the King of England" has loads to say about ambition, greed, hedonism and redemption and does it with intelligence and wit. The techs are first rate all around and director Menzel shows flair in staging complex dance numbers, and does it with humor. I give it n B+.

 In pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, waiter Jan Díte, a young romantic naif, aspires to be a millionaire. Graduating from a local beer cellar to the Hotel Paris via a luxury country resort, he is influenced by everyone from a savvy Jewish salesman to a female member of Hitler's Army to the maitre d' of the Hotel Paris who claims his uncanny ability to size up a customer is because "I Served the King of England."

Veteran Czech director Jirí Menzel ("Larks on a String") serves up an epic in miniature, one apolitical man's magical realistic journey through life during the shifting sands of WWII Europe. Using silent film techniques (the film starts with an opening aperture effect) and Chaplinesque slapstick (waiters who figure eight about dining rooms as if on skates), Menzel, adapting the Bohumil Hrabal novel, makes his points with humor and sly symbolism while his Everyman is buffeted from one event to the next.

The story is told mostly in flashback.  It opens as the older Díte (Oldrich Kaiser, "Dark Blue World") is released from prison and assigned to a home abandoned by one of the German families who used to live in peace with Sudeten Czechs.  As he will throughout his film, Menzel uses a match shot to go back to the young Díte (Ivan Barnev, great with the retro acting style) who begins his march towards Capitalism running a frankfurter concession where he's slow to make change as his customers pull out of the train station.

His next step up finds him suffering boffs off the back of his head from his boss at a local haunt where rich industrialists gather to drink beer and eat heartily.  Known as the 'shrimp' because of his diminutive size, Díte's white blond hair and big blue eyes nonetheless attract the ladies.  When local joy girl Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková) steps in out of the rain she draws all eyes, but it is the romantic Díte who wins her affection.

Not enough, however, for him not to move on.  That furious customer from the train station turns up to order food once again, but Díte's habit of tossing coins on the floor to watch rich men scramble impresses Walden (Marián Labuda), a seller of scales and salami slicers, who advises him on his next move.  Díte becomes a waiter at a luxurious country hotel where he becomes enamored of housemaid Wanda (Eva Kalcovská) before his final move to Prague and Julinka (Sárka Petruzelová), whose services are paid for by rich men but not Díte.  Díte idolizes his women by adorning their bodies - Jaruska with flowers, Wanda with bills and coins, Julinka with fruit - and he himself is adorned with medal and sash by the visiting Abyssinian Emperor, a short man like himself who cannot reach Maitre 'D Skrivánek's (Martin Huba, "Divided We Fall," "Something Like Happiness," "Lunacy") neck.

But when the Germans invade Sudentenland, Díte does not react like his countrymen.  He comes to the aid of a young German woman, Líse (Julia Jentsch, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"), and is pulled into her world of Hitler idolization. Skrivánek throws German patrons out of his dining room until the presence of Nazi officers demands oppressed behavior and Díte, who lost his job trying to secure a seat for Líse returns in haughty triumph to eat at her side.  Yet during their wedding night, the mirror Díte usually holds up so that his lovers may enjoy his artwork upon their bodies is instead placed so that Líse may stare at the portrait of her Fuehrer which dominates the room and he seems stunned and adrift when he is left once again at the country hotel where industrialist once chased paid for women and now naked frueleins await the stud serves of German soldiers.  Líse returns from the Front to the Ayran breeding camp, which has morphed into a rehab spa for disabled servicemen, and ironically meets her demise in trying to retrieve the one commodity the Jew, Walden, had advised Díte to procure during wartime.  Díte builds his next success upon the remains and lands himself at odds with his next political force - Communism.

Initially, I was troubled that Menzel was portraying such a dire historical period so lightly, but he is so crafty in making larger political criticisms that his method is a credit to his artistry.  A description of the Abyssinian feast decreed by its Emperor at the Hotel Paris, for example, could also describe the geographical changes forced by the war, while the ever present decadence indicates a continent which has not learned from its past turning a blind eye to oncoming events.  A later repeat of Díte chasing Walden on a departing train is horrifically poignant. Menzel's use of the older Díte as a framing device doesn't parallel his flashbacks as well as it might, but the older man's experiences have finally taught him something that puts the younger man's actions into perspective.  The woman he now pursues has been condemned for the freedom with which she formerly gave away her favors while men search the woods for material for musical instruments (returning to natural resources to create art, a cultural renewal).  In the end, Díte is back where he started - serving and appreciating a fine, locally brewed beer.

"I Served the King of England" represents a unique method of portraying decades of political upheaval through the eyes of a simple man.  Menzel's film is both deep and a delight.


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