'I Served the King of England' Movie Review (2 1/2 Stars)
Movie Reviews by Michael Phillips
Ivan Barnev & Julia Jentsch
This film from Czech writer-director Jiri Menzel is tasty enough but inoffensive even when it should offend, provoke, startle.
It's an assured and attractive piece, but with a hollow ring.
The story follows a prison parolee whose young adulthood and various liaisons are recounted in flashback.
Unfortunately, the two versions of the man, Jan Dite (the younger version played by Ivan Barnev, the older version played by Oldrich Kaiser) never seem to match up.
Stupid as it is to generalize about regional humor, here goes: The mordant wit and paradoxical melancholic bounce you find in a great many Eastern European filmmakers informs every joke and rosy sexual encounter in the work of Czech writer-director Jiri Menzel.
Menzel's sensibility, however, always was broader and softer than that of many of his contemporaries.
Compared with the glories coming out of Romania in recent years, typified by "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Menzel's latest, "I Served the King of England," is pudding -- tasty enough but inoffensive even when it should offend, provoke, startle.
Many of my American colleagues have fallen hard for the latest by Menzel, the director of "Closely Watched Trains" and "My Sweet Little Village." You may fall for it too. It strikes me as an assured and very attractive piece, but with a hollow ring -- disappointing, especially considering the quality of the sight gag that opens the picture. (It involves a prison gate.)
The man leaving prison after nearly 15 years is Jan Dite -- in Czech, literally, John Child -- whose young adulthood and various liaisons are recounted in flashback.
Menzel adapts the 1974 novel by Bohumil Hrabal, a picaresque about a defiantly apolitical Everyman -- a man obsessed with money and its power over the populace. Much of "I Served the King of England" is dominated by young Dite, played by the Bulgarian-born actor Ivan Barnev.
He begins as a waiter who maintains one eye on the main chance, the other on the competition. By the late 1930s, he has graduated to the most elegant restaurant in Prague. Hitler's destruction of the country is barely a blip on Dite's radar; meantime, he falls in with a Nazi-sympathizing madchen (Julia Jentsch) who, at one point during their lovemaking, repositions herself on the bed so that she can maintain eye contact with a portrait of der Fuhrer.
If more of "I Served the King of England" boasted that sort of comic nerve, Menzel might have had a classic on his hands. Instead, the film is likable and, in its tone, strictly middle-of-the-road. In one passage Dite goes to work for an Aryan breeding institute set up by Himmler; the scene is weirdly toothless, just when the irony should be at its most savage.
An adaptable cipher, Dite is imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator after the war. His mature self, played by Oldrich Kaiser once Dite leaves prison, still has what it takes to woo the ladies. Rehabbing a cabin in the mountains of southern Bohemia, he bewitches a local chocolate factory vixen (Zuzana Fialova -- what's Czech for "yow"?) though Menzel stops short of a seduction. As he looks back on his life, Dite sees in himself a climber and a compromiser, but the two Dites never seem to match up.
Menzel's film is photographed in gorgeous, creamy tones by Jarmoir Sofr, and the score by Ales Brezina has a charming antic spirit. But the end result is determined to round off the material's edges, and you're left with "My Sweet Little Village II," or "I Married a Nazi and It Worked Out Fine."
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and nudity)
Running time: 1:58
Starring: Ivan Barnev (young Jan Dite); Oldrich Kaiser (older Jan Dite); Julia Jentsch (Liza); Martin Huba (Front Waiter Skrivanek); Zuzana Fialova (Marcela)
Written and directed by Jiri Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal; photographed by Jaromir Sofr; edited by Jiri Brozek; music by Ales Brezina; production design by Milan Bycek; produced by Robert Schaffer and Andrea Metcalfe. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
About "I Served the King of England" the Movie
Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev) is short in height, but high in ambition. To put it bluntly, the young provincial waiter wants to become a millionaire. And he knows just how to do it: by hearing everything, seeing everything, and creating opportunities at every turn.
Armed with this knowledge and an irrepressible wish to please, he soon leaves his first place of employment, a pub, for a luxury brothel and, finally moving onto an elegant Art Nouveau Prague restaurant. But by the late 1930s, things are changing: Hitler has taken the Sudetenland region and is breaking apart Czechoslovakia. Jan falls in love with Líza (Julia Jentsch), a Sudeten German proud of her Aryan blood. They marry, and soon after Líza is sent to serve on the Polish front, while Jan remains behind to serve as a nurse in a Nazi SS Research Hospital, but when she returns, she has a fortune in rare stamps that Jews had 'left behind' ... After Líza's less than heroic death, Jan sells the stamps and becomes ... a millionaire.
But he only has three years to enjoy his fortune: the new Communist regime puts him behind bars for 15 years, one for each of his millions... Upon his release from jail, Jan is sent to live in a decrepit border town. Here Jan reflects on the events that have shaped his life and to reflect on what might have happened if he had played a different role in these events.
Following 15 long years of incarceration, Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev), is released into a world very different from what he left. On his way back home he recalls his early years as an apprentice waiter, his knack for making money, and his first sexual experiences. Apart from his first lessons in waiting and lovemaking, he is lured by success and becomes blinded by his dreams of fabulous wealth. Living by his wits and skill, the young Jan becomes so successful that small town jealousy soon forces him to move elsewhere. He finds work at a luxury hotel near the capital where the creme de la creme of 1930s Czech society come to live it up. He is fascinated by their self-indulgent, carefree existence. For a young man of his background the lifestyle of these rich young folk seems quite unimaginable which makes it all the more enticing. So he sets himself a goal: to get rich and live like them.
The older Jan is reminded of the easy sexual conquests of his youth when he finds himself attracted to Marcela, a young woman who happens to come into his orbit and intrudes on his solitude. But young Jan has to quit the luxury hotel, too. Hoping to become a wealthy and successful hotelier, he takes a job in an elegant art nouveau establishment in Prague. Here he learns how a classy waiter should dress and behave; and it is here he has his greatest moment of glory.
The Emperor of Abyssinia visits the hotel, and Dítě is decorated for his excellent (though brief) service. Naturally, this results in more jealousy.
The events following the Munich Agreement just before the war mark a turning point in Jan's life. Having fallen in love with Líza (Julia Jentsch), a young Sudeten German activist, he suddenly finds himself on the wrong side an unwitting collaborator with the forces that have invaded Czechoslovakia. He marries Líza, though not before undergoing a degrading examination to ensure he is of good Aryan stock. While his own country is being humiliated and his compatriots imprisoned and executed, he celebrates his marriage to a fanatic German nationalist. Soon he is working for the Germans.
War breaks out. The Germans invade Poland and Líza decides to serve as a volunteer nurse. Her young husband now works for an institute set up by Himmler to produce master race specimens from German girls and full-blooded Aryan warriors. It is an unbelievable place, where the new Teutonic breed is conceived, born, and reared under 'expert' supervision. There Jan works obediently as a nurse. Líza returns from Poland with a priceless stamp collection her 'war booty' and the couple look forward to building a magnificent hotel when the war is over. But the war does not end in the way they imagined, and as it drags on, the SS 'research institute' is turned into a military hospital, where both Jan and Líza work. As the war draws to a close, Líza is killed in an air raid and Jan faces prosecution as a Nazi collaborator.
After serving time for assisting the Nazi's, the older Jan finds peace and reconciliation in the solitude of the south Bohemian mountains. Only now does he understand where he went wrong: he was simply too eager to succeed, and too eager to please.
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