I Served the King of England
At the center of Menzel's latest film is a Chaplinesque everyman named Jan Dite (whose name translates as John Child). When we first meet Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) he's being released from a 1950s Prague prison after serving a sentence imposed by the Communists. Now's he's been dropped off in the middle of an abandoned German town near the Czech border where he slowly begins to clean things up. As he cleans, he takes us on a journey back through his life.
First stop back in time is the 1930s. Jan (now played with deft physical skill by Ivan Barnev) reveals that he has two goals in life: to be rich and to run a hotel. The height-challenged Jan starts his dream at the bottom as a waiter serving the wealthy that he'd so like to be. One day he observes that whether people are rich or poor they will always scramble to the floor to pick up loose change. So at every establishment he works at, he does a little experiment: sprinkle some coins on the ground and watch the rich folks - no matter how expensive their clothes - get down on their knees to pick up the money. Jan also has an eye for the ladies, starting with a pert blonde prostitute who comes in from the rain one day and dazzles all the men in the establishment.
As he takes on waitering jobs at better and better establishments, he hones his skills. Eventually gets a job working for haughty maitre d' named Skrivanek (Martin Huba), who seems prescient about his customers' needs. When Jan inquires how he got this skill, Skrivanek snootily replies, "Because I served the King of England." Jan doesn't get to do the same but he eventually serves an African dignitary who bestows an honor on Jan and that moves him further up his ambitious ladder.
Jan with his Aryan bride to be in I Served the King of England (Sony Pictures Classics)
But then World War II comes and the apolitical Jan initially profits. He finds a German girl whose love for Jan is only surpassed by her fervent adoration for Hitler. She even keeps a portrait of Hitler looking over their bed. The couple come into illicit funds, and profit nicely. But then our narrator Jan explains how the Communists soon arrived on the scene and they did not look favorably upon Jan's fortune, which led to his imprisonment and to the place where we find him at the beginning of the film. Surprisingly, Jan does not seem a bitter man. His memories hold pleasures that he can still savor and enjoy, and he even takes well to his new manual labor cleaning up the deserted village. Plus there's a lovely young girl - sent out to this dilapidated place as punishment for her promiscuity - for him to fantasize about. His conclusion at the end of all this: "A person becomes human, almost against his own will."
At the end, I Served the King of England left me with somewhat conflicted feelings. Initially, the clever tone of the film dazzled me. Menzel executes a kind of high wire balancing act as he manages to be breezily entertaining as he serves up darkly incisive social criticism. Like The Unbearable Lightness of Being , another film inspired by a Czech novel, I Served the King of England finds that sense of contradiction in life, that there can be heavy, serious matters and yet a lightness to them as well. Towards the end, however, I felt a bit of fatigue, as the film seemed to grow too precious in its tone. There's a sense that Jan goes through so much untouched by the events around him that we too are on the verge of not being moved as fully as maybe we should by Jan's story. Yet so much of the first half of the film feels so fresh and bold that it tempers my criticism regarding the end.
Ivan Barnev as Jan in I Served the King of England (Sony Pictures Classics)
The film gains much of its charm and buoyancy from Barnev's skill. He doesn't speak much and instead relies on his skills as a silent but very physical clown. He moves with the precision of a ballet dancer as he maneuvers through crowded restaurants and under the trays of the much taller waiters. He has an expressive face and openness that make him quite impish and appealing.
I Served the King of England (in Czech and German with English subtitles, and rated R for sexual content and nudity) serves up personal tragedy with the most unexpected lightness of touch. The film captures the particular flavor of Czech humor that finds lightness in the darkest moments, and an absurdist quality to life.
Life is Beautiful, A House Divided, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Great Dictator