A likeable comic underdog saga that follows the life and loves of a Chaplinesque waiter in pre- and post-war Czechoslovakia, I Served the King of England represents veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel's most marketable feature for some time. The film's little-big-man protagonist and its playful take on seismic upheavals like Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland or the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia will prompt comparisons with Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, but Menzel spins a lighter, less emotionally coercive tale which is veined by bittersweet Slavic fatalism.
The late Bohumil Hrabal, on whose novel the film is based, is Menzel's literary soulmate. This is the sixth time that the director has adapted Hrabal's humane, erotic brand of bar-room surrealism for the screen; previous adaptations include the Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (1966) and Larks On A String, which was banned by Soviet-controlled Czech authorities before it could be released in 1969, only to win the Golden Bear when it finally saw the light of day at the 1990 Berlinale.
At the time of writing, I Served... was still at the top of the Czech box office chart after eight weeks. Overseas, the film's historical agenda will be less close to home, and its source material less familiar, but it can still be expected to perform strongly at the wider end of the arthouse market.
Hrabal was much influenced by the spirit and the scenarios of silent comedy, and this strand emerges strongly in I Served..., especially through the character and mannerisms of the film's picaresque, pint-sized hero, Jan Dite. Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev hits just the right note of cheeky innocence in his portrayal of Dite ('child' in Czech), who progresses from station hotel busboy to millionaire hotel owner by lurking in the background and keeping an eye out for the main chance. True to his pedigree, Dite hardly speaks a word, and some of the gags (as when he reaches his hand around to recieve a tip intended for another waiter) are pure Chaplin or Keaton.
The film opens with the release from prison of a much older Dite (played in more naturalistic mode by Oldrich Kaiser), who soon finds work breaking rocks to make roads in a mountainous border area. Interleaved with the main narrative, these scenes provide a melancholy contrast to the young waiter's inexorable rise and rise.
But the mood is never remotely tragic: like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Menzel's breezy script takes a so-it-goes attitude towards fortune and misfortune. Even the German occupation is seen by dreamy, apolitical young Dite as an opportunity for romance.
While his waiter colleagues refuse to serve Germans or speak the language, Dite defends and later falls in love with a keen young daughter of the Fatherland, played by Julia Jentsch (an overtly comic role that may shock those who remember her as the anti-Nazi pasionaria in Sophie Scholl).
Money and sex are the driving forces of Dite's universe, and both are associated with uncomplicated, physical lust. Banknotes are laid out on carpets or plastered on the walls of the hotel that Dite eventually buys; curvacious Teutonic women stroll around the grounds of a wartime Aryan breeding facility, and Dite uses the bodies of his successive lovers as blank canvases for elaborate arrangements of flowers, fruit and leaves.
The gliding camera caresses surfaces and skin, and the opulent production design and locations (from art deco hotels to belle epoque spas) stress the passing beauty of this doomed world. Ales Brezina's marvelously lush soundtrack mixes classical extracts from Wagner, Schubert and others with period Czech cocktail jazz and original orchestral themes.
Magic Box Slovakia
Universal Production Partners
Bavaria Film International
Jiri Menzel, from the novel by Bohumil Hrabal