I Served the King of England

It's a pleasure to report that the great Czech director Jir Menzel has made a new film, “I served the King of England,” an adaptation of the late Bohumil Hrabal's 1974 book of the same title, which is a darkly humorous meditation on Czech politics and history.

It's really too bad that foreign films are in such decline in the U.S. for Menzel's lovely meditation was the Czech Republic's submission for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar last year, and has played successfully in over 36 countries worldwide.

As is known, Menzel has adapted books by the author Bohumil Hrabal before, beginning with a chapter in the 1965 anthology “Pearls On The Bottom.” He then followed with the 1968 Oscar-winning “Closely Observed Trains” (considered by many to be his masterpiece), “Larks On A String” (made in 1969 but released later due to censorship), “Cutting It Short” (1980) and “The Snowdrop Festival” (1984).

“I Served the King of England,” Menzel's first work in 14 years, is a highly personal film, not least because the hero Jan Diti is a sensitive aged man, and the narrative is a serio-comic philosophical reflection.

After 15 years of incarceration, Jan Diti (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, how he made quick money, his first sexual experience, and so on.

Apart from his first lessons in waiting and lovemaking, Jan is lured by success and becomes blinded by his dreams of upward mobility and wealth. Living by his wits and skills, the young Jan becomes so successful that the jealousy in his small, provincial town forces him to move out. Indeed, he finds work at a luxury hotel near the capital, frequented by the elite (all the who's who) of Czech society, whose members fascinate Jan by their self-indulgent, carefree existence. For a youngster of his background, the lifestyle of these rich young folk seems unimaginable and yet all the more exciting and enticing. Thus, he commits himself to one goal, to get really rich and live and behave like them.

The older Jan is reminded of the easy sexual conquests of his youth, when he was attracted to Marcela, a woman who just happened to intrude (the way he sees it) on his solitude.

Back to the young Jan. Hoping to become a wealthy and successful hotelier, he quit his job and takes a new one in an elegant Prague art nouveau establishment, where he learns how a “classy” waiter should walk, dress and behave. It just happens that the Emperor of Abyssinia visits the hotel, and Jan is decorated for his excellent service, which results in more jealousy from his comrades.

The Munich Agreement and its aftermath mark a turning point in Jan's life. Having fallen in love with Liza (Julia Jentsch), a young Sudeten German activist, he suddenly finds himself on the wrong side, an unwitting collaborator with the forces that had invaded Czechoslovakia. Undeterred, he marries Liza, though not before undergoing a degrading examination to ensure he is of “good Aryan stock.”

While his own country is humiliated and his compatriots imprisoned and executed, Jan celebrates his marriage to a fanatic German nationalist, and soon he finds himself working for the Germans. When the War breaks out, the Germans invade Poland and Liza begins to serve as a volunteer nurse. As for Jan, he now works obediently for a Himmler institute dedicated to the creation of master race specimens from German girls and full-blooded Aryan warriors. In this place, the new Teutonic breed is conceived, born, and raised under tight and expert supervision.

Lza returns from Poland with a priceless stamp collection, what she calls “my war booty,” and the couple plans to build a big, lush hotel when the war is over. But the war does not end in the way imagined, and as it drags on, the research institute is turned into a military hospital, with Jan and Liza as employees. As the war draws to a close, Lza 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. Ian finally absorbs what was wrong in his life–he was simply too eager to succeed, and too eager to please. In other words, he lost his humanity.

Just like all of the director's films, the new one displays Menzel's poignantly humanistic perspective and a unique darkly humorous sensibility that while placed in more or less realistic contexts never loses its sense of playfulness.