Czech director Jiri Menzel, who won the Oscar for his very first feature, “Closely Watched Trains,” four decades ago, has endured some difficult times since then, especially after the Soviet invasion of 1968. One of his films was simply banned by the communist authorities, and most of the others haven’t received wide international distribution. But this picture, based like so many of his others on the stories and novels of Bohumil Hrabal, shows that he’s lost none of his skill over the years. Like “Trains,” “I Served the King of England” is a brilliant, witty and profound tragicomedy that reflects on recent Czech history with a highly imaginative, darkly humorous, and strongly sensual tone. And like it, it’s both funny and sad, sometimes simultaneously. It takes a rare lightness of touch to bring off the sorts of juxtapositions Menzel employs here—like an intercourse sequence shuffled together with newsreel footage of the Nazi invasion of 1939, alternating with fantasy episodes that mimic Busby Berkeley musical numbers, or a bathing beauty epic that suddenly transforms gorgeous female nudes intended to serve as breeding ground for the new super-race into disfigured male amputees wounded in the war—but in Menzel’s deft hands it all works.
The naïve protagonist of the piece is Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), whose surname literally means “child.” We first meet him as an old man (played by Oldrich Kaiser) when he’s being released from prison in the late fifties after serving a nearly fifteen year stretch (a few months’ shy of the original sentence due to an “amnesty”). Exiled to the territory that used to be occupied by the Sudeten Germans, who supported Hitler’s takeover and were expelled themselves after Germany lost the war, Jan spends much of his time fixing up the ramshackle cottage he’s been given and pouring gravel onto the road to it. But in starting a neighborly relationship with a couple living nearby—a polymath sent to find trees whose wood is suitable for making musical instruments and his companion, a sultry loose woman sent with him for “reeducation”—Dite reflects on his life, which, as he puts it, was one in which his good luck inevitably brought bad behind it.
The episodic plot then follows the younger Dite (a balletic blond clown named Ivan Barnev) as he rises, through a combination of accident and blind ambition, from a stint as a hot-dog vendor at a train station to the position of harried waiter in a small tavern, to a job as attendant at a rustic hotel/brothel to a post as a waiter at the restaurant in Prague’s most sumptuous hotel, to a stint as a aide in the old brothel after its transformation into a Nazi genetics factory, to ownership of that rural palace after the war, to sudden incarceration. Throughout these Candide-like adventures, the sad sack fellow is driven by two things: a desire to be rich, and a libidinous appetite that belies his diminutive size. The latter involves him early on with a lovely prostitute, and then with Liza, a Sudeten German who becomes his wife (after he can pass the requisite tests of proper ancestry) even though her true ideal man is somebody else (a fact that’s demonstrated when, during their honeymoon sex, she shoves him aside to gaze lovingly at the Fuhrer’s picture on the wall). It’s she who makes it possible for Jan to buy his hotel after the war, with stamps she’s stolen from the houses of deported Jews during a trip to the eastern front.
That sort of conjunction—contrasting Dite’s clumsy, comic rise to the top and his obliviousness to the horrors that facilitate it (a circumstance that’s also involved in his rupture with the maitre d’ who’d been his mentor at the ritzy Prague hotel, but who berates him for not being a good Czech when he takes up with Liza)—is what gives Menzel’s film that sense of grimly humorous fatalism that’s always been so characteristic of eastern Europe. The incongruities are accentuated by the style, which marries a bright, colorful, seductive sheen to its coverage of the miserable circumstances of the time, and makes use of effervescent visual effects to give a fantasy coating to a story that, at its base, is set against most inhumane of the twentieth century’s events. (Especially eye-popping is a dining sequence featuring the Emperor of Ethiopia that magically turns into a dance—which takes on added resonance when one considers what became of Ethiopia at Italy’s hands.) And though Dite is a sort of amusing everyman figure, buffeted by circumstances he fails fully to comprehend, he’s also, like so many of the little guys of silent film, a willful sprite who in a way collaborates with evil. “I Served the King of England” (a title taken from a line spoken by that worldly maitre d’, who represents a high culture that Hitler’s barbarism destroys) thus, even if in a whimsical way, challenges its Czech audience to question the morality of their own actions during the troubled times of occupation and communist repression. That’s the same sort of challenge that Vaclav Havel made to his country after the Velvet Revolution.
So while the sprightliness of Menzel’s film is a consistent delight, it’s interwoven with darker, more troubling undertones that give the picture bite to go along with the charm. The crew—cinematographer Jaromir Sofr, production designer Milan Bycek, costumer Milan Corba, editor Jiri Broznek—support his approach perfectly, and the score by Ales Brezina is a marvelous combination of new music and classical pieces, some used to wonderfully imaginative effect (like the Mozart that the quartet—or more properly quartets—play during the transformation from bathing beauties to wounded men). And the cast is uniformly excellent, with Barnev evoking memories of Chaplin and Laurel as the young Dite (a comparison Menzel points out by his periodic use of silent comedy tropes) and Kaiser giving the older version an appropriate sense of calm and resignation. Ace support is given all around, especially by Julia Jentsch as the Nazi-loving Liza, Martin Huba as the maitre d’, and Marian Labuda as the salesman who becomes a sort of guiding angel to the hero. And one certainly shouldn’t forget the gorgeous women—Zuzana Fialova as the contemporary Marcela and Sarka Petruzelova as the prostitute from Jan’s youth—whose beauty becomes a kind of touchstone of human possibility.
The Czech New Wave that Menzel was instrumental in creating in the sixties may no longer be very new, but a film like this proves that it still has plenty of vibrancy and emotional (and intellectual) pull.