I Served the King of England

I Served the King of England

Julia Jentsch prepares to lick Ivan Bartev clean.

(Sony Classics) Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Oldrich Kaiser, Martin Huba, Marian Labuda, Milan Lasica, Jaromir Dulava, Tonya Graves. Directed by Jiri Menzel

It is part of the human condition to want more than what we have. Some of us have absolutely no idea how to get it while others have detailed plans on how to attain what we want. Still others will do absolutely anything to get it.

Jan Dite (Kaiser) has been released from a Czech prison (he was set free after serving only 14 years and 9 months of a 15 year sentence) and has been repatriated to a place near the border with the expectation that he will flee over it. However, Dite finds himself a small pub that has been abandoned and decides to restore it and open it for business.

As a young man (Barnev), he had been something of a con artist who amuses himself by scattering coins on the ground and watching wealthy men bend down to pick them up. He dreams of being a millionaire and becomes taken by a vision of a grand hotel in prewar Prague, bull of tuxedo-wearing, white gloved waiters, crystal chandeliers and enough snootiness to put the House of Lords to shame.

He gets a job in one as a waiter and becomes the protégé of the headwaiter (Huba) of the restaurant who is the essence of impeccable service, manners and haughtiness. When asked the secret to his demeanor, he replies “I served the King of England.” It’s the only appearance the King of England makes in the film.

Barnev moves from hotel to hotel, each more prestigious than the last, learning everything that he can so that one day he might own a hotel of his own. He may be small in stature (a running gag through the movie) but that doesn’t diminish his ability to be in control of any situation that comes his way. He also has a taste for beautiful women that he exercises as often as he can.

That is, until the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia and then, pragmatist that he is, supports the Nazi regime in order to further his ambitions. He even marries a fervent German teacher who forces him to prove his Aryan lineage before she’ll consent to wed him and bear purebred Aryan babies. The marriage is short-lived, however as she is killed trying to retrieve a box of valuable rare stamps she had looted from Jewish homes while she was working in Russia. Dite finds her body and gently removes the box; no sense in wealth going to waste.

And it doesn’t. Dite uses the money from the sale of the stamps to buy one of the magnificent hotels he was formally employed by and becomes a millionaire – until the communists throw him in jail as they did with all the millionaires. As Dite says in voiceover narration at the onset of the film, it is always his luck to find bad luck.

Director Menzel is a veteran of the Czech film industry, having directed the much-revered 1967 Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains. He suffuses an odd mix of style here, making a kind of silent slapstick screwball softcore sex comedy of manners. The movie was the most popular Czech release of 2007 mainly because Menzel knows what two things are most dear to the Czech man’s heart – beautiful naked women and beer, and there’s a cornucopia of both here.

Barnev moves through the movie with an expression of smug insolence much like a naughty boy who knows he can get away with murder because he isn’t going to get caught and even if he is, he certainly won’t be punished. He is a major component as to why the movie works; while the scenes alternate with Kaiser playing the older version of him narrating the tale and preparing his pub, it is Barnev who captures the attention.

Menzel understand what makes a comedy effective. He examines some of the baser aspects of human nature and allows us to see those flaws in ourselves and shake our heads and laugh ruefully at them. There are some broad slapstick moments to be sure, but there is also a good deal of subtle, gentle humor that is actually quite refreshing. There is a good blend of laughter and pathos; Menzel is wise enough to understand the proper measurements of each to make a compelling brew.

WHY RENT THIS: A gentle sense of humor about class, ambition and lust in pre-war Europe allows us, like all good comedies, to laugh at these elements in ourselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This may be a little too low-key for some who prefer the comedies broad and raunchy, although there is plenty of the latter. It is also subtitled, which turns off some viewers.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of nudity and sexuality in the movie, but much of it is done in a humorous manner; shouldn’t be too offensive although I’d think twice before letting the kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name “dite” in Czech means “child.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Push

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