Septuagenarian Czech filmmaker Jirí Menzel’s sixth adaptation of work by his late pal, the novelist Bohumil Hrabal (their collaboration goes back four decades and includes 1966’s Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains), boasts the same darkly sarcastic and lyrically absurdist trademarks that fellow Czech New Wavers like Milos Forman and Vera Chytilová were known for in the ’60s. But I Served the King of England is hardly past its prime, and perhaps even timeless.
A mischievously hedonistic, Chaplinesque farce, the film buoyantly but seriously traverses the horrors of World War II with a subtlety and sophistication that most American comedies cannot grasp, and an eroticism that most aging (gazing, drooling) directors—Vicky Cristina Barcelona, anyone?—cannot muster. Or is it that Menzel’s lust goes beyond female flesh to encompass a wider appreciation of worldly delights?
After nearly 15 years in a Czech prison under the Communist regime, grizzled everyman Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser) is exiled to an abandoned German border town, where he begins to clean up a dusty old pub and reflect on the charmed naïveté of his youth and the events that brought him here. Framing the flashbacks that make up the film’s bulk, the older Jan’s redemptive melancholy serves to anchor the younger Jan’s (and the film’s) giddy exuberance. Back in the ’30s, Jan is a young, towheaded pipsqueak—now played by a sublimely likable Ivan Barnev—whose outsider fascination with the lifestyles of the wealthy sparks pipe dreams of becoming a millionaire. (One always-hilarious recurring gag has him dropping coins just to watch the rich jerks scramble for them.) From selling hot dogs at the train station and working as a people-pleasing waiter, Jan rises through the ranks over the course of a decade to maître d’ and even hotelier—a climb that parallels his innocent sexual awakening, which builds to a series of romps with shapely beauties who go nuts for his oral skills, the camera fawning over their nude bodies as if they were made of marble.
One of these conquests is the Hitler-supporting mädchen Líza (Sophie Scholl herself, Julia Jentsch), for whom Jan falls—and thus begins his unwitting collaboration with the monsters that overran his country. Jan’s opportunistic tunnel vision won’t allow him to see that an apolitical worldview is impossible in wartime; even when he’s later imprisoned for owning priceless stamps stolen from Jewish homes, he’s happy to be jailed with his fellow millionaires.
Though the film may be visually fanciful—as money rains down from the sky, a glowing halo of light shines behind a character’s noggin, and Busby Berkeley–like precision enlivens the simple task of serving a banquet room—any preconceived notion that this is yet another historical epic with some magic realism thrown in must be quashed. Menzel’s memorable flights of whimsy are the means, not the end; do away with the clever style and you’re still left with a rousing picaresque of life’s beautiful-sad ironies.