I served the king of England
|Ivan Barnev||Jan Dite|
|Marian Labuda||Mr. Walden|
|Directed by||Jiri Menzel|
What does it mean to have served the King of England? In Jiri Menzel's gracefully quirky film, it means to have elevated the art of service to almost supernatural heights. Skrivánek (Martin Huba), the multilingual, urbanely elegant maitre d' at Prague's finest hotel, can look at a patron entering the dining room and unerringly anticipate what he will order and where he is from. He's a sort of gastronomical Henry Higgins. When the story's hero, Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev) asks how he came to possess such extraordinary skills, Skrivánek replies, with an appropriate air of condescension, "I served the King of England."
With such artistry comes risk, however. Karel (Jaromir Dulava), the hotel's Head Waiter, pirouettes around the dining room with laden trays as if he were gliding on skates, to the admiration of all. But when one day he trips and spills a drop, he comes unhinged. He flings down his tray and goes on a rampage through the startled diners, upsetting tables and smashing china. The other waiters agree the man had no choice. It was the only honorable thing to do.
Watching and learning is Jan (his surname Dite means child in Czech). We first meet him (played as an older man by Oldrich Kaiser) outside prison sometime in the mid-'60s, where an amnesty has just gotten him early release after serving only 14 years and nine months of his 15 year sentence. We don't yet know his crime. As he rebuilds his life in semi-exile in a village near the German border, he revisits his past life, and so do we.
Jan makes his way up in the world from humble beginnings in the 1920s as a sausage vendor at the railroad station (which calls up echoes of Menzel's greatest international hit, his 1966 Academy Award winner, Closely Watched Trains). His ambition is to someday be a millionaire, and he stalks this goal by closely watching the habits and examples of those above him in the economic pecking order. One thing he learns early on: if you scatter a few coins on the ground, people will scramble for them, whether they're paupers or millionaires. This idle amusement provides him with periodic entertainment as he rises through the ranks. But, as his sometime friend and mentor Mr. Walden (Marian Labuda) tells him after observing one of these diversions, "You have to know how to throw your change away so that it comes back as bank notes."
The two driving appetites in Jan's life, as in the lives of many men, are money and sex. He encounters his first taste of the latter with a pretty working girl at a small town brothel near the café where he has a job as a waiter. He treats her with an innocent respect, and she responds with delighted generosity. Before he leaves, he decorates her body with daisies. This decorative fantasy will become his amorous trademark, and there will be beautiful naked bodies strewn liberally through his story.
With the little head pursuing romance and the big head watching and learning and weathering the bullying blows of his superiors, our innocent rises through the ranks of restaurant service. The years are marching by, and the Germans are marching in. Jan falls for a lovely German lass named Liza (Julia Jentsch), a dedicated Nazi who positions herself in bed so she can gaze on a poster of the Fuhrer as they make love. Jan complaisantly accepts and adopts her loyalties, and adapts to the new circumstances that rule his country. And with the help of priceless stamps appropriated by Liza from deported Jews, he finally reaches his goal of wealth.
Barnev's performance as the unworldly Jan is the leavening that keeps this film airy when darkness threatens to engulf it. He moves with the wobbly grace and survival instincts of a Chaplin, though he never achieves the Little Tramp's perceptive awareness of the circumstances that surround him. Toward the end of the movie we discover the crime for which he was sentenced, and it is his inability to recognize and adapt to the advent of Communism at the moment of his greatest triumph that does him in.
Menzel is working here from a novel by Bohumil Hraba, the great Czech writer who died in 1997. They first collaborated on Closely Watched Trains, and again many times over the years. I Served the King of England has the rich, poignant whimsy overlaying a pointed dagger that was the hallmark of the best films out of Eastern Europe in the '60s. The movie is filled with wonderful moments, set pieces of absurdity, and a richness of humor. But underneath, Menzel and Hraba have a wry and sometimes painful story to tell of the history of their country in the 20th century.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be