"I Served the King of England" is at once a semi-fantastical encapsulation of Czech history and a Chaplinesque fable of a hapless antihero swept along by fate and selfishly adapting to the whims of power and wealth.
Directed and written by Jirí Menzel and based on a book by famous Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, "I Served the King of England" is an award-winning minor masterpiece that harks back to some of the true foreign classics of '70s European and Eastern European cinema.
It is reminiscent of Wertmuller's "Seven Beauties," at turns comedic and bittersweet in its portrayal of war, romance and a life that is all about survival.
The film begins with an older Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from a 15-year stint in prison. As he settles into an abandoned German pub in the wilderness of the Czech Republic, Jan Dite begins to narrate his life, and the film becomes a series of riveting flashbacks.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Young Jan (a deftly funny Ivan Barnev) is obsessed with being a millionaire. Starting out as a lowly railway frankfurter salesman, Jan is an ambitious moneymaker and also a keen observer of human behavior.
Through chance meetings and self-centered manipulations, he lands a series of jobs at posh hotels, where he excels at servitude and lusts for the lifestyle of those he waits on.
As much a slave to his loins as he is to his wallet, young Jan has a series of romantic encounters that he approaches with the same ardor that he devotes to his work.
The film takes a darker turn as Germany's takeover of Czechoslovakia begins.
Jan, seemingly oblivious, takes it all in stride. He even falls for a young German teacher, Liza (a remarkable Julia Jentsch), who becomes a true blue Nazi. This does not dampen his love for her at all. And, being blond-haired and blue-eyed, he is even allowed to marry her, though he is doomed to remain a Bohemian outsider.
As Liza goes off to war, Jan, in one of the film's many black-humored moments, is put in charge of serving a bevy of frolicking Aryan beauties waiting to be impregnated by brave soldiers of the Third Reich. The opulent hotel where he was once a waiter is now an idyllic breeding facility for the master race.
The many adventures of Jan Dite make for enthralling viewing. How he finally becomes a millionaire and loses it all, his dalliances with various ladies, and his dogged self-centeredness form the bulk of this wonderful film.
Jan Dite is basically a cipher through which we witness the breathtaking glamour of old Prague, the creeping rise and eventual fall of Hitler's empire, and the eventual advent of communism.
A comical, satirical, sometimes disturbing rumination on love, power, and self, "I Served the King of England" is a personal epic of self-discovery through overwhelming events. As Old Jan states: "My happiness was always in the fact that some unhappiness overtook me."
"I Served the King of England" is beautifully filmed, with images that will linger long in the memory. It is that rare bit of pure cinema that transports the viewer to another world, a world of pleasure and pain, a world that you don't want to leave once the lights come up.