An Ironic Look at Political Upheaval and Human Ambition.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 03/01/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
""I Served the King of England" is directed and adapted for the screen by Jiri Menzel, from the novel by Bohumil Hrabal that follows the tumultuous political environment of the mid-20th century in Czechoslovakia through the experiences of an ambitious young waiter. Released after serving 15 years in prison, Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) recalls his life before he lost his freedom as he toils laying gravel for mountain roads. The younger Jan (Ivan Barnev) only ever aspired to one thing: He wanted to be a millionaire, to live the life of luxury and pleasure that his clients enjoyed. He moved from a pub to progressively more luxurious places of employment with increasingly wealthier clientele, finally ending up at Prague's most beautiful hotel, Hotel Paris, an idyll that was interrupted when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
Like so many films from Eastern Europe, this one offers a sweeping perspective on the rapid social and political changes that afflicted its country from the 1930s to 1950s, from normalcy through the rise and fall of fascism and on to communism. But instead of characters who are victims of overwhelming political forces, we have Jan Dite, a single-minded, politically indifferent -if not actually oblivious- waiter. Jan wants money, women, and the finer things in life. And he cheerfully pursues them, too simple-minded to care about much else, but observant enough to notice that people all want those things no matter what else changes. His life is a satire of human ambition, comic even when it is tragic, with an ironic view of the devastation and turmoil surrounding World War II as it is seen through the eyes of someone who is just along for the ride.
The DVD (Sony 2009): The film is in Czech with optional English or French subtitles. But when German is spoken in the film, it isn't consistently subtitled. The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer (2 min)."
Slapstick, Swastikas, and Sex
Aaron Gutsell | Clementon, NJ | 12/26/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Here's a stunning Czech sleeper loaded with so many aspects that it may take several viewings to pick up the details crammed into every shot. 'I Served the King of England' opens as a light, whimsical comedy featuring the antics of a diminutive and ambitious young waiter who wants nothing more than to make money. Ivan Barnev's peformance in the lead role is akin to Roberto Benigni's in 'Life is Beautiful,' the wonderful physicality of his humor and pratfalls, facial expressions, and comedic timing make for hilarious and touching viewing. The story is told back and forth from the perspective of an older, wiser Dite (played by Oldrich Kaiser) who is jailed by communists for the crime of being a millionaire, serving one year for each of the millions he made. The path Dite took to earn those millions is as surreal as European history itself, a history hijacked by a little Austrian corporal and a Georgian street thug. That surreal history slowly seeps into the film as Dite stumbles into a Nazi eugenics program, or his wife fervently stares at a portrait of Hitler as he makes love to her (and the wife herself briefly transmogrifies into the aforementioned diktator.)
The countryformerlyknownas Czechoslovakia is dismembered by German manuevers, British flipflopping before Churchill, and is finally devoured by that insatiable swatiska beast, yet Dite blithely continues onward, adopting a certain part to his hair, and growing a small square moustache. He collects all of the mirrors discarded by a local village, because the people believe that when they look into them, the Germans come. Sure enough, the mirror over Dite's marital bed begins to catch reflections of herr Hitler. Later in the film Dite sits before a dozen mirrors and literally reflects on his life, and each individual mirror holds its own tale of a younger Dite.
Every aspect of 'King of England' is that of a mature and accomplished filmmaker who won his first Academy back in 1966. There has been some criticism of the casual portrayal of prostitution in the film, but these are opinions made through an American filter. Many Eastern European countries had to make do with the bare necessities provided by the Germans and Russians for decades, so that sex as a trade for dinner became a sensible transaction.
If you are the type of person who idealizes foreign films, and finds them more complicated and subtle, the humor darker and sweeter, then 'I Served the King of England' will go right into your pantheon alongside 'Europa Europa', 'Life is Beautiful', or 'The Time of the Gypsies.'
There have been some complaints about the subtitles, but due to the playful nature of the film, I'm not sure that this wasn't deliberate. A character, such as Dite's wife, will speak for several seconds in German without translation, but his response to her, or the situation itself, or even occasional pauses in subtitling ensure that everything is eventually told. It may be that a modicum of thought by the viewer is required, and that puts some people off, and yes, you will even have to turn off your CellBerry and pay achtung!"
It's a Mug's Game ...
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 06/22/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"... not Life in General, though that too is mugsy enough. I mean the foolish compulsion we 'readers' have, to compare films with the books they're based on. But in this case, the only reason I sought out this old film was to match it with the novel of the same title by Bohumil Hrabal, one of the great writers of the 20th C. Hrabal was also the author of "Closely Watched Trains", a novel made into an Oscar-winning film in 1967. It's a mystery to me why, with the publicity generated by two successful film adaptations of his novels, Bohumil Hrabal hasn't become more widely known and read in the English-reading world.
The novel "I Served the King of England" is Hrabal's most extroverted, least forthrightly autobiographical. The picaresque amatory exploits of its hero, the busboy-to-millionaire Diti, are far raunchier and more explicit in words than in cinematography; in fact, little Diti is by no means the charming underdog in the book that he is in the film. He's a darker soul, a sly simpleton in the tradition of picaresque literature, cynical and malevolent in the tradition of dwarves and midgets in Germanic/Slavic folk tales. The film gives us a Diti closer in nature to Charlie Chaplin in 'The Little Tramp', still sly but essentially gentle. There's a lot of Chaplin in director Jiri Menzel's cinematic realization of the novel, including explicit 'silent era' camerawork and direct allusions to Chaplin's 'Little Dictator'. The Diti of the film survives his raucous career as a 'servitor' of the vices of the Rich in pre-WW2 Prague, survives his incongruous marriage to a Hitler-worshiping Sudeten-German Czech woman of his own physical stature, survives the War in the most bizarre fashion, survives the fifteen years sentence he's given by the post-war Czech communists ... so far cleaving to the novel closely enough ... but then undergoes a metamorphosis into a sadder-but-wiser appealing humane old man. Both Ditis, of the novel and of the film, are essentially 'observers' of human folly, but the Diti of the film is less embittered and perhaps more forgiving, there in his mirror-lined hermitage.
The promo for the film implies that it's an erotic comedy, and some previous reviewers seem to have considered it so. Yes, there's some nudity, some 'artistic' camerawork revealing nubile breasts, but the overall sexual content is more kinky than erotic. Sexual lust is the most ludicrous of human appetites, more absurd than the lust for food, money, power, and Idealism, all of which are depicted as follies in the film and in the novel. Idealism, represented by Diti's wife's ardent Nazism, is the worst appetite of all, the most destructive and irrational. This is a 'pretty good' food movie, incidentally. The images of the banquets served in Diti's luxury hotels are much more appetizing than the sordid nudes, although the grotesque faces of the all-hungry plutocrats at the banquets are enough to spoil the feast.
"I Served the King of England" was a novel about history, the specific history of Czechoslovakia in the pre- and post-war decades. The character Diti was metaphoric of his country, little Czechia, married by love and hate to Germany. The reprisals of the Sudenten Germans against the Czechs, then the Czechs against their Germanic countrymen, and the mutual reprisals of rich against poor, poor against rich, are all elements of prime importance in the novel, as they are in all of Bohumil Hrabal's writings. Humans are chiefly fun-loving boors and victims of their own swinishness in Hrabal's worldview. Much of this comes across in the film, but I strongly suspect that many American viewers will have difficulty fitting the story into its historical context. "Readers" will have the advantage of knowing that Hrabal himself was married to a Sudeten-German Czech whose family had sided with Hitler and lost its wealth thereby. "Readers" will also know that Hrabal didn't thrive under Communism; his more forthrightly autobiographical novels depict his economic troubles, his sternly disapproved Bohemianism, and the difficulties he had with censorship. Even so, the tangential depiction of communism in the film is mild in its satire.
Whatever its relation to the novel, the film is a thoughtful comic caper, not quick-paced enough to have the viewer writhing and guffawing, but deliciously absurd throughout."