Taking a break from the usual monkeyshines around here, I hope to give you some reviews of some of my favorite films that may have escaped your attention. First up is I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, a wonderful 2006 Czech film recently out on DVD. The review was written by some disgruntled schmuck recently laid off as a freelancer for a major city newspaper...hmmm..I wonder who? Tell me I can't republish my own writing, will ya? Well, take this you money grubbing "make it in a more USA Today like style" corporate bitches!!!
"I Served The King Of England" is at once a semi-fantastical encapsulation of Czech history and a Chaplinesque fable of a hapless anti-hero swept along by fate and selfishly adapting to the whims of the powerful and wealthy.
Directed and written by Jiri' Menzel ("Closely Watched Trains", "My Sweet Little Village"), who will soon approach his fiftieth year as a film maker, and based on a book by famous Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, "I Served The King Of England" is an award winning minor masterpiece that harkens back to some of the true foreign classics of Seventies European and East-European cinema. Reminiscent of Wertmuller's Seven Beauties, it's at turns comedic and bittersweet in its portrayal of war, romance, and a life about survival.
The film begins with an older Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from a fifteen year stint in prison. As he settles in an abandoned German pub in the wilderness of the Czech Republic, Jan Dite begins to narrate his life and the film becomes a series of riveting flashbacks.
Young Jan (a deftly funny Ivan Barnev) is obsessed with being a millionaire. Starting out as a lowly railway frankfurter salesman, Jan is an ambitious moneymaker and also a keen observer of human behavior. Through chance meetings and self-centered manipulations he lands a series of jobs at posh hotels where he excels at servitude and lusts for the lifestyle of those he waits on.
As much a slave to his loins as he is to his wallet, young Jan has a series of romantic encounters that he approaches with the same ardor as his work.
The film takes a darker turn as Germany's takeover of Czechoslovakia begins. Jan, seemingly oblivious, takes it all in stride. He even falls for a young German teacher Liza ( a remarkable Julia Jentsch) who becomes a true-blue Nazi. This does not dampen his love for her at all, and being blonde haired and blue-eyed he is even allowed to marry her, though he is doomed to remain a Bohemian outsider.
As Liza goes off to war, Jan, in one of the film's many black humored moments, is put in charge of serving a bevy of frolicking Aryan beauties waiting to be impregnated by brave soldiers of the Third Reich. The opulent hotel he was once a waiter in is now an idyllic breeding facility for the master race.
The many adventures of Jan Dite make for enthralling viewing. How he finally becomes a millionaire and loses it all, his daliances with various ladies, and his dogged self centeredness form the bulk of this wonderful film. Jan Dite is basically a cipher through which we witness the breathtaking glamour of old Prague, the creeping rise and protracted fall of Hitler's dream, and the eventual advent of communism.
A comical, satirical, sometimes disturbing rumination on love, power, and self, "I Served The King Of England" is a personal epic of self-discovery through overwhelming events. As Old Jan states "my happiness was always in the fact that some unhappiness overtook me."
Beautifully filmed with images that will linger long in the memory, "I Served The King Of England" is that rare bit of pure cinema that transports the viewer, an immersive saga that expertly juggles its parody and paradox.