Jiří Menzel´s I Served the King of England (Czech title: Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále) is a near-masterpiece; individual scenes are stunning, the production is first-rate, the ironic life of Jan Dítě (Dítě means ‘child´ – and Jan is a tiny man) compelling.
That the film doesn´t quite come together as a cohesive whole is almost beside the point – Menzel may have not done justice to the beloved novel by Bohumil Hrabal (which I have not read), but he´s molded the source material into something uniquely his own, and in the process created a film of rare beauty. The director´s sixth adaptation of works by Hrabal (following Pearls of the Deep, the Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains, Larks on a String, Short Cut, and The Snowdrop Festival) is just as good as any of them.
The film begins as Jan Dítě (Oldřich Kaiser) is released from prison having served fourteen years and nine months of a fifteen year sentence. The time, though never specified in the film, appears to be the early 1960´s; Dítě is sent to an abandoned Czech village, where the German residents were expelled after World War II. He eventually comes across two neighbors: a professor searching the forest for trees of a musical quality to make instruments, and his assistant Marcela, who flirts with Dítě and reminds him of times gone by.
\Flashbacks make up the bulk of the film as Dítě recalls his life; stunning period detail of 1930´s-40´s Prague provide a stark contrast to the solitude of life in the abandoned village. The framing scenes with the older Dítě feel weak in comparison, with a lot of screen time given to little story, but Kaiser makes for an excellent narrator.
As a young man, Dítě (played by Ivan Barnev) is ruled by his emotions – greed dictates his goals in life (“I wanted to be surrounded by millionaires ”), lust finds him in the arms of a variety of beautiful women, and love, eventually, marries him to a German girl and places him on the wrong side of the war. He works his way from a hotel in a small village, to an expensive spa resort, to the grand Hotel Paříž in Prague, taking in the various sites along the way. Oblivious to the political changes, he eventually does become a millionaire, and buys the resort hotel he once worked at. The irony is delicious when two communist messengers come knocking at his door.
Some scenes are unforgettable. At the beginning of the film, in a black & white, silent comedy throwback, Dítě chases down a train car to bring change to a man who has purchased a sausage; Dítě takes his time and pockets the change when he doesn´t make it. The scene is recalled later in the film: as a train car full of Jews headed to a concentration camp takes off, Dítě swipes a sandwich and rushes to bring it to them. Again, he doesn´t make it. Other scenes are equally memorable. The head-waiter´s sudden rampage after dropping a plate; the medal awarded by the emperor of Ethiopia; Dítě decorating the bodies of nude women with flowers, then food, then money; a lovemaking scene under a portrait of Hitler – all mesmerizing, beautiful, wonderfully filmed.
Technical aspects are absolutely top of the line – this is one of the most expensive Czech films ever shot, and it shows on the screen. Cinematography is gorgeous, with a special eye for food and women, and the occasional mixture of both. The production design, sets, and costumes are all flawless, producing an immaculate period detail; the city of Prague has never looked better on the screen.
A wonderful cast showcases a number of terrific performances. Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev, especially, is a revelation – creating, with a bare minimum of dialogue, an engaging character who lights up the screen, who we can identify with and root for despite his wrong-headed ideals. It´s hard to imagine the young Jan Dítě being played by anyone else. Supporting cast is first-rate, with a variety of Czech and international stars, including Oscar-winning director István Szabó in a small role.
Martin Huba and Josef Abrhám, as the maître d’ and owner of the Hotel Paříž, respectively, take relish in their roles and deliver two of the films best lines: Huba states the titular phrase while Abrhám, after witnessing Dítě defend a German girl, tells him: “You´re dismissed. You´re not a good Czech.” Julia Jentsch, as the German girl in question and main love interest of Dítě, does what she can with a difficult role and manages to add multiple dimensions to a character the script and director are particularly unkind to.
And yet, the film doesn´t meld in to a cohesive whole – an overall message is conveyed neither to the audience, nor the main character – though this is, I believe, intentional. Menzel shows us the good and bad here, in full glory; we witness the bad side of the “Czech rabble” as they accost Germans on the street during occupation, as well as, if not exactly the ‘good side´ of Germans, the fact that were still human despite the Nazi mechanism that engulfed them.
And what does Menzel want to say with all this? Dítě follows greed, and lust, and love along the way, blind to the politics that may follow similar motivations, taking the good along with the bad in equal doses. Menzel presents the story without a notion of what is right or wrong, nor enough motivation for the audience to decide between the two: he simply presents things as they are, as if to say, “such is life”.
And the movie is what it is – in my opinion, a quintessential Czech film. The surface beauty and moral ambiguity may make the film seem hollow to some. But, in truth, such is life – not hollow, but sometimes beautiful and mostly ambiguous.