I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLANDR
Jiri Menzel’s dark comedy I Served the King of England is the kind of film that puts a permanent smile on faces throughout its near two-hour unfolding, at least when jaws aren’t dropping at some of its racier jolts.
For the more serious among spectators, it is also a triumphant display and reminder of those qualities that serve as bedrock of the medium. Besides the voiceover narration and flashback structure that fortify narrative, there’s delicious visual spectacle, clever editing linking contiguous scenes from different eras, sound design that deepens engagement, and an elegantly arcing story.
The real delight is Menzel’s bold and ingenious recourse to magical realism, which, never sacrificing the emotional to magical indulgences, adds a vivid poetic touch to adventures endured during Nazism and the “corrective” Communist aftermath in Eastern Europe.
I Served the King is the tale of ambitious money- and sex-obsessed Czech rogue Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), who, middle-aged in the 1950s, is finally released from a Czech prison and dumped in a deserted German-Czech border town. But the main focus is on young Dite (Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev). His rise and fall is both backstory and heart of story conveying how this diminutive blond rascal of humble background advanced against all odds to become rich before losing all.
Born near the Czech-German border, single-minded young Dite only wishes to become a millionaire. Proving he’s a master of opportunism, he begins his dramatic climb as a sausage seller at the local train station, where he bilks wealthy traveling salesman Walden (Marian Labuda) out of change due him, as Walden’s train pulls away and Dite pretends to fumble for change.
Dreaming of being a successful hotelier, Dite lands jobs at a pub, a brothel, and eventually at posh hotels as a waiter. He makes a quick study of those around him, including the arrogant maitre d’ Skrivanek (Martin Huba), who brags that he once “served the King of England.” Dite is also a ready pouncer on the beautiful women he meets, including a prostitute who awakens him sexually and, more significantly, Liza (Julia Jentsch), a German local who rejoices as Hitler takes over the Sudetenland territory and Czechoslovakia itself.
Careerwise, Dite has his own triumph when the Emperor of Ethiopia, even more of a shrimp than Dite, holds a lavish banquet at the restaurant where Dite works and bestows upon the little waiter a prestigious medal for superior service.
Dite falls hard for Liza, who will only marry him if he proves he’s of good Aryan stock. This done, they wed, as Hitler takes Czechoslakia and Dite collaborates and rises further. Liza goes off to battle as a nurse and Dite finds himself also working as a nurse at a confiscated hotel that has become a Nazi breeding center for blond fraulein and sturdy Nazi soldiers.
Liza returns from the front with hugely valuable stamps confiscated from Jewish victims, and Dite turns these into the millions that buy him his dream hotel. But with the Nazis gone, the victorious Russians, with their Communist disdain for private wealth, have other plans for the entrepreneur.
While I Served the King is certainly disciplined, restraint in depicting baser human needs is not the virtue here and it doesn’t hurt that the filmmaker is shameless in putting his obsessions up on the big screen. Female breasts and the attractive blondes that own them (the film is promiscuous in its nudity), obscene wealth, decadent lifestyles, and the kinds of lavish meals and appointments that only the super-rich can command are in ample view, as is an outpouring of frothy beer and unapologetic lust.
Menzel accomplishes what The Counterfeiters’ Stefan Ruzowitzky does: Evoking roughly the same era in Europe, he gives us an irresistible but irrefutable son of a gun who intrigues us. Menzel also frames his story the same way, introducing his hero not in the best of circumstances and flashing back to explain his fortunes.
Like Dite, director Menzel has his eyes on the patrons and a mania to please. Also like Dite, he should pull in the targeted customers.