Stupid as it is to generalize about regional humor, here goes: The mordant wit and paradoxical melancholic
bounce you find in a great many Eastern European filmmakers informs every joke and rosy sexual encounter in
the work of Czech writer-director Jiri Menzel.
Menzel's sensibility, however, always was broader and softer than that of many of his contemporaries.
Compared with the glories coming out of Romania in recent years, typified by "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,"
Menzel's latest, "I Served the King of England," is pudding -- tasty enough but inoffensive even when it should
offend, provoke, startle.
Many of my American colleagues have fallen hard for the latest by Menzel, the director of "Closely Watched
Trains" and "My Sweet Little Village." You may fall for it too. It strikes me as an assured and very attractive
piece, but with a hollow ring -- disappointing, especially considering the quality of the sight gag that opens
the picture. (It involves a prison gate.)
The man leaving prison after nearly 15 years is Jan Dite -- in Czech, literally, John Child -- whose young
adulthood and various liaisons are recounted in flashback.
Menzel adapts the 1974 novel by Bohumil Hrabal, a picaresque about a defiantly apolitical Everyman -- a man
obsessed with money and its power over the populace. Much of "I Served the King of England" is dominated by
young Dite, played by the Bulgarian-born actor Ivan Barnev.
He begins as a waiter who maintains one eye on
the main chance, the other on the competition. By the late 1930s, he has graduated to the most elegant
restaurant in Prague. Hitler's destruction of the country is barely a blip on Dite's radar; meantime, he
falls in with a Nazi-sympathizing madchen (Julia Jentsch) who, at one point during their lovemaking,
repositions herself on the bed so that she can maintain eye contact with a portrait of der Fuhrer.
If more of "I Served the King of England" boasted that sort of comic nerve, Menzel might have had a classic
on his hands. Instead, the film is likable and, in its tone, strictly middle-of-the-road. In one passage Dite
goes to work for an Aryan breeding institute set up by Himmler; the scene is weirdly toothless, just when the
irony should be at its most savage.
An adaptable cipher, Dite is imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator after the war. His mature self, played by
Oldrich Kaiser once Dite leaves prison, still has what it takes to woo the ladies. Rehabbing a cabin in the
mountains of southern Bohemia, he bewitches a local chocolate factory vixen (Zuzana Fialova -- what's Czech
for "yow"?) though Menzel stops short of a seduction. As he looks back on his life, Dite sees in himself a
climber and a compromiser, but the two Dites never seem to match up.
Menzel's film is photographed in gorgeous, creamy tones by Jarmoir Sofr, and the score by Ales Brezina has a
charming antic spirit. But the end result is determined to round off the material's edges, and you're left with
"My Sweet Little Village II," or "I Married a Nazi and It Worked Out Fine."
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and nudity)
Running time: 1:58
Starring: Ivan Barnev (young Jan Dite); Oldrich Kaiser (older Jan Dite); Julia Jentsch (Liza); Martin Huba (Front Waiter Skrivanek); Zuzana Fialova (Marcela)
Written and directed by Jiri Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal; photographed by Jaromir Sofr; edited by Jiri Brozek; music by Ales Brezina; production design by Milan Bycek; produced by Robert Schaffer and Andrea Metcalfe. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
About "I Served the King of England" the Movie
Jan Dítì (Ivan Barnev) is short in height, but high in ambition. To put it bluntly,
the young provincial waiter wants to become a millionaire. And he knows just
how to do it: by hearing everything, seeing everything, and creating
opportunities at every turn.
Armed with this knowledge and an irrepressible wish to please, he soon leaves his first place of employment, a pub, for a luxury
brothel and, finally moving onto an elegant Art Nouveau Prague restaurant. But
by the late 1930s, things are changing: Hitler has taken the Sudetenland region
and is breaking apart Czechoslovakia. Jan falls in love with Líza (Julia Jentsch), a
Sudeten German proud of her Aryan blood. They marry, and soon after Líza is
sent to serve on the Polish front, while Jan remains behind to serve as a nurse in
a Nazi SS Research Hospital, but when she returns, she has a fortune in rare
stamps that Jews had ‘left behind’ ... After Líza’s less than heroic death, Jan sells
the stamps and becomes ... a millionaire.
But he only has three years to enjoy
his fortune: the new Communist regime puts him behind bars for 15 years, one
for each of his millions... Upon his release from jail, Jan is sent to live in a
decrepit border town. Here Jan reflects on the events that have shaped his life –
and to reflect on what might have happened if he had played a different role in
Following 15 long years of incarceration, Jan Dítì (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, his knack for making money, and his first
sexual experiences. Apart from his first lessons in waiting and lovemaking, he is
lured by success and becomes blinded by his dreams of fabulous wealth. Living
by his wits and skill, the young Jan becomes so successful that small town
jealousy soon forces him to move elsewhere. He finds work at a luxury hotel
near the capital where the créme de la créme of 1930s Czech society come to
live it up. He is fascinated by their self-indulgent, carefree existence. For a young
man of his background the lifestyle of these rich young folk seems quite
unimaginable – which makes it all the more enticing. So he sets himself a goal:
to get rich and live like them.
The older Jan is reminded of the easy sexual conquests of his youth when he
finds himself attracted to Marcela, a young woman who happens to come into his
orbit and intrudes on his solitude. But young Jan has to quit the luxury hotel,
too. Hoping to become a wealthy and successful hotelier, he takes a job in an
elegant art nouveau establishment in Prague. Here he learns how a classy waiter
should dress and behave; and it is here he has his greatest moment of glory.
The Emperor of Abyssinia visits the hotel, and Dítì is decorated for his excellent
(though brief) service. Naturally, this results in more jealousy.
The events following the Munich Agreement just before the war mark a turning
point in Jan’s life. Having fallen in love with Líza (Julia Jentsch), a young Sudeten
German activist, he suddenly finds himself on the wrong side – an unwitting
collaborator with the forces that have invaded Czechoslovakia. He marries Líza,
though not before undergoing a degrading examination to ensure he is of good
Aryan stock. While his own country is being humiliated and his compatriots
imprisoned and executed, he celebrates his marriage to a fanatic German
nationalist. Soon he is working for the Germans.
War breaks out. The Germans invade Poland and Líza decides to serve as a
volunteer nurse. Her young husband now works for an institute set up by
Himmler to produce master race specimens from German girls and full-blooded
Aryan warriors. It is an unbelievable place, where the new Teutonic breed is
conceived, born, and reared under ‘expert’ supervision. There Jan works
obediently as a nurse. Líza returns from Poland with a priceless stamp collection
– her ‘war booty’ – and the couple look forward to building a magnificent hotel
when the war is over. But the war does not end in the way they imagined, and
as it drags on, the SS ‘research institute’ is turned into a military hospital, where
both Jan and Líza work. As the war draws to a close, Líza 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. Only now does
he understand where he went wrong: he was simply too eager to succeed, and
too eager to please.
About the Cast "I Served the King of England" the Movie
Ivan Barnev (the young Jan Dítì)
Born on July 15, 1973 in Bulgaria. Following graduation from the Academy of
Performing Arts in Sophia, Barnev quickly became one of the top young actors in
Bulgaria. Recent films include "Kalabush" (directed by Adoni Floridis, Theodoros
Nikolaidis, 2002), "A Leaf in the Wind" (directed by Svetoslav Ovtcharov, 2002),
and "Lady Z" (directed by Georgi Djulgerov, 2005).
Oldøich Kaiser (the older Jan Dítì)
Born on May 16, 1955 in Liberec, Czechoslovakia. Graduated from the Brno
Conservatory and the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Musical Arts in Prague.
In 1985, after a seven-year stint at the Vinohrady Theatre he moved to the
Ypsilonka Theatre, which had relocated to Prague. In 1993 he became a member
of the National Theatre. While still at the Brno Conservatory Kaiser was
discovered by Karel Kachyna, who cast him in the lead role for the film "Láska"
(1972). Up until the 1980s he played young, romantic leading roles, though his
comic talent later took precedence and was used by, among others, directors
Václav Vorlícek and Zdenek Troska. In the 1990s Kaiser appeared in Vladimír
Michálka’s debut "Amerika", and Jan Sverák’s "Dark Blue World" (2001). Before I
SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, his latest performance was in "Shark in the
Head" (directed by Marie Procházková, 2005).
Julia Jentsch (Líza)
One of the top young stars of German cinema, Jentsch was born on February 20,
1978 in Berlin. From 1997 to 2001 she studied acting at the Hochschule Ernst
Busch in Berlin. She is the winner of numerous awards for her starring role in
the Academy Award nominated film "Sophie Scholl" (directed by Marc
Rothemund, 2005), including the European Film Award for Best Actress and the
Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Her other films include:
"The Edukators" (directed by Hans Weingartner, 2004), "Downfall" (directed by
Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), and "Schneeland" (directed by Hans W.
Geissendörfer, 2005). She is currently shooting "Effi Briest" (directed by Hermine
Huntgeburth) in the title role opposite Sebastian Koch ("The Lives of Others,"
About the Author Bohumil Hrabal "I Served the King of England" the Book
"I Served the King of England" is one of Bohumil Hrabal’s finest books.
Bohumil Hrabal, one of the most important Czech writers of the 20th century,
was born the illegitimate son of Marie Kiliánová. He was later adopted by her
future husband, Frantisek Hrabal, a brewery manager from Nymburk.
born in Brno, he spent his childhood in Polná and Nymburk, where he attended
the local secondary school, graduating in 1935. He then studied law at Charles
University in Prague until, following the German occupation, the authorities
closed down all Czech universities. For the next few years he had a variety of
jobs – including clerk, railway laborer and train conductor. After the war he
completed his university studies, though he never took up law as a profession.
From 1947- 1949 he was a traveling salesman; then he worked in a steel mill in
Kladno, where in 1952 he suffered a serious injury. In 1954 he took a job as
paper-packer in a waste-processing plant; in 1956 he got married and in 1959
started work as a stage hand at the S. K. Neumann Theatre (now Palmovka
Theatre, Prague). From 1963 till his death in 1997 he devoted himself to writing.
The type-composition of his first book, ‘Lost Alley’ was destroyed after the
communist take-over in 1948. His first published work, therefore, was ‘People
Talking’ (1956), which appeared as a supplement to the Bulletin of the Czech
Bibliophile Association in an edition of 250 copies. Three years later he was
thwarted for a second time when the communists again visited the printers and
smashed up the composition of his first proper publication ‘Larks on a String”. So
the first book he actually published, the collection of short stories ‘Pearls on the
Bottom’ did not see the light of day until 1963 when he was 49. Its enormous
popularity soon led to the publication of a second volume, ‘The Palaverers’
(1964). There followed a series of novellas: ‘Dancing Lessons for the Advanced
in Age’ (1964), ‘Closely Watched Trains’ (1965) and ‘Advertising the Sale of the
House I no Longer Wish to Live in’ (1965).
After the occupation of
Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968, Hrabal was again forbidden to
publish. Two books, ‘Home-works’ and ‘Buds’ were ‘withdrawn’ just before going
to print. But Hrabal was not deterred, and went on to produce his masterpieces
‘I Served the King of England’ 1974), ‘Cutting it Short’ (1976), ‘Snowdrops
Festival’ (1979), ‘Sweet Melancholy’ (1979), ‘Too Loud a Solitude’ (1980) and
‘The Harlequin Millions’ (1981).
These were followed in the late 1980s by the
autobiographical trilogy ‘Wedding in the House’ , ‘Vita nuova’ and ‘Vacant Lots’ .
Hrabal’s influence is enormous, not only on 20th century Czech literature but also
on Czech cinema. The film adaptation of his Pearls on the Bottom, stories about
the ‘remarkableness of everyday life’ is regarded as a seminal work of
the Czech New Wave. Besides the war time comedy “Closely Watched Trains”
and ‘Larks on a String’, other memorable films inspired by Hrabal’s writings are
“Cutting it Short” (dir. Jirí Menzel, 1980), “Snowdrops Festival “(dir. Jirí Menzel,
1983) and “The Gentle Barbarian” (dir. Petr Koliha, 1989). Almost all Hrabal’s
books have been filmed, including “Too Loud a Solitude” (1994) directed by the
Czechborn Vera Caisová (who lives in France) and starring Philippe Noiret.