I Served The King Of England
Details: (M), 120 mins, Czech Republic,
Synopsis: Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) is released from prison having served most of his 15-year sentence and is sent to work on mountain roads in the Sudeten region. He reflects on his life, from his first job selling hot dogs at a railway station, to becoming the head waiter in the top hotel in Prague. The German invasion of Sudetenland brings young Liza (Julia Jentsch) into his life and he easily trades any patriotic feelings for the opportunity to better himself. Oblivious to the political changes, and thanks to a valuable stamp collection 'left behind' by a family of Jews, Jan becomes a millionaire and buys the resort he once worked at.
Visually this film is stunning, but the glamour is not enough to cover the script\'s weaknesses.
After observing the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. If she’d watched Czech director Jiri Menzel’s latest film, I Served The King Of England, she might’ve revised her view to “the twerpiness of evil”.
This black comedy, set in Czechoslovakia in the lead up to the Nazi takeover, revolves around Jan Dite, a grasping little twerp whose only goals in life are to make a million dollars and own his own hotel.
From humble beginnings as a hot dog salesman, his skills as a toady see him rise through the ranks of various swish hotels, although each promotion comes at the expense of workmates and friends.
His final step up the ladder arrives when he meets and falls for a true-believing Nazi superwoman and he must prove genetic worthiness to breed with the Aryan fräulein.
Writer-Director Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novella has lots going on but it never really coalesces into something meaningful, especially considering it’s set at the edges of the Holocaust and at the centre of Nazi eugenics.
The most touching moments are found in the framing devices in which the older Jan, now living in forest exile, reflects with sadness on who he was.
But younger Jan, played like a silent-movie comedian by Ivan Barnev, is so feckless you’re angered rather than charmed by his blithe collaboration.
German actress Julia Jentsch’s performance is terrific, though, and her fascist uberwench is both comic and excruciating.
Menzel’s film does recreate the glamour and opulence of old Prague, but too much of the first half is given over to pervy old blokes gorging themselves stupid while they ogle young naked beauties.
The second half, as Czechoslovakia falls to Nazism and Jan is ostracised from his countrymen, brings much-needed dramatic tension.
I Served The King Of England does serve up strong performances and visuals but the idiot savant has been better done in movies such as Zelig, while a more searing look at the cost of collaboration can be found in the likes of Mephisto.
I Served The King Of England rates three stars.
All in all, this is a treat for fans of Jiri Menzel and newcomers alike.
The legendary Czech director Jiri Menzel doesn’t make many films, so anything with his name attached is bound to attract critical attention. It was, after all, Menzel’s seminal and unforgettable Closely Observed Trains (1966) which helped to bring the Czech New Wave to the attention of the world. But you don’t have to be a student of cinema to appreciate the warmth and gently subversive humanism of I Served The King Of England. Menzel’s films can charm anybody.
The film’s hero, Jan Dite (a perky performance from Ivan Barnev), is the classic little man on the make. He is a waiter in a very grand 1930s hotel in Prague and, with his manual dexterity and sure sense of how to read a situation always outwits his boss and gets a good tip into the bargain. Czechoslovakia, however, is also a country much interfered with and Menzel, as he did before, takes from Bohumil Hrabal’s novel the chance to explore the darker side of foreign occupation and power. What makes the film even more interesting is that the light, fast-paced farce of the early stages gives way, via a love story, to something more tragicomic. As the film progresses, we also see that Jan is all too human, as his attempts to thrive and survive in war time lead him into the error of collaborationism.
The film’s interiors are gorgeous but it also contains a very wide palette of humour, from satire to sight gags. At times, Jan seems like a little blonde Czech Chaplin, with perfect slapstick to match. Menzel also harks back to his New Wave roots with the strategic inclusion of subversive nudity. All in all, this is a treat for fans of Jiri Menzel and newcomers alike.
Fast paced scenes and slapstick wildness only add to the warmth and the meaning of this exploration of military occupation.
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