I Served the King of England (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_king_sm.jpgFull appreciation requires both a grasp of European history and an appreciation for stories which have many layers of meaning.





I Served the King of England, Czechoslovakia’s entry for the 2008 Best Foreign Film Oscar, portrays the picaresque journey of a little guy from a little town in Czechoslovakia, who manages to live through most twentieth century European history without ever consciously making a moral decision. Like Josef Švejk, Jan Díte, whose surname means "little boy," survives by staying out of the big boys’ battles when he can, rolling with the punches when he can’t, and cheerfully making the most of opportunities as they present themselves.

We first meet Díte (Oldrich Kaiser) as a grizzled ex-con sent into exile in a deserted town near the German border. His crime? Being a millionaire. Most of the film is told in flashback, beginning with the young Díte (Ivan Barnev) selling hot dogs in the train station and making change so slowly that the train pulls away and he literally gets to keep the change.

Soon he’s learning the waiter’s trade from maitre d’hotel Skrivanek (Martin Huba), whose claim to fame is that he once served the King of England. For a guy who doesn’t appear to be too bright, Díte is one lucky boy: beautiful women fall into his bed, rich men give him financial advice, and before you know it he’s headwaiter at the Hotel Paříž.

When the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia, the multi-lingual Skrivanek suddenly refuses to speak or understand German, a choice that leads to his arrest and the unpleasant fate thus implied. Díte has no such scruples, however: after satisfying the German officials of his breeding capabilities, he marries an Aryan girl from the Sudetenland (Julia Jentsch) and is assigned to what can only be described as a tit job. While his peers are being maimed and killed on the battlefield, Díte works as a waiter in a hotel converted into a bizarre breeding camp for German soldiers and voluptuous blond Amazons.

I Served the King of England is based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal and full appreciation requires both a grasp of European history and an appreciation for stories which have many layers of meaning. It’s frequently very funny (often the kind of laughter that hurts) and director Jiří Menzel likes to dance on the edge of absurdity. But what could be more absurd than the history of Czechoslovakia (a.k.a. the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czecho-Slovak Republic, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech Socialist Republic…you get the idea) in the twentieth century? And before you get too self-righteous in condemning Menzel’s allegorical hero, consider this: when was the last time you saw a big-budget American movie which intelligently criticized the recent behavior of the American nation?

The film’s "R" rating is really not deserved: there are some sensual scenes, but on the whole fewer body parts are on display than in many PG films, and there’s none of the grossness or disrespect often associated with sex in popular American films. Considering the period of history involved, there’s also a minimum of violence, and much of it takes place offscreen. I suspect Menzel’s adult approach confused the censors, who reached for the "R" rating in self-defense. A film which portrays sexuality as something to be enjoyed (particularly by women) seems to send the censor-o-meter spinning out of control, as does appropriately portrayed violence: when a bullet is fired in this film, it has consequences, and they’re not pretty.

Cinematography by Jaromir Sofír is superb (the absurd splendor of central European hotels between the wars has never look better) and the music by Ales Brezina is a delight, enhancing the ever-shifting moods of the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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