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  • TBC
  • Comedy, Romance
  • 2006
  • 120 mins

I Served The King Of England

I Served The King Of England

Synopsis

I Served The King Of England is a darkly comic reflection upon Czech twentieth-century history through the half-open eyes of a priapic chancer

About

The life of Czech director Jirí Menzel has always been intertwined with that of his friend, the author Bohumil Hrabal. Menzel debuted with a segment of the portmanteau film Pearls On The Bottom (1965), drawn from a collection of Hrabal's short stories - and further Hrabal adaptations would follow, including Menzel's Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (1968), the Golden Bear-winning Larks On A String (made in 1969, although a communist ban held its release back two decades), Cutting It Short (1980) and The Snowdrop Festival (1984).

Hrabal died in 1997, but that has not stopped Menzel returning to this most fruitful of collaborations with I Served The King Of England, based on Hrabal's picaresque 1974 masterpiece of the same name.

In fact, it is a return in more ways than one, being Menzel's first feature since 1994 - and it features an aging antihero who, like Menzel himself, is shown reflecting upon his long career and the small but not insignificant part that he has played in Czechoslovakia's turbulent twentieth-century history.

It is the 1960s. Old Jan Dite (Kaiser) is released three months early from a 15-year stint in prison, and relocated to a Sudeten bordertown, now long abandoned by its German populace. There he thinks back upon his youthful self (played with winning naïvety by Barnev) - a diminutive provincial with grand ambitions, spurred on by his regular encounters with the equally diminutive businessman Walden (Labuda).

Whether he is selling hotdogs at a railway station, carrying drinks in a bordertown bar, waiting tables in a pleasure hotel for playboy industrialists, serving international dignitaries in a grand hotel in Prague or helping out at a breeding facility for the Aryan Master Race, Dite is always on the rise, edging ever closer to his dream of becoming a millionaire hotelier, even as he wins the hearts of a succession of pretty Bohemian girls - and he never forgets the lesson that he learnt early in his waitering career: "To hear nothing, and yet hear everything - to see nothing, and yet see everything."

So it is that Dite can turn a blind eye to the history unfolding before him, even marrying himself to committed Nazi Liza (Jentsch) as well as to the hateful cause that she embodies, and making his fortune off the unimaginable suffering of others. It is only much later in his life, surrounded by mirrors, that he will see himself properly for the first time, and come full circle.

"If you succeed," Walden tells the young Dite, "life can be so beautiful, so beautiful." Sure enough, just like Life Is Beautiful, Menzel's film puts an absurdly positive spin on the horrors of history, while using the double perspective of its younger and older protagonist to ensure that darker tragedies are always peeking through all the charming erotic comedy.

Here Liza's erotic advance on Dite is intercut with the advance of German troops into Czechoslovakia, here Dite's attempts to masturbate into a cup (as part of a check-up of his fitness to wed an Aryan) are interrupted by news of the execution of Czech 'traitors', here a sex scene involves both participants imagining their partner with Hitler's face, here Dite's initial delight at being incarcerated "amongst millionaires" quickly fades as he realises that, even in a communist prison, all the old hierarchies of class and privilege still remain intact to exclude him.

Beautifully shot, perfectly performed and always treading a fine line between joyous fantasy and bleaker reality, I Served The King Of England is a stylised slice of magical realism in which the little people of history graze against the shifting ideologies of the twentieth century, leaving scars which, in their quests for personal glory, they are at the time able only to half-see.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Martin Huba, Ivan Barnev, Josef Abrhám, Zuzana Fialova, Marián Labuda, Milan Lasica, Julia Jentsch, Jaromír Dulava, Oldrich Kaiser, Jiri Labus
  • Director: Jirí Menzel
  • Screen Writer: Jirí Menzel
  • Writer (Book): Bohumil Hrabal
  • Producer: Rudolf Biermann
  • Photographer: Jaromír Sofr
  • Composer: Alex Brezina

In a nutshell

This magical realist memoir of the small men (and women) in history is a sprawling carnivalesque treat - as tall and refreshing as a tankard of Czech beer and with the same bitter aftertaste.

by Anton Bitel

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