I Served the King of England
Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, Milan Lasica, Zuzana Fialová, Martin Huba, Marián Labuda, Josef Abrhám
A lavishly indulgent paean to food, flesh and fierce ambition.
Jan Díte has one ambition: to be a millionaire. And he has only one notion of how to achieve this: to be the best maitre d’ at the flashiest hotel. Or at least at the best brothel. Or, for that matter, in Nazi human breeding camps…
Jirí Menzel is on top form with this lush new adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel. Played with splendid charm by the two leads (Ivan Barnev, playing the younger Díte; Oldrich Kaiser as the older version), the film is a gently humane comedy about ambition foiled by circumstance.
Menzel wields a broad palette to conjure period atmosphere: silent-era trompe l’oeil effects, and some odd but charming experiments with frame-rate, fit seamlessly with flamboyant CGI techniques. What’s most striking technically, though, is the gorgeous cinematography by long-time collaborator Jaromír Sofr (who also shot Menzel’s 1966 masterpiece Closely Observed Trains, another Hrabal adaptation). It took Menzel and his producers almost ten years to secure screen rights for I Served the King of England, and having finally succeeded, they clearly decided not to stint in the execution.
During elaborate flashbacks, an older, wiser Díte recalls his rise through the ranks of hotel maitre d’s in the decades before the Second World War. There’s ample scope here for an excoriating attack on any or all of the elite castes whose iniquitous shadows darken Díte’s youth – the wealthy inter-bellum industrialists; the Nazis; then the Communists – but Menzel largely avoids the obvious targets.
The real culprit here – as he realises in his later years – is Díte himself. By exposing the aspiring waiter’s unthinking eagerness to serve any morally bankrupt elite, Menzel develops a quietly withering criticism of collective Czech acquiescence during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Díte’s goals are wholly material: he kowtows unquestioningly to wealth and power; he spends the war years cheerfully servicing German soldiers and Aryan test-brides; he happily makes his fortune by cashing in the postage-stamp collection his card-carrying Nazi girlfriend stole from wealthy Jewish households. In short, he is entirely complicit in the appalling crimes of the successive regimes he aims to please.
What’s most impressive about Menzel’s approach is that he develops this criticism without pressing the point in an accusatory, sensational ways. Díte remains a man guilty through weakness and error, not evil; just a hapless fellow, and quite a nice one at that, who acts just as any one of us might have acted under the circumstances. Menzel thus paints a tremendously sensitive and forgiving portrait of the man, while drawing from it a barbed critique of the nation at that time. A major achievement by one of the giants of European cinema.
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