Old Spirits--New Decade: Czech New Wave Crests Again

Maui Time | September 2, 2008
Old Spirits--New Decade

Czech New Wave Crests Again

I Served the King of England (Four Stars)

By Cole Smithey (507 words)

Writer Jiri Menzel's ambitious filmic adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's picaresque novel about a diminutive Czech waiter with dreams of becoming a millionaire and of owning his own extravagant hotel, is a rich black comedy steeped in wartime experience and sexual exploration in WWII Czechoslovakia. Jan Dite (brilliantly played by a Chaplinesque Ivan Barnev in Dite's younger incarnation) works his way up through the ranks of elegant hotel restaurants while enjoying a libertine existence. Politically oblivious to the Nazi invasion, Jan becomes infatuated with a German girl named Liza who refuses to marry him until he proves some amount of German ancestry. Jan's bittersweet date with success comes at the expense of a prison sentence under the country's Communist liberators. Oldrich Kaiser plays the older and wiser Jan, who returns to the shattered remains of his favorite bar after being released from jail to restore it as a place for locals to congregate.

Jiri Menzel was part of a group of young Czechoslovakian filmmakers who participated in making socially challenging films between 1962 and 1968 as part of cinema’s New Wave ushered in by French auteurs that included Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Louis Malle. On the heels of Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” and Ivan Passer’s “Intimate Lighting” (both 1965), came Menzel’s Oscar-winning “Closely Watched Trains,” which he adapted from his friend Bohumil Hrabal’s coming-of-age story about a naive boy working at a train station in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

“I Served the King of England” finds Hrabal’s pet preoccupation with the myopic pursuit of personal liberation as a self-inflicted enabler of fascist colonization juxtaposed against the accrued wisdom of a man who paid dearly for his profound nescience of the military and political threat around him. Jan has a childlike view of the world and finds immense pleasure in tossing coins on the floor of the luxurious restaurants where he works to watch wealthy patrons humiliate themselves by crawling around to pick them up. Jan’s pound-wise-and-penny-foolish philosophy proves effective in his relatively quick rise from selling hot dogs on train station platforms to working as a waiter to foreign dignitaries. His hearty appetite for sex veers in a more generous direction toward beautiful women, as depicted in his proclivity for decorating their post-coital nude bodies with carefully placed flowers or food, depending on what’s available.

Jan is apolitical to a fault, and the film can easily be read as an allegory for modern America’s fixation on consumerism that ignores its own wholesale loss of civil rights and economic stability with barely a squeak of resistance. At 70, Jiri Menzel has created a deeply political movie that makes a powerful delineation between morals (as imposed by the Nazis) and ethics (as displayed in Jan’s misplaced concern for the enemy). There’s also a wealth of humor here that recognizes the fleshy importance of humanity and the starry-eyed ignorance that dooms it.

(Sony Pictures Classics) Rated R. 118 mins. (A-)

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